Internship wake-up call

Chrissy Raia

Last summer I redefined the word “misfit” during my internship at Time Out New York. Its British counterpart was my survival guide during my semester in London, and I scoured its pages weekly for concert and theatre listings, envying the cutting wit of its writers. My credentials seemed average, but Anne, the editorial coordinator, penciled me in for an interview after I arrived back in the States.

I arrived sweaty but on time in an ill-fitting navy blue suit I had plucked straight off the shelves at Banana Republic the night before. One glance around the tastefully industrial Time Out office told me a suit might not have been necessary. Had everyone just come from a concert at CBGB? The cohesive look screamed effortlessly trendy, as though the employees desired to look like they’d rolled out of bed, gotten dressed in the dark and just happened to resemble the not-too-matchy wardrobes of the “Sex and the City” foursome. They exemplified that “look” we suburbanites yearn to copy but which only New Yorkers are able to pull off. I was in over my head. My J.Crew attire would never fit in with this eternal fashion show.

I found out all too soon that unpaid labor knows no dress code. There were endless numbers of interviews to transcribe, invoices to file and facts to check, all so I’d have the privilege of typing “Time Out New York” onto my resume. The staff had judged (correctly) that my conservative dress echoed my political views and seemed to dismiss any possibility of friendship or camaraderie. Yet, the more I felt distanced from the fast-paced, edgy environment, the more I longed to please those around me. Transcriptions? Completed at record pace. I was queen of the hole punch, master of all things filed. I’d pore over articles with a fine-toothed comb, picking out miniscule errors with hopes editors would notice my attention to detail.

I was caught in the rut many interns encounter: unsure of our place within the office pecking order and insecure about our own skill level, we busy ourselves by completing tasks, however menial, in order to appease our coworkers. Rather than carve out our own identities, we panic – graduation is only months away – and reason that this hard work will lead to job offers.

Satisfying my superiors was why I trekked across Manhattan to deliver Mets tickets to an important client or returned designer merchandise to their respective public relations offices, sacrificing my feet to sores. If no one else would do a job, I’d take it on without question. One task I received mid-summer, however, would bring my people-pleasing behavior into a new light.

The following week’s issue would run a hefty feature about New York City in the early morning, and, reasoned the features editors, what could be a better symbol for the wee hours than a rooster in all his glory? There could be no substitute, therefore, for a photograph of one. But Photoshop would not do. This chanticleer needed to be a city dweller – anything less would never be accepted by the magazine’s discriminating audience.

Jules, a features editor, thrust a tattered piece of paper in my direction, her 75 bracelets clanking on her spindly arms. The office had been polled, and several employees reported they thought they might have heard of roosters inhabiting various locales around the city. Instead of addresses, Jules had listed vague directions that instructed me to roam up to 10 city blocks, keeping my ear out for the cock’s crow.

Sudden panic washed over me. I still hadn’t mastered my sense of direction in Manhattan and taking the subway seemed like an impossible feat. But interns must show no uncertainty! I took the paper with confidence then slinked off to hail a cab to Alphabet City. I wandered into bodegas, questioned locals and prayed a group of teenagers could give me a clue about their neighbor the rooster. Miraculously, they knew of the bird and even led me to the empty lot where he roamed. And when we got there, they mused about the day before when police officers came to take it away.

The NYPD must have been hot on the tail of every cock fighter in the city, as clue after clue turned up dead ends from Chinatown to Spanish Harlem. My stomach knotted in despair. There was no way I could return to the office without first finding a rooster. I’d conquered every assignment, no matter how tricky, gradually gaining allies in staffers who liked me for my persistence and tolerance. Admitting defeat would not only mean planning a new cover photograph, but also demonstrate I’d never fit into the Time Out faction. And, as interns, we’re convinced that fitting in is essential to being branded as hiring material.

Sensing my despair, my boyfriend called bearing good news: his coworker recently moved from an apartment by the Williamsburg Bridge, where he’d been woken every morning by the cacophony of squawking poultry. A trip to the base of the bridge revealed the cause – an unmarked warehouse filled floor to ceiling with cages crammed with fowl. Asians lined up, selected their birds and loaded them, live, into backpacks. I pushed aside visions of bird flu, resigned to breathing through my mouth and confessed my odd request to the owner.

“No problem at all,” he replied with a heavy Spanish accent. “You can even take one out of the cage and put it wherever you like.” Images of roosters on yellow cabs or near fire hydrants flashed through my head – these pictures promised to be exactly what features was looking for.

Taking the store’s business card, I dialed Jules. I’d accomplished my task, passed the test. I was sure to be hailed as the greatest intern Time Out had ever hired. It was great that I’d managed to find the rooster, she said, but they’d gone ahead and taken a picture of one at the Brooklyn Zoo. I was thanked anyway.

While I’d continue to satisfy the features editors through the remainder of my internship, my preoccupation with obtaining their approval waned after that day. I’d never be able to morph into a city-savvy clone of other Time Out staffers, I realized. As I observed other internship candidates enter the office for interviews, nervously adjusting their ties and rifling through their resumes, I began to look forward to creating my own identity within my first place of work. While these interns would inevitably prolong the worker-bee intern syndrome, I hoped they, too, would realize that fitting in resulted from working hard, taking on challenging tasks and engaging in the occasional wild rooster chase.