Since the early ’90s, I wanted to be Elaine Benes from “Seinfeld.” She began her career as an editor at a publishing house and then transitioned to becoming the head of the J. Peterman catalog, which was filled with ridiculously flowery descriptions of fashion-y things like the Urban Sombrero.
I was well on my way in the early 2000s. I had climbed the ladder from freelance writer to editor at a beauty magazine. But then my husband and I decided to start a family, and I left it all behind for the glitz and glamour of staying up for 37 hours straight and becoming a human pacifier.
Sixteen years have passed, and I have two teenagers who don’t need me much anymore, so I decided to look for a full-time remote job. I casually started perusing online job boards, wrote up a resume and cover letter, and put myself out there. My mantra: A 16-year job gap isn’t that big of a deal. And anyway, age discrimination is illegal. I’ll be fine.
There were actual crickets in my inbox.
Was I aiming too high? I mean, companies like Ralph Lauren and Neiman Marcus were looking for remote copy editors, so why couldn’t it be me? I’d been writing and copy editing for years before I had kids. I still had mad skills. Maybe they could take a chance on me?
Clearly, Ralph Lauren and I failed to agree on this, as I never heard back from them. Two months passed. I received a few rejections, but for the most part, I figured out what it felt like to be ghosted. (I think that’s what the kids call it now.)
But one glorious day, the stars aligned. A new job, which I was perfect for, popped up on one of the job board sites: a prestigious Midwestern university was looking for an editor for their magazines. I hit the “apply” button and, in a matter of minutes, my preloaded resume was on its way. To my complete shock and delight, a few hours later I received a text message from a recruiter, explaining that I had met the qualifications for the position and that HR was interested in interviewing me.
Finally! My persistence was paying off!
The recruiter explained that the initial informational interview would be conducted over a chat message app. Keep in mind, I had not been interviewed for a job since 1999. At that time, I sported a very fashionable Kasper suit with semi-giant shoulder pads to every interview because, well, the ’90s. I told myself that times had changed since then. Companies were now conducting interviews via chat? I guess? I texted back that I would be open to an initial interview and we set up a time.
The head of HR contacted me later that afternoon. [Yeah, it was weird that everything was happening so fast, but (a) I had nothing better to do that day except school pickup, and (b) maybe that meant they were really, really excited about interviewing me.] My contact introduced herself via chat and we dove right in. She outlined the responsibilities of the job and began asking me questions: Are you a team player? How would you deal with a difficult colleague? What’s your greatest strength and weakness?
I answered each question and was secretly happy that I didn’t have to do it in person or over Zoom. Even though I’m a writer, I tend to lose the ability to speak sensical English in a stressful situation. She did apologize at one point for conducting the interview via chat but explained that this was the way of the future. Or something. I barely cared because, well, somebody was actually interested in me for something other than making them food or driving them places.
The interviewer responded positively to my answers, saying that I was doing well and I’d be a great fit for the position. She told me how much the job paid (which was excellent) and then asked me if I had any questions. I asked which publication in particular I would be editing, as the university had several. She wrote back, “That will be communicated to you if you are selected for this position.”
Weird. But she said I was doing so well! I decided to ignore it.
“She did apologize at one point for conducting the interview via chat but explained that this was the way of the future. Or something. I barely cared because, well, somebody was actually interested in me for something other than making them food or driving them places.”
Then she moved on to more housekeeping-type questions: Was I interested in being paid weekly or biweekly? Via direct deposit or paycheck?
I answered each question, thinking, again, “Weird,” but also, “OMG. I think they’re going to hire me!”
And then her last question came: What banking institution do you operate with to ensure it tallies with the school’s official salary payment accounts?
Before you judge me, you must remember this: I am a 45-year-old stay-at-home mom who gets screamed at by her kids for having the audacity to make vegetable stir-fry for dinner. Nobody had taken me this seriously as a professional in almost two decades. Sure, this question may have been a red flag, but my brain mellowed that bright red shade to a pretty pale pink and then threw glitter and sparkles all over it for good measure. This was my big chance.
She told me to report back to the chat at 9 a.m. the next day for the next step in the hiring process. I thanked her for her time, logged off, and did the running man in my kitchen.
Finally, somebody wanted to hire me! Although it wasn’t the Elaine Benes-like job in descriptive catalog writing that I had hoped for, it was something in the writing field, and it felt like a win.
I have to admit, my gut told me something was off, but I ignored it. At least for a couple of hours. I ended up logging back into the job board site to reread the position description. Right away, I noticed it had been removed. There had been 80 applications. This was strange as typically other jobs on the site, some with hundreds of applicants, continue to stay active for weeks.
I searched for other open positions at the university on the job board site. There were quite a few, but you had to apply for all of them via the university’s career page. I had applied for mine directly through the job board post.
A bit of panic began to set in.
I scanned the university’s career page. There was no mention of an open editor job.
