I could’ve been Jim Halpert (an essay about specialness)

I don’t really like to talk about the few months I lived in Washington. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the scenery or the people I met during my quest for meaning, or whatever. But I left something behind in the Evergreen State.

I left my specialness.

Denim—the new, crappy look of success.

Denim—the new, crappy look of success.

First off, just because I said Washington doesn’t mean I’m talking about Seattle. Where I stayed was four hours south, in a city called Vancouver. It’s right across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Some people live on the Washington side because they don’t have to pay income tax, and they can take the I-5 bridge into Oregon where they don’t have to pay sales tax.

But I didn’t have to worry about taxes. I had very few dollars to spend and even fewer prospects. During my time there, I had two job interviews—one as an entry-level account executive, the other as a seasonal shelf stocker at Toys R Us. I had no degree, and no references in the professional world. But I was determined to be the exception, proof that the American dream is alive and well.

I went to the account executive interview in my crappy 1985 Volkswagen van. I wore a tie that I’d bought the night before. It was black with shiny blue stripes and looked like something still on clearance after last year’s junior prom. My then-girlfriend had helped me pick it out. The white button-up shirt that I wore was so large that even now, after about 500 beers, it’s still too loose. The slacks were new from Goodwill, but I’ve since returned them because they made my butt look flat—well, flatter. And to top it off, I wore a jean jacket. Fortunately, my guardian angel swooped down and removed that denim abomination before I walked in.

Inside, the receptionist asked my name and told me to have a seat. Soon the manager, a slightly overweight woman in her mid thirties, came in and shook my hand. Let’s say the manager’s name was Gabby. Let’s also say that this pseudonym is mainly to protect her identity, not because I can’t remember her name, although both answers are applicable. Let’s say, once more, that Gabby wasn’t a natural blonde.

Gabby led me back into a small room with a big table. It shined with that wonderful aura only produced by fluorescent lights, but nothing else did. The walls were the color of cheap carpet. The carpet was the color of old shingles.

We both sat down. She explained the position, basically a sales job for a paper and office supplies distributor. Yes, this company was the Dunder Mifflin of Portland, Oregon. Since I loved The Office then, my eyes glazed over as I thought about becoming the next Jim Halpert. Unfortunately, I shredded that dream with three answers.

“Tell me a little bit about yourself,” Gabby said.

“Well, I am from Indiana. And, well, I moved out here because, hmm, I guess I wanted a fresh start. Chase the American dream, you know? And I was homeschooled. So, yeah, I’m very adaptable, and a very hard worker, too.”

She nodded, not raising her gaze from the piece of paper in front of her. She scribbled something. “Good, good,” she muttered. “Now, I’m going to ask you to rate yourself in certain areas. So on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your leadership abilities?”

I folded my hands for some reason and thought hard. “Maybe, just maybe, a seven.”

She scrunched up her face. “Okay,” she mused. “Now, how about your competitiveness?”

I thought even harder this time. I wanted to give her the best, most accurate answer. At this point, I didn’t know that you’re supposed to lie in job interviews. “Let’s say, a six.”

“Six?” She gasped. “Why would you say that?”

“Hmm. Well, I believe that everyone should work together, to help each other better their selves and, you know, their abilities.” That was such a great answer that it made me smile.

Gabby liked my answer, too. It helped her very much with her decision. The interview ended a few minutes later. Gabby shook my hand, but didn’t say, “You’ll be hearing from us soon.” She didn’t say much of anything.

As I walked out, I caught a glimpse of the next guy in the reception area. He was wearing a shiny suit with a red power tie. I looked at my reflection in the glass door. With the ill-fitting pants and saggy shirt, I looked like I was wearing my grandpa’s hand-me-downs. But maybe, I thought, that made me seem more down to earth.

I don’t question Gabby’s decision, not the part about me at least. I wasn’t the most reliable candidate. Just put yourself in the Gabby’s shoes, Crocs or whatever the heck: there is the guy, me, who drove across the country in a clunky Volkswagen with a girl he barely knew and just enough money for gas in order to freeload at his friend’s dad’s house. Then there’s—well, basically anybody else. Almost everybody would seem more reliable, more responsible.

Thumbs up. Classic confidence builder.

Thumbs up. Classic confidence builder.

Why did I even go to the interview? For a brief moment, although I don’t remember which moment, the job seemed attainable. It felt like if I really impressed them or showed them that I was a tiny seed that simply needed a little cultivation, I could win. I could be Jim Halpert.

Going to that interview was like playing the lottery. It seemed so improbable that it had to happen, right? I guess I just wanted to put the American Dream to the test. I did a good job at that, at least.

But maybe I should have been more pathetic. I should have tempted the gods into making me a rags to riches story by showing up in sweatpants and socks with sandals. Or worse, I should have worn that damn jean jacket into the interview. Then Abe Lincoln would’ve risen from the dead to announce, “Hear ye, hear ye, I present to you huddled masses the next Andrew Carnegie with his unnatural denim obsession.”

It’s an idea. It’s not a good one, I know.

If I knew where ideas like this come from, I’d close the port, and we could all go on with our lives. I’d like to think it’s because I watched too many movies when I was younger, since, being homeschooled, I just sat around all day. But I think it’s more than that.

Like every other Millennial, I heard throughout my childhood: “You’re special. You can be whatever you want to be if you believe in yourself.” But being special isn’t a strategy. Most of the time, it’s not even true. There’s nothing special about the banal crap we do every day in order not to starve or become homeless. Being a rare, golden flower means essentially nothing to anyone, except VH1 thirty years later.

Really, you don’t need specialness. You need the education, talent, connections, and downright luck. Coming from money doesn’t hurt either.

Having (almost) none of those things, it’s no surprise that the job didn’t pan out. Nothing from that time in my life did. I left the Pacific Northwest. I left behind I my dream of becoming the next Jim Halpert. I lived with my girlfriend for a while in small-town Indiana. Then I left her. Even that old Volkswagen Vanagon is rusting away in my parents’ driveway, right where I left it.

I left behind my specialness, too. But it’s difficult somedays, when I feel phantom pains of gold stars and trophies for team sports, reminder of little league baseball seasons during which I barely paid attention much less excelled. It’s just how I was raised—how we were all raised.

I have to drown these thoughts as soon as they surface, so that I’m ready for the moment when the next Gabby asks me to rate myself.

Since I now own a suit, I’ll give solid tens—maybe even elevens.

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