A Letter to Coach Kim
Dear Coach Kim,
I’m writing you this letter because, even though I block your calls and click your emails directly in the Trash folder, I need to find a way to explain myself and understand how the job interview went so awry. I want to discuss why I applied for the job in the first place and why I did not refuse the job when I should have. Perhaps this will help clarify why I wrote you the email refusing the position the following day after my acceptance.
I was looking for part-time work on Craigslist when I saw your advertisement —I wanted to make any little bit of money that would keep my husband, daughter, and I afloat during the summer while I was not teaching. This would enable us to order pizza once in a while, go out for a movie, little luxuries (normally I am an adjunct creative writing teacher at the state university). My husband is a photographer at a newspaper, and it is a pretty good job, but somehow at the end of each month things are always tight, and living on just his income for even a couple months scared us. The kinds of jobs I was looking for would have to have flexible or unusual hours, as I watch our two-year-old daughter during the day. Optimally, I was looking for teacher-y jobs: tutoring, test-prep teaching, substituting-type jobs, but I knew those would be hard to find. I did apply for a job as a GRE test-prep instructor, but I had to submit my own test scores in the application, which probably explains why I was never hired. So I broadened my search. I considered a job for a kennel as a dog walker, but I am scared of dogs. I applied for a patient in a sleep study for the university hospital, where all I would have to do was sleep with a bandage on my nose for a week. But I never got a response.
One morning when I was up before my husband and daughter, on my second cup of coffee and trolling the Etc. section of Jobs on Craigslist, I saw your advertisement. It read: “Wanted: Walking coach for 6 a.m. walking group. Must be RELIABLE and motivational! Get exercise while earning money with Walk & Talk Fitness. Email/text Coach Kim.” I couldn’t believe how perfect this seemed. I liked to walk, I was an early riser, getting up at 5 or 5:30 a.m. without an alarm, and I would be able to earn money while my husband and daughter slept. So, sitting cross-legged on our couch with my computer on my lap, I immediately sent an email: “Dear Coach Kim, I am definitely interested! I walk and ride my bike a lot, and am a recent Ph.D. graduate in English. Hope to hear from you soon! Best, Louise Krug.”
The next day I received an email back from you: “Dear Louise, Thank you for replying to the ad. Let’s set up a time to talk so I can explain the job and see if you are right for the position. Sincerely, Coach Kim.” We set up an interview for the next day. (Note: When we met, you said several times that you had never advertised on Craigslist before and how you couldn’t believe it had actually worked, and I said what a coincidence because I didn’t usually use Craigslist to look for work. We laughed at how serendipitous it seemed that the Internet brought us together, but now I wonder if you were telling the truth. Your ad was not truthful, Coach Kim, and what it was asking me to do was very different than what you yourself asked me, which was much harder and less desirable. That is probably why you advertised this job in the Etc. section of Craigslist in the first place, because what kind of people look for work in the Etc. section other than people who have tried everything else?)
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the day of the interview, the day we met. The spring semester of the university where I taught was coming to a close, and on the day of the interview I ended my class early so I would have ample time to walk to my car, eat an apple, and find the address of the interview. I also had to allow time to sit in my car and stop sweating, as the air conditioner in my car was broken, but also, I sweat when I’m nervous. Part of my nervousness was the usual jitters of a job interview, but part of it was because of what I looked like. It had been a long time since I walked into a situation where the person didn’t know anything about my partially-paralyzed face, double-vision, and imbalance — all results of damage during brain surgeries to repair a burst blood vessel I had in 2005. After I had my surgeries I went to graduate school and became a teaching assistant, and then when I graduated I became an employee at that same school. So, when I was hired at the school, the administrators already knew what I looked like because I had been a student. I knew that my looks might be a problem for this job. On the other hand, they might not. It just depended on you.
I got to the interview a half-hour early, and sat in my hot car with the driver’s side door open reading a library book. I had on my “teaching clothes,” a green dress with pink polka dots and a big brown belt. I wore my tortoiseshell Harry Potter glasses, which I hoped disguised my crooked eye. When it was finally time to go into the office and meet you, Coach Kim, I just wanted to get the whole experience over with. So I was relieved when I saw you: you were smiling and started talking right away. You had long tiger striped ringlets held back by a sweatband, and wore black spandex and tennis shoes. At 5’8, I towered over you. The office was one big room that looked like an office break room combined with a juice stand and weight-loss clinic: small round tables with two chairs each scattered about, walls covered in posters of before-and-after photos of men and women, a scale in the corner with a tape measure hanging on the wall close by, and a kitchenette made up the entire back wall (two huge blenders, a floor freezer, and sink). There was also a door with a sign that said: “Photo Room, KNOCK before entering!!”
