Saturday, June 02, 2007

Actually, you're mistaken—I am the boss of you

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Graduation season is upon us, and across the nation, sensitive, earnest teenagers are leaving school with nothing to their credit but a sixth-grader’s vocabulary, a thin understanding of history beginning and ending with one-third of the state capitals, and the moxie and go-get-em-ism so common to that unspoilt age. Yes, these young Americans are being sown like ripe seed into the hard, untilled soil of our great land. Ready to burst forth and flourish!

And flourish they will! But first, as with seeds, a farmer must dump on them a load of manure.

This is the essence of the unpaid internship.

The idea of doing repetitive tasks for no money and then getting to exaggerate it on your resume has a proud and noble history. It dates back to ancient Egyptian times, in fact. Back then, if you were an enterprising college prep student, you typed up your resume (one foot of papyrus, max) and schlepped it around to job fairs and made a few cold calls—not easy in that climate.

If you were a math major, you’d be lucky to get an unpaid internship working on one of the pyramids, measuring the 1,000-ton stone blocks before you help haul them several miles to the construction site from sunup to sundown in scorching heat.

An English major could look forward to an internship, too—on the fabulous pyramids! You'd haul 1,000-ton stone blocks several miles in scorching heat, and then maybe get to try your hand at hieroglyphics after 40 or 50 summers apprenticing (also winters).

Liberal arts majors? They would find permanent jobs at the upscale coffee shops and record stores that inevitably sprung up around the pyramid sites.

It’s occurred to me that since kids are out of school, I have lots of chores to do, and there are any number of brainy soon-to-be-freshmen who could earn college credit to work for me for free, I should get an intern.

Lest you think I’m being selfish, remember: It’s not all hammock-swinging and Nintendo on my end—what burgeoning young journalist wouldn’t crawl through my unmowed front lawn for the chance to learn the art of column writing at the feet of the master? That reminds me—I could use a foot rub.

Having an unpaid intern could work out great for me. Just as long as it’s not like that intern I hired last year. Step inside the Delorean and let me remind you how that little adventure turned out:

SCENE: Dan’s house, summer 2006. You can tell because the “Lord of the Rings” calendar pinned to the wall is conspicuously turned to “Summer 2006.” Dan, clad in an AC/DC T-shirt and green paisley boxer shorts, is showing his small and messy home office to a bright-eyed, corn-fed freshman girl named Skylar. You can tell because she’s eating from a small bag of corn.

DAN. (expansively) This is where the magic happens. You can’t really frame it in words—I just sit here and think, and beautiful things happen on paper.

SKYLAR. Neat! A real live columnist’s office! Let me just say again, Mr. Dan, I really appreciate you giving me this opportunity.

DAN. No problemo. (pauses) Wait—this is still free, right?


DAN. No problemo.

SKYLAR. (doing a great job stifling her disgust at the piles of loose papers and balled-up socks all over the floor) So where will my computer be going?

DAN. Right, right—computer. (Points out a coffee pot.) Here you go. Actually, I’d prefer you got the good stuff from Starbucks while I sit in front of my laptop and be amusing. (Apropos of nothing, he points at a crooked photocopy of a New England Press Association 2004 second-place Best Humor Columnist award thumbtacked to the wall.)

SKYLAR. Starbucks?

DAN. Yeah, there’s one 22 minutes away. Hope you brought cash. (scratching his stomach) I’ll be completely honest with you, Skylar. Half of this job is learning from me how to write columns, and the other 90 percent is beverage-fetching. Write this down, exactly: Coffee, beer, coffee. Then, beer, beer, coffee. Beer, coffee, beer, then beer, beer, and then a little orange juice. Somewhere in there, I’ll want some pork fried rice.

SKYLAR. (scribbling in a unicorn Trapper Keeper) Beer … oh-jay … fried rice…

DAN. Enough about me. Tell me who you are. Who you want to be. (tapping his chest) In here.

SKYLAR. (confidently) I’m going to be a world-famous journalist someday, Mr. Dan. I was editor of my high-school paper, and I have a full scholarship to the print journalism program at NYU. I’m a National Honor Society student and I volunteer making and delivering meals to shut-ins.

DAN. (yawning like a walrus) Jesus H. Christ. Hopefully all that crap won’t keep you too busy. The kitchen ain’t going to paint itself. (Points to a poster on the wall for the movie “Smokey and the Bandit”) You ever seen that?

SKYLAR. No, sir.

DAN. Frigging hilarious. Bright and early tomorrow, right after you power-wash my garage, we’re watching it. (Indicates that she should write this down) This is called “research.”

SKYLAR. Fantastic! So when do I do some actual writing?

DAN. Right. Usually I stare at the wall until something strikes me funny. Like how work stinks, or how I like a weird flavor of chips. Eventually, I type. Except you’re here, so I won’t need to do that anymore. (Indicates that she should write this down) I also won’t be getting my own chips. Or clipping the cats’ toenails.

SKYLAR. (testy) OK, but when do I get to try writing one?

(Dan stares at her blankly. Skylar coughs into her fist. We hear the soft ticking of a clock for several minutes. During this brief intermission, feel free to visit our fully-stocked snack bar.)

DAN. Beg pardon?

SKYLAR. You know—when do I write a column myself?

DAN. Oh. I thought the deal was, you do my bidding for free and I write columns. No? (Points again at the award on the wall.)

SKYLAR. (folding her Trapper Keeper) Pfft. I’m starting to think this house isn't even properly accredited.

(She trips over a dog as she walks out of the office. Dan follows her to the front door, checking his watch.)

DAN. Yup, right on schedule for that first coffee. Hurry back!

Needless to say, Skylar never returned. Last I heard, she was living in Greenwich Village and was up for a Pulitzer at The New York Times—and that, my friends, is the kind of foot in the door that internship experience can provide.

I guess I wish her well. But if anybody out there happens to run into her, tell her I’m not signing off on her college credits until I get my fried rice.

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