Working And The “Real Girl”
by Kimberly Lew
Last year I was chosen to be profiled by Al Jazeera America in an article about “Real Girls” in New York. The article was pitched as being a counterpoint to the HBO series “Girls,” aiming to capture the struggle of aspiring young female artists in the city from a more realistic angle. As a playwright/writer who has found some nominal success — a couple of published one acts and readings around the city — but was also struggling to pay bills, I felt like I might be a decent subject. Still, I was surprised when I was selected for the piece, and even more so as I found my studio apartment the setting for a professional photo shoot to accompany the interview.
It is a very weird thing to have a conversation with someone and realize that the things you say might very well end up in print. I had conducted several interviews as a blogger and journalist, but I had never been the interviewee before, much less for a national audience. We talked a little about creative pursuits, but what the journalist was really focusing on was finances and living expenses and the effect they had on my personal life.
Out of everyone who was interviewed, I was the only one with both a full-time and a part-time job, and I have become aware from the wide-eyed reaction I often receive that my career style is not the norm (though it is increasingly more common). It was part of the only reason why I had volunteered to be a subject for the article: there are a lot of people who balance multiple gigs, and I thought that it was important to show the amount of work that goes into supporting more artistic, and often costly, endeavors.
When the article came out, my friend and I cheered and declared, “Everything is coming up Kim!” It’s not that this article did anything for me personally. But it felt like an acknowledgment of a lot of hard work.
I have always had a full-time gig and multiple part-time jobs since moving to New York. I remember landing my first entry-level position after college and crying on the phone to my mom with the realization that I couldn’t quit my retail job and that I would be working seven days a week for the foreseeable future. People often ask me why I do it, and I find myself having a million different answers: with the job market, I feel thankful to have even one job, and two gives me some sense of security; I have an Everest of student loans to pay off; I want to try to build a decent savings; I want to support my artistic endeavors. And, on days when my side-gig in retail is especially soul-scorching, I believe I may just be a glutton for punishment. But a lot of it, as one friend and I joke, is that I just seem to have a natural immigrant view of working, despite being third generation: this belief that if I work hard enough, somehow all the blood, sweat, and tears will pay off and things will get just a little bit easier.
Just a few months after everything was seemingly “coming up Kim,” I was sitting on a park bench at Lincoln Center, eating a bag of candy alone and coming to the realization that I would soon be unemployed. My full-time job had gradually cut my hours to part-time and then announced that my last day would be the following Friday. I had been on over twenty interviews so far that year, but no matter how close I got, I didn’t seem to be able to close in a job. There was the one position where the person who was supposedly leaving just didn’t. There was the dream job where I made it to the final three and then lost out. There was the start-up that loved me but ultimately didn’t have the funds for the job.
As I sat there, staring at the still water of the memorial fountain, I came to a distinct realization: I was grieving. Not just the loss of a job that I liked and was good at. Not just at the loss of money. But at the loss of faith in the idea that good, hard work always pays off. That the work you do accrues like little blocks, stacking beneath you and always raising you up towards something better. Perhaps it does sort of work that way, but no one warns you that the blocks are balanced on an uncertain foundation.
What it took me a while to see, however, was that the safety net I had formed for myself was helping, even if it wasn’t saving from me disaster the way I wanted. Managers who knew me for years helped give me extra hours at the bookstore so I had some income. Connections from my former jobs found me freelance opportunities. And even my bosses who laid me off helped recommend me for jobs, including the one I ended up taking. It’s more of an entry-level position, but I think I’m learning that I can’t always think about my career in terms of height.
Sometimes I find myself in the same position I was in after graduation, feeling sorry for myself as I think about the road ahead and how daunting it is to catch a break. I still work six days a week, some days for 13+ hours. I still always find myself chasing a buck, taking on a host of odd — and sometimes I do mean odd — jobs, from cleaning a lawyer’s office after hours to doing some freelance design work. Even just a few months ago, I found myself on an interview at a high-end French grocery store, trying to see if I could replace my current retail job for something that pays just that little bit more. The progress is incremental, but I take comfort in the idea that I am at least always trying.
Every once in a while, I think back on the “Real Girls of New York” article and wonder if I was a good subject after all. I don’t think I had any real wisdom to impart, and any valid advice I might’ve had seems to have been warped by the past year. But then I also think that the trial and the error, the risk and sometimes reward — maybe that’s just part of being a Girl. You try and do your best, and when life topples your work, you take a deep breath and rebuild.
Kimberly Lew is the proud writer of plays, blogs, and the monthly check when the rent is due. Check her out at www.kimberlylew.com.
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