I knew at that point that Walk Talk Fitness was some sort of weight loss business; I assumed it was sort of like Weight Watchers, where the customer paid for a program of exercise and nutrition and a sense of accountability because of the paying that would provide pleasing results. I assumed that was where my job came in — I would be the motivator, I would inspire great walking, and I would help your clients walk however long you wanted them to walk. I could do that. (I should know better than to assume anything, but I did). So that is why when you invited me to sit down, scooted your chair next to mine and started showing me photos of you from a small black album (the photos were from twenty years ago and you were forty pounds heavier), and telling me how you lost all the weight in six months by drinking “shakes” I silenced the warning sirens in my head. You slowly paged through the album, showing me then-and-now photos of your father, your brother, your mother (who didn’t look significantly thinner in the “now” photo, because you said she wasn’t using the shakes correctly) and strangers, all who had lost a lot of weight in weeks or months. After you closed the album, I thought that we were going to get to the discussion of walking and its health benefits, my job description and (let’s not forget!) pay.
Instead, Coach Kim, you asked me if I was thirsty.
I thought you were being hospitable and so, after a couple of demurrals, I agreed to a glass of the “tea” that you offered me. You asked me to come to the kitchenette with you and explained that the powdered tea mix you added to tap water would make me feel “amazing.” You said the tea had energizing properties because it “worked on a cellular level” and not from caffeine. It was then that I knew something was really a little kooky, but for some reason I decided to go with it. You told me the name of the herbal supplement company that made all these teas and shakes that you sold, and you started showing me the smoothie bar and narrating how you made the shakes in flavors such as Cookies ‘n Cream, the Elvis, and Blueberry Yum Yum (“add a little instant pistachio pudding mix to the regular blueberry shake, it’s that easy!”). It was becoming obvious that my main job was not going to be a walking coach at all but instead to bring in people to try and purchase these shakes and other weight loss products by this company (there was a whole catalogue of thousands of items: LiftOff, an energy drink that promised increased mental clarity and short-term memory and came in flavors such as Lemon-Cola Kick and Tropical Fruit Force; snacks like soy nuts and dehydrated chicken soup; a pill for intestinal health with fiber and friendly bacteria, even fragrances such as Heart and one called Soul).
You asked me, while I was sipping the last of my tea (which didn’t make me feel any different) and you were making me a shake to try in one of your giant blenders (Dream Date, with French Vanilla protein powder and two real dates, and I didn’t even bother to refuse this time), if I could name five friends or family members who were interested in health and fitness that I could bring there to try the shakes. It so happens that almost all of my family and many of my friends are interested in health and fitness, but when you then pressed me by saying, “Who is one person, what is their name and what are they like?” all I could stammer was “My office-mate, Jen, she likes juice cleanses and Pilates classes.” But I knew that Jen would never, ever go for such a scheme as this, for one because she loved food and would see that drinking protein shakes instead of a meal was a sin, also because Jen is admirably frugal and would not pay for how much these shakes cost, which strangely, you never mentioned.
At this point, if we were having a conversation right now you might ask me, “But Louise, if you knew that you didn’t want to sell this product, why didn’t you walk away? Why did you stay and continue to talk with me about the price of frozen fruit for smoothies and your daughter and her low birth weight and your husband and his running regimen?” And my answer is simple, Coach Kim. I wanted this job to work. So maybe I wouldn’t be a walking coach, maybe your advertisement had not been truthful about that, and maybe it had left out the key component of what this job actually would entail, which was selling herbal weight-loss products, but still. Still, I wanted to make a little money, and so I was waiting for the moment where you would tell me how that would happen. I was trying to convince myself that I could do this, or I was just trying not to listen to the part of me that was telling me I couldn’t.
But if I were to be more honest, there is also this: maybe I was flattered that you thought I could sell a weight-loss product. An image. Because that is what I was so worried about in the first place, what I was worried about always — how I looked. Not as in “Do I look good or bad, fat or skinny, hot or not,” but “Do I look normal?” and “Do I look normal enough to do something normal?” My point is that I liked you approving of the way I looked, and I knew you approved because you said things like, “You yourself don’t need to use any of our products,” and “You look like you work out every day!” and so on. I knew what you were saying wasn’t true — while I am not overweight, I had a baby a few years ago, and it shows — I ate it up nonetheless. Now that I think about it, your flattery was most certainly untrue, it is how you win people over, but of course I didn’t know that then.
