Robert says I must look for a job. He is a graduate student and what he gets from the university barely pays our rent.
“How do I look for a job?” I ask him.
“Classifieds,” he says.
I don’t know what classifieds are or where to find them. I don’t know whether they are people or things, but I don’t want to ask and mispronounce the word, making an even bigger fool out of myself.
“Look in a local newspaper,” Robert says, reading my puzzled face. “That’s where they advertise job openings.”
The idea of looking for a job in a newspaper makes me let out an idiotic giggle. The newspapers I’m familiar with, Pravda and Izvestiya, fill every line of their four pages with articles about the biggest ever harvests of grain in the Ukraine or the worst ever unemployment rates anywhere west of Bulgaria. They offer imperious descriptions of NATO bullying tactics and fiery accusations of fraudulent voting in Latin American countries that don’t want to celebrate Cuban liberation. On the bottom of their last page, they pour salt on the Zionist ulcers of Israel, where at least ten of my friends now reside. Everyone knows that newspapers report news, real or concocted, to enlighten and educate the citizens about current politics. Why would they lower themselves to such an inglorious and puny function as listing job openings?
The next day Robert brings home a paper called The Austin Times to show me the classifieds. We lean over the tiny print announcing available positions: a certified teacher for grades K-5 (what kind of grade is K?); a manager for a restaurant (experience required); a receptionist for Texas Instruments (apply in person).
I don’t know what a receptionist is, but I imagine a big factory called Texas Instruments, not unlike the secret boat factory in Leningrad where I worked for two months after high school, carrying rolls of drafts to production rooms with bawdy men and no hint of any boats.
“Go there and apply in person,” Robert says. “It isn’t far from the University,” he adds, looking at the address. “A few blocks north of the Student Union.”
“What’s a receptionist?” I ask, although I don’t know what a Student Union is, either.
“A receptionist?” He repeats incredulously, as if I’d asked him about the meaning of a shoe or a slice of bread. “It’s a secretary, basically. Someone who says, “May I help you” when you call on the phone with a question or a complaint.”
I have trouble seeing myself behind a company desk answering questions or mediating complaints over the phone just like I couldn’t imagine working in a secret Leningrad boat factory that granted me clearance on the day I quit the job. I’m terrified of making phone calls, always expecting to be yelled at or admonished for my audacity of thinking that dialing a set of numbers from your living room could resolve an issue or answer a question. If you aren’t inconvenienced by standing on line and filling out papers in triplicate, if you can call without leaving your house and elbowing your way into a streetcar, what right do you have to be treated like a human being?
And what kind of perverse justice would possibly place me on the other side of this exchange, without instantly making me mute and paralyzed with fear?
But Robert doesn’t know any of this. He has an American brain that is not wired to harbor phone paranoia, so I pretend that I want to be a receptionist and am not at all petrified by the possibility of answering questions or mediating phone complaints from the Texas Instruments customers who speak an English I could barely understand, even if they talked to me in person.