By Jenny McCoy
I snapped this photo of New York City’s iconic Lincoln Center at 2 a.m. on a Saturday, about six months after I graduated from Northwestern University. To my Instagram followers, it probably looked like the idyllic end to a fancy night out on the town — an encapsulation of the elegance, wonder and magic of living in New York City as single, 22-year-old woman. In reality, I took it as I trekked home through snowy sleet after my night shift at Trader Joe’s, where I worked weekends to supplement the meager salary of my 8–6 gig as a PR intern. The moment was both beautiful and achingly brief as I knew I’d be trekking back in just 10 hours for another shift.
This reality was a far, pathetic cry from the one I imagined when I decided to move to the Big Apple post college to pursue magazine journalism. Sure, I knew the first few weeks — OK, maybe month — would be challenging as I’d have to 1) find a job that would cover my expenses (my parents had lovingly, but firmly, cut me off financially) and 2) adjust to life in a new place. Of course I was nervous for the leap but mostly just so freaking excited. Nothing seemed more glamorous, more thrilling than life in the big city. Everyone kept reiterating this excitement — parents, professors, relatives, friends — saying encouraging things like:
“Amazing!!! You’re going to be living the dream!”
“Nothing like NYC in your 20’s!”
“I can’t wait to hear about your wonderful adventures!”
No one said things like:
“The first six months are actually going to be really tough — you’ll cry most days.”
“Job hunting will be a frustrating, ego-bruising experience.”
“Forget 4 a.m. nights at exotic jazz clubs; after 75-hour work weeks, you won’t have the energy to explore anything but your twin bed.”
And so I arrived in New York as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they come. I unpacked the boxes I’d just packed up from college and threw myself fervently into the job search. I scoured Mediabistro, stalked alums on LinkedIn and arranged coffee dates. I printed writing samples on cream-colored cardstock and hand-delivered them to prospective employers. I set up camp in Starbucks and obsessively finessed my resume, widening my search beyond journalism and applying to 53 jobs in three weeks. And while my parents had warned that the process required patience and persistence, after a dozen or so outright rejections, my optimism began dwindling. In its place came despair, and before long, panic. I tallied up my expenses and realized I was paying $47 each day just to exist there. I imagined my life savings quickly draining like sand in an hourglass. I looked at my successfully employed friends and classmates and felt like a failure. After a particularly humiliating experience interviewing with a fashion communications firm (they asked for my three favorite designers; I nervously word vomited, “Coach, Gucci and Nordstrom”), the panic worsened.
“No one said things like: ‘The first six months are actually going to be really tough — you’ll cry most days.’”
Enter Trader Joe’s and the PR internship.
A regular TJ’s customer, I applied to become a “Crew Member” upon realizing my weekly shopping trips there were oddly soothing in the midst of my jobless angst: The people were genuinely — almost unnervingly — friendly, the music nostalgia-inducing (Van Morrison and the Beatles peppered their playlists), the free samples generous. At least this will provide some amount of income and temporary mental reprieve while you get your life together, I told myself as I suited up for my first shift, pulling on the baby-pink cotton Crew Member tee, fastening my bright red all-caps name tag and lacing my Chuck Taylors. The internship opportunity came not long after, through a third-degree connection. I knew nothing about the company and even during the interview had trouble feigning interest in the work. Still, I accepted out of desperation and quickly adjusted my TJ’s shifts to accommodate the new weekday gig.
Thus began the 75-hour, seven-days-a-week schedule. Neither job resembled anything near my dreams for post-college, but the combined salaries covered my rent and provided an answer to the dreaded, “So, what do you do?” question. I could report back to those who had so encouraged this move that I was “a busy bee in the Big Apple!” and “learning to love that fast-paced big city lifestyle!”
But as I spent my weekdays in an office where smiles were seldom and my weekends bagging Joe’s O’s, the panic morphed into a bone-deep fatigue. Fridays, the days I worked both jobs, were the worst. I’d tuck my TJ’s attire inside my workday purse, and as soon as my intern duties wrapped at 6, I’d commute uptown for my second shift at 7, eating dinner (usually an apple and a Clif Bar) en route and changing clothes in the cramped bathroom stalls I’d later scrub down.
For the first three hours, I’d man the cash register or start the requisite cleaning: sweeping, mopping, Lysoling bathrooms, taking out the trash, etc. Once the store officially closed at 10 p.m., the managers would turn up the music, bust out communal snacks and assign everyone a section for restocking. In a sad, strange way, it reminded me of sorority recruitment minus the glitter and crepe paper. If I was lucky, I’d be assigned to stock bread (minimal heavy lifting, plus it smelled good); unlucky, I’d get frozen fish (so, so cold). Either way, restocking required serious hunch-backing, and by the time I clocked out at 2 a.m., I was beyond beat. On the plus side, this resulted in deliciously deep sleep. The sleep was never long enough, though, as I’d be up at 10 a.m. on Saturday for my noon to 8 p.m. shift and then up again at 10 a.m. on Sunday for more of the same. I continued the maddening routine by staying on autopilot, not allowing myself to think beyond the bags of bread in my hands.
“In vocalizing my angst, I realized I was not alone in it.”
My breakdown came in October, on my 22nd birthday. In a very rare evening out on the town, I was seeing Ben Rector (one of my favorite musicians) at Irving Plaza (another iconic NYC venue) with one of my best friends. In theory, it was exactly the kind of night I once imagined would be my norm in New York. Instead, triggered by her thoughtful probing — “How are you, really?” — I started sobbing uncontrollably.
Yes, it was exhausting working 75 hours a week, having no weekends, and spending my Friday and Saturday nights scrubbing shit off of public toilets. But the tears weren’t about my tiring schedule or the fact that I was paying my dues in roles I had no intention of pursuing. The exhausting part was fooling others — and myself — in thinking I was OK. And so I stopped. I finally admitted it: “I am not OK.” With that honesty came clarity. In vocalizing my angst, I realized I was not alone in it.
My friend working a prestigious fellowship at a major media company? The job left her in such a continual state of exhaustion that she fell asleep in a Barnes & Noble.
My childhood pal who up and moved to Seattle for a sought-after college ministry internship? She felt homesick every time she saw mountains.
My high school chum embarking on a life-changing journey with the Peace Corps? She confessed she’d never been more lonely.
Everyone felt it, whether we were in a Trader Joe’s stockroom, a Barnes & Noble aisle, a solitary church pew, a rural Indonesian village.
More than two years have passed since I snapped that photo of Lincoln Center. Acknowledging that everyone, in some way or another, was struggling to orient themselves post grad helped me move on to the next step. I no longer work at Trader Joe’s or the PR firm, and am lucky enough to have just one, 40-hour-a-week job that pays the bills. I spend my Friday and Saturday nights not scrubbing shit off of public toilets, but out with my friends (or in my bed with HBO GO).
Despite all this, every now and again, that feeling resurfaces when I compare the fantasy life I moved to New York for with the newly comfortable one I’ve actually created.
It’s a creeping weariness that most of us have felt, or are feeling, or will feel.
It’s a collective I’m-not-OK-ness that, in the end, makes us OK.
Jenny McCoy is putting her Trader Joe’s experiences to use in the food department of a global communications firm. She lives in New York City.