I decided to call the university. For fun. Just to confirm that I had indeed interviewed with the head of HR. I was told to email them my concerns, which I did. I specifically named my interviewer, who was legitimately the head of HR, and asked if they could confirm that this is how they typically conduct interviews.
As I waited by my email for a response, things got real dark in my head. Fast. An interview via chat? A virtual job offer the same day? Without even talking to me in person? Was I high?
In a flash of nausea and panic, I realized that I was pretty sure I’d just gotten scammed.
Then it was confirmed, an hour later, in the form of a real email from the real university. I was told that, no, they were not offering an editor position and, no, the head of HR did not interview via chat. I thanked them for the quick response, made some comment about hoping I could interview with them for real someday, and then realized after I hit send that they would want nothing to do with an imbecile who believed a chat interview was standard practice.
Trying not to hyperventilate, I went back through the interview chat, noting every piece of personal information I had given these evil, scum-sucking predators. They knew my name, the city I lived in, MY BANK, and the fact that I believe my biggest weakness is “perhaps striving a little too much sometimes to the point where ‘fixing’ something isn’t necessarily going to make it better because, as they say, ‘Perfect is the enemy of good.’” I mentally noted that I might want to choose a less obnoxious weakness.
What the hell was wrong with me? How could I have been so stupid? I’d always made fun of the idiots who fell for scams over the phone. I thought I’d never be dumb enough to get sucked into something like that. I’d never, not even once, taken anyone up on purchasing an extended warranty for my car.
I called my husband, crying hysterically, terrified that this horrible person was draining our bank account as we spoke. I was so incredibly embarrassed and ashamed and didn’t even want to tell him what had happened. He assured me it was no big deal and that this man/woman/diabolical being couldn’t do anything with the sparse information I had given them. I wasn’t so sure.
I made a phone call to our bank, and the nice customer service rep agreed that this person didn’t have enough information to do any damage. I made a follow-up call to the identity theft company I had a free yearlong membership with, and they, too, said it was unlikely that my identity could be stolen at this point.
I suppose this scammer was in it for the long game, and the plan was to get me back on chat the next morning, offer me the job, and ask for specifics about bank account and Social Security numbers.
I emailed the job board site explaining what had happened, begging them to notify the other 79 applicants that this was a scam before it was too late. I never heard back.
“What the hell was wrong with me? How could I have been so stupid? I’d always made fun of the idiots who fell for scams over the phone. I thought I’d never be dumb enough to get sucked into something like that.”
It’s been a few days since “the incident,” which is how I’ll forever refer to it, and I still feel extremely stupid, ashamed, gullible, and incapable of holding any kind of job because if I can’t even avoid getting scammed at the job search phase, how could I possibly be successful at an actual place of business?
I am very much not on my way to becoming Elaine Benes. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’m not on my way to becoming the Elaine Benes in the episode where J. Peterman himself discovers her on a New York City sidewalk in the pouring rain and offers her a job at his catalog. I amhowever, the Elaine Benes in the episode where she interviews for her dream job at Viking Press, pretends she’s from out of town so they’ll put her up at the Plaza, ignores a manuscript she’s supposed to read, looks on helplessly as chaos ensues, and ends up blowing the job interview. She tries desperately to explain to the interviewer: “But you don’t understand! My friend had fleas! My other friend couldn’t taste his peaches!”
This is the Elaine who I am.
Maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to upgrade to the Elaine Benes who is tasked with spending an entire week picking out the perfect pair of white tube socks for her persnickety employer Mr. Pitt. A girl can dream.
Although this is definitely a cautionary tale to job seekers, I realize now that it’s revealed an embarrassing truth about myself. I ignored my gut and went along with this ridiculous interview because I wanted to be wanted. Valued. Successful.
At this stage in my life, having stayed home with my kids for almost two decades, I feel pressured to be more. Who’s pressuring me? No one in particular and, at the same time, everyone. Every time I see a commercial for laundry detergent or peanut butter starring a woman who not only has an amazing relationship with her well-behaved kids but is also killing it at her job, I feel the pressure. Every time I talk to a mom who has decided to return to the workforce so “my kids respect me,” I feel the pressure. Even if I “lean in,” could I actually have it all? Without having a nervous breakdown? And even if I do get the perfect job, will I finally feel like I’m enough?
I don’t know. But based on what happened, it looks like I’m a little more desperate to feel valued than I’d care to admit, regardless of what it might cost me.
If I’ve learned anything from getting scammed, it’s that I need to value myself more, regardless of my employment status. Just like my self-worth shouldn’t be based solely on my value as a mother, it sure as hell shouldn’t be based on what job I can get.
So take my advice: Value yourself just as you are.
And for God’s sake, do not tell anyone where you bank. Good Lord.
Meredith Towbin has written five novels and a memoir. All six books live together on her laptop and dream of being plucked from obscurity by a loving literary agent or publisher. One of her essays placed in the top 10 for the 2021 Montana Prize for Humor (judged by Jimmy Kimmel). When she’s not writing, Meredith is baking, knitting, and struggling to find meals that everyone in her family will eat for dinner without complaining.
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