By Dean Stattmann
Every internship, no matter the field, involves a certain degree of tedious labor. Making coffee, running deliveries across town, transcribing 20 minute interviews – these are not the things that convince hundreds of thousands of college students every semester to engage in a relationship of blissful deference and unpaid shenanigans. But following recent months of economic turmoil, complete with abused bailouts and fancy pyramid schemes, it’s easy to remember why we put ourselves through the grinder again and again, only to come back asking for more.
Over the Winter break I took a couple days off work to fly to Zurich for my 21st birthday. I had intended to stay in New York, but after a last minute decision from the home front, I was off to Switzerland to celebrate legal alcohol consumption with my parents.
I had interned at Men’s Fitness magazine the previous semester, and after making the decision to stay on with the publication for a full year, I went ahead and committed myself to working through the Winter break as well (I can literally hear the seconds ticking away on my student visa). Thanks to my intern status, taking off for a week at the last minute was no problem. After all, if someone wanted to cut my paycheck, they’d have to write it first.
When I got to Zurich, I unplugged myself from the frenetic demands of life and work in New York City and felt my heart rate slow down like the hands of an old clock reaching its final hour. It’s a strange thing, turning off your iPhone. You hit the sleep button every day. That’s not new. But to hold it down for that unnatural length of time, those quiet five seconds when you get the feeling something terrible is about to happen. It’s chilling.
For any college student, there’s nothing like returning to your old stomping grounds – the friends, the family, the fridge! It’s the universal comfort zone. A lot of memories here too; lazy summer days grilling lakeside with the guys, the excitement leading up to a house party, walking home from the club at 5am, eyes blurry, shirt un-tucked, birds chirping. As humans, we cozy up to our nostalgia and take comfort in the familiar, because we cherish these memories. Filed under miscellaneous, they define us.
A week later and I’m back in the city. I open my eyes to a strange sound coming from an unknown source and an icy Friday morning with the kind of haze that makes leaving the apartment an absolute last resort. Good thing I have work today. Thanks for reminding me, iPhone. Your gentle Marimba wake up call isn’t fooling anyone though. You’re enjoying this, aren’t you, you smug bastard.
I experienced something new that Friday. I had been following the economic crisis on the news and in the papers, but it had never affected me personally. As a South African resident of Switzerland on a student visa in the United States, I simply felt like it was somebody else’s problem.
I thought about the absurdity of my situation as I crossed 25th Street and walked up Park Avenue towards the Men’s Fitness offices. When I got to 26th street I had bigger problems. Would I part with three dollars for a bacon, egg and cheese from the deli, or could I get by on the sachets of Swiss Miss hot chocolate in the office. Marshmallows are food, right? I kept walking. Up the street, through the revolving door, in the elevator, past the receptionist, into the pit.
When I entered the office, the first thing I noticed was the empty desks. Usually when someone leaves their desk, they leave some sort of evidence that they were there – a book with a dog-eared page, a glass with lipstick on the brim, anything. These desks were empty. It had finally happened. The formerly abstract economic downturn had let its bristly reality loose in this office, and the beast’s muddy tracks were everywhere. The horror.
A colleague, seeing the confusion on my face, explained to me what had happened, using that “times are tough” tone that has become a little too familiar. I listened to his account of the situation, about the prior cuts in benefits, the increased workload, and finally, the lay-offs. And then it hit me. How the hell was I still here? Youngest, least experienced, asks the most questions, first to go, yes? No.
I took a couple minutes after that to sit at my desk and reflect on what had just happened. I thought about the editors I wouldn’t see again. I worked with these people, pitched ideas to them, discussed stories, made jokes, didn’t get to say good-bye… Their eulogy was cut short when an editor called me into his office. He had assignments for me. A lot of them. And just like that, I had forgotten about the lay-offs. At this point, I had contributed a decent amount of material to the magazine for publication, and seeing the first of these on glossy paper for the first time was an unreal experience. And now, right in front of me, lay a smorgasbord of potential bylines atop a silver platter with my name on it. In this twisted game of poker I had somehow emerged with the winning hand, while everyone else went all in. I hadn’t intended win. I didn’t even know I was playing. But I wasn’t about to return the chips.
Photo by Dean Stattmann