At one point a middle-aged women came in wearing nurse’s scrubs and went into the Photo Room with one of your business partners. A few minutes later, as you were showing me the contents of the kitchenette’s giant freezer (every kind of fruit you could imagine) the partner said, “Nancy lost six pounds this week!” and you ran over and gave the woman wearing nurse’s scrubs a hug. You started telling me Nancy’s story, how she had fallen off the wagon a few times but had rallied, and how she had lost twenty pounds in the past month. Nancy smiled in your embrace, Coach Kim, and said, “Yeah, I get so hungry sometimes, but it’s worth it.” You swatted her on the behind. Your partner, a young woman of about nineteen, wore leggings and a shirt that said “Think Thin.” “Oh, that reminds me,” you said. You handed me a button that said “Ask Me About Weight Loss” that you wanted me to wear on my shirt every day all day, and you said it would inspire conversation at the grocery store and the gas station, strangers would be asking me about the Program, the shakes, the supplements and all the rest of it. “It’s not really like selling anything if you really believe in it, you know?” you said. “It’s just your life.”
As we were looking at the Wall of Winners, the photos of clients who had lost fifty pounds or more, I said, “So, what if I don’t get anybody ever to come in here and buy anything. Ever. What if I just am a walking coach? How much money will I make then? To lead people on walks” And you said, “Nothing. You get zero.” That was when the voice I had been trying to keep quiet in my head screamed at me to leave.
It was around that time that I looked at the clock and realized I had been with you for more than an hour, really almost two. We laughed about how fast time passes when you’re talking, and I said something about the babysitter and how I had to go, and you said you understood. As I left I turned around, halfway out the door, and said I would see you here at 6 a.m. the following Monday. You waved at me, your bracelets jangling, spiral curls blowing a bit from an oscillating fan’s breeze. “What a great day,” one of us said.
The minute I collapsed in my car I knew I would not show up next Monday. I knew I could not take this job. The spell was broken as soon as we parted. By the time I got home I was crying, and told the babysitter everything, sitting in a fetal position on the porch while my daughter kept saying, “Mommy happy? Mommy happy?” When Nick called as my daughter and I were eating leftover spaghetti, I could barely answer the phone above a whisper, and he said, “Did someone yell at you?” I emailed you my refusal late that night.
The part that most bothers me about this experience is how you said “You’re hired!” and clapped your hands after I told you my brain surgery story and why I now loved to walk (because it’s one of the only activities for exercise I can do). “People will love this, Louise. You’re a success story. They will want to connect with you,” you said. I don’t think you were insincere, Coach Kim, even though that would be easy to think. The reason that moment bothers me is because of my own reaction, which was complete happiness that I had found such a perfect job. That I could be this right for something, something that needed my exact set of physical attributes. Of course, I completely ignored the fact that I absolutely could not do this job. I am not a salesperson. I am not a persuader. In elementary school I couldn’t sell candy bars or Girl Scout cookies, sub sandwiches or magazine subscriptions. I never want to talk politics or religion with anyone of a slightly different belief than me not because I don’t like difference but because I don’t want them to think I am trying to convert them in any fashion. It goes again everything in me. So it worries me that I ignored this about myself because I wanted this job so much. I was that desperate. I was willing to completely ignore who I was in order to be someone else. What does that say about me?
That’s all I have to say, Coach Kim. As I write this it is the end of June and I still have not found a summer job. I won’t. I have stopped looking, and am pretty happy staying at home with my daughter until the end of August when fall semester starts. We are not in the poorhouse yet, though we have already started the depressing withdrawal of our savings account to pay for things like car insurance and plumbing problem. But we are O.K. I hope that, by reading this letter, you have a better understanding of why I did not end up taking the job. I would say that you might consider changing the wording of your job advertisements in the future so they can be less misleading, but I suspect that is also part of your company’s method, carefully calculated for the results wanted.
Louise Krug is the author of Louise: Amended (2012), a memoir about the brain surgeries she had when she was 22. She teaches creative writing and composition at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Some of her recent work has appeared in River Teeth, Word Riot, Parcel, and Huffington Post. She has a collection of essays forthcoming from 99:The Press in 2015.