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The New York Observer

 June 16, 2003

Invasion of the Job Snatchers

by Russ Baker

"Mr. Baker, I was overcome with excitement when I read of the opportunity you are offering," said the e-mail. This was fine. Unexpectedly so. I had posted my ad for a research assistant barely five minutes earlier, and already I had a reply on my cable-modem line.

Thirty seconds later, I had another reply. Then another and another. "Hello," began one. "What an intriguing concept!" And signed off with: "Hope to hear from you -- this is interesting!" Another remarked: "Though at present I am lacking the requisite resume that is so necessary when applying for jobs these days, I'm hoping you will meet with me by virtue of my sheer dynamism and sparkling wit. (How about my good looks, brains, and ability to recite all 50 states backwards?)" They came in all forms: smart, goofy, blunt, boastful, modest, apologetic. And they kept coming. One or two a minute for, literally, hours.

I was aware that, notwithstanding the trauma and economic destabilization of 9/11, New York City is still a lure for hopeful hordes of ambitious -- and unemployed -- youth from across America and around the world. But this flood of imploring responses to my ad exceeded all expectations. Touched by their bravado in the face of a grim and worsening job market, I tried reading all the messages to decide which candidates looked promising, but I couldn't keep up. By midnight, the often heart-rending entreaties were still streaming through. I'd gotten so wrapped up in them that I forgot to have dinner. Now, I forced myself to shut the computer off and go to bed.

The eager candidates, however, did not. When I awoke and turned my computer on early the next morning, I was alarmed to see that scores of additional messages had come in, even in the wee-est of the wee hours.

"Mr. Baker, I cannot begin to tell you ... "

So I did what any sane person would: I left town. However, being a creature of habit, I still occasionally peeked at my mail count and, much to my chagrin, the torrent continued unabated.

By the time I got back to my desk a few days hence, people were "checking back." One wrote a vaguely indignant note, wondering why he hadn't heard from me yet. Others, noting that I had probably received "quite a few" applications, reminded me that they'd met me once, maybe worked together somewhere or, in certain cases, invoked people I barely remembered as reliable job references for them. "Mr. Baker, not to drop names inappropriately, but I just spoke with _____, whom I believe you know ... "

I hope it is clear how much I appreciate the dilemma of these folks, and how deeply I sympathize with their plight. I know how hard it is to find gainful employment in these recession-plagued times: My immediate family includes a crackerjack smart, hard-working and long-unemployed lawyer-M.B.A. brother with kids and a Silicon Valley mortgage. And as a freelance writer, I am familiar not only with the pain of rejection, but also with the ever-rekindled hope that some kind soul will acknowledge my brilliance -- or at least my existence. So I approached my hiring task resolved to temper with kindness my determination to get the most competent assistant for the modest wage I could afford.

Perhaps to avoid compassion-overload, I found that I could rule out many of the least creative applicants without even finishing their pitches. A good half of the letters began, "My name is Agsplatz Figgelsuch ... " as if mere identity were the principal selling point.

To give potential applicants some idea of whom they'd be working for, I had, a little self-importantly, labeled myself "Nationally Known Journalist." I got a fair number of letters expressing the firm conviction that the applicant had spent his or her formative years preparing exactly for this "opportunity to work at Nationally Known Journalist."

Some felt the need to trumpet their own 15 minutes of fame. "Not yet nationally known, I did have a letter to the editor of the N.Y. Times mag published a few weeks ago." Or "A singer/songwriter not yet nationally known (although I did share the bill with Ike Turner a couple of years ago, and managed to resist the temptation to slap the man), I have two CD's to my credit."

Others sought to establish their writing credentials, though I found myself wondering if any of the cited publications actually existed. "I currently write a travel column for Hoop Magazine ... I've also written food and travel articles for Northwest Palate ... I also regularly edited copy for The Bear Deluxe Magazine before moving to New York last year in search of new opportunities." One person said she freelanced for Playgirl and

A few provided invaluable insights into life at "lifestyle" periodicals. "I do some work for STUFF magazine as well -- bathroom humor, really, but lucrative bathroom humor. They pay more when one uses the words 'dude,' 'hottie' and 'babe.'"

Some sounded a little too experienced. "I have written and sold more than 3,500 articles in the past 27 years," one told me, "many of them on topic subjects."

Another wrote:

"Dear Russ,

"Have a look at my credentials which span journalism, Wall Street, the United Nations and Public Relations. I have several recent Op Eds, published by ... Eastern Connecticut's largest daily. I have been doing stories for all 10,000 newspapers for the last 12 years ... I have written a film for Steven Seagal and am off to L.A. next Tuesday through Friday, to attend his birthday celebration ... "

By contrast, some were painfully honest: "I had a look on your Web site, and I'm not sure whether my knowledge base is up your alley."

Finally, to see who was serious and who was knowledge-basing up the wrong alley, I mass e-mailed some of the more promising candidates that they would have to prepare a research memo on a difficult topic, and send it to me within 48 hours.

Forty-eight hours later, I found myself remembering what I'd hated about teaching: more than 100 essays on the same topic. In the end, after reading a dozen or so of these two-to-seven-page responses ("be brief and succinct," I had said), I called up the author of the best submission and hired him to read the rest.

Now, with time on my hands, I began compiling a personal anthology of my favorite solicitation letters. "I've attached three resumes (evidence of my heretofore schizoid existence)," wrote one. "If you find anything here of interest, please feel free to get in touch."

"I am a fan of clean copy, baseball, the N.F.L., Van Gogh, Aretha Franklin, Sting and Star Trek, among other things," another informed me.

And then there was the hopeful who wrote: "I work well in a group, chew up deadlines like grandad's Skol, and make a mean turkey chili." Unfortunately, he added: "I'd like to think that the only difference between you and I -- as journalists -- is the 'nationally known' thing ... When can I start?"

You can't. It's not, as you wrote, "between you and I." It's between "you and me." Sorry about splitting hairs -- and, again, I totally sympathize -- but tough times call for tough grammatical standards, Skol or no Skol. (Oh, by the way, that wad in grandad's cheek isn't Skol -- it's Skoal.)

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