Before I started working at the store, I dreaded thinking about the future. I spent four years of my life studying the past (in Africana Studies as well as in Geology) so I had not imaged what life would be like after Oberlin. Being “stuck” at home was helped to ground me. I needed to remember who and where I come from in order to look ahead.
So — I took the job in retail and was working part-time in downtown Manhattan.
The regional manager who called me in for an interview knew that I need a job, any job really, so that I could get out of the house while I got ready for graduate school. He knew that I had no intention of staying but hired me anyway. I am so grateful.
Everything was strangely the same and yet different after four years of undergrad. The tumble trash still tumbled through the streets, the coco lady still rang her bell, the ‘change for the blind’ guy still walked back and forth across the street, and the C-grade pizzeria was still the cornerstone of the block. The train station that towered over everything else had gotten a major facelift to include digital signs and the street was widened to divert traffic at the intersection of white plains and 233rd. I slipped back into my mass transit rituals as if I never spent a day living in rural Ohio.
I lived close enough to the train that I could hear the trains rumble as they headed north to the edge of the Bronx two stops away. Whenever a Northbound train would pass, I knew that I had just enough time to walk past the brick buildings to the train station where I would catch that same train on the way back to the city. I rode the five-train from East Two-thirty third to Fifty-Ninth street for forty-five-minutes to 1-hour each way. I preferred the front of the train and stayed away from the middle carts where all the late folks who didn’t time their journey would pile in like sardines. Getting to the front of the train was my key to getting a seat early and I cherished my blue gold all the way to 59th street.
Many of us at the 5th avenue location were first or second-generation immigrants who lived in the outer boroughs and I was the only one who had traveled outside of The City for school. My co-workers often asked me what I was doing working in retail and they told me that my degree should have meant an automatic ticket out. And yet there I was — I worked with folks who had been at their site location for years, who intend to stay in retail indefinitely, who had families to take care of on part-time work and I was far removed from residential liberal arts living that I had grown accustomed to. I promised them that the job was only temporary, and they checked in on my progress often. I often wondered what would happen if I were to fail, and what would happen if I left and never came back?
After the mandatory orientation period, I worked 30 hours every week. Sometimes I woke at 5 am to prep the store for opening or worked until 11pm to finish the closing shift. I patrolled the aisles of the shoe section for lost companions, the wrongly categorized, and customer detritus. 4-hour would feel like 40 years in the desert as I walked and walked and walked in circles, snaking my way through the isles. A few weeks in when I got my first paycheck, I ordered a pre-owned GRE book from Amazon and began using my commute and break time to study for the exam. The second paycheck purchased the actual GRE and I scheduled myself for the last examination of the year.
Knowing what you don’t want to do has a way of setting your priorities in line. I loved the tedium of working in retail — stocking shelves, making colorful displays, cleaning ravaged displays after the afternoon rush and ringing customers up–but I quickly realized that part-time work was not what I wanted to do with my life. I decided that I was going to research fully funded graduate programs, that would pay ME to do research. If I was going to go back to school, I was not going into debt. Again. I racked up a cool $30,000 that was steadily gaining interest as I worked my part-time retail job, and I couldn’t possibly fathom adding to that load.
Many of the jobs I was interested in required graduate study and made it my priority to study for the GRE while I figured my life out. I searched for programs that were bored enough to incorporate principles from social science, humanities, and natural science in order to make connections between academia and society. The geosciences seemed like a good prospect (in hindsight, geography would have also been great for me) and I began to reach out to potential mentors who were working in the field of Paleoclimatology.
The gap year and the choice to work in retail was exactly what I needed to be sure of what to do next.