Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at [email protected]), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
This column is a continuation from last week’s, which you should read first if you haven’t done so already.
Following my (somewhat graceless) entrance to the networking event, motion in the room stops for a moment. If, I imagine, this scene were taking place in a movie, it would be annotated by the sound of a needle being pulled violently across a record. A quick glance around the room confirms that the people in attendance are, for the most part, old enough to be able to identify this sound.
The facilitator (who, thanks to a large name tag, is clearly marked “Rhonda”) breaks the silence. “Oooh!” she exclaims, “Goody! You made it! We’re sooo glad you could come!” I feel a flicker of doubt. Networking is for people with a lexicon of excited utterances that includes words like “Oooh!” and “Goody!,” I think dubiously. Networking is for people who enjoy wearing nametags. Rhonda has probably embraced the networking incantation to “be proactive!” and sewn nametags onto her sweater sets and gym clothes. After all, she would probably point out, you never know when an opportunity to make connections will arise!
But, I realize, while I may not be a born networker, I am here, and my doubts are no match for Rhonda’s warmth. “Me too,” I finally say. “I’m happy to meet you all.”
Rhonda tells me that the group has just started the process of introducing themselves. She explains that she has asked everyone to make a 30-second “elevator speech” about who they are, and to come up with a story or anecdote about a “networking experience.” “Have a seat!” she says, and everyone shuffles awkwardly, as though to make room. It is clear that, if I sit with the group, I will be perched on someone’s lap. “I’ll sit at the kids’ table,” I say quickly, making a beeline for an empty table. Rhonda looks distressed; I can tell that she values herd cohesiveness. “I’m okay!” I assure her, and settle into my peripheral vantage point.
Before the elevator speeches can continue, a waiter appears and hovers expectantly, pad in hand. “Hey gang?” Rhonda says, trying to reclaim the group’s attention. “We should order before we go back to introducing ourselves.” There is more shuffling; reading glasses are fished out, and the group members study their oversized menus diligently. I scan its voluminous contents, remembering the cardinal rule of professional feeding etiquette: avoid dining humiliation. Fajitas? Too messy. Soup? Too drippy. Salad? Too bovine; too many opportunities to be caught, mid-sentence, with greenery hanging from one’s mouth. Chopped salad? Perfect! I order and sit back, listening to snatches of banter from the other table.
Many of the menu items have ridiculous names, and the group members sound as though they are struggling to maintain their dignity while ordering entrées whose advertised qualities include “fun,” or which attribute somewhat fantastic anatomical qualities to chickens. I hear one woman order a glass of chardonnay and a dessert that sounds explosive. “Oh, you are so bad,” says another woman. She smiles conspiratorially at the waiter and giggles, then stage-whispers, “I’ll have what she’s having!” Although I realize that this is a professional conclave, the transaction feels incomplete without a simulated orgasm.
Once the ordering frenzy dies down, introductions resume. The first person to speak is Peter, an older man who says that he is “in transition,” and “open to opportunities.” He has a large frame and a booming voice, and I can imagine him striding confidently around an office, slapping people on the back. He looks weary, though, as though the effort of cramming himself into a cramped booth and ordering a fun-filled meal has sapped him. Next to speak is Sherrie, who is considerably younger than most of the attendees, and also describes herself as being “in transition.” She tells the group that she recently finished a graduate degree, but has been unable to find anything other than unpaid internships (of which she has done several). I find myself hoping that her graduate degree was less costly than my own.
After Sherrie, a woman named Tara introduces herself. She tells us that she is a “refugee” from the “networking scene” in New York City, and is trying to transition back to New Jersey, where she lives. “Hi Tara,” the group responds, in messy unison. “Anyway, I need to get out of that scene,” she says, laughing nervously. She talks for a few more minutes, and then looks around the room, as though mustering courage. “I’m, well … I’m just happy to be here,” she concludes. At that moment, it strikes me: the sense that permeates this group, which I have been struggling to identify, is one of a 12 Step meeting. The participants are both confessional and circumspect, abject and enduringly hopeful. Everyone seems eager for salvation. “Keep coming back!” I expect someone to shout. It works if you work it.
Elaine, a middle-aged woman with tired eyes, delivers her elevator speech next. She, too, is “in transition,” after being downsized from the Human Resources department of a large home-improvement retailer. “I’m really just hoping to meet people,” she says. “Hopefully, I’ll make some friends.” She sounds lonely. After Elaine, a younger man with the same name as a professional athlete (whose legal troubles have been in the news lately) introduces himself. He begins to tell a complicated story involving a golf game, a golf partner, and the magical power of networking, but as it drags on my thoughts drift, and I find myself wishing that I could network with his doppelganger, who might actually need a lawyer. Sadly, his anecdote is eclipsed by the arrival of our fun meals. The athlete-doppelganger’s voice trails off and he looks around hopefully. When it dawns on him that he is no match for so much fun food, the presence of which has caused the networkers to lose their collective train of thought, he appears slightly bereft.
Once the group settles down again, the elevator speeches resume. The stories are remarkably similar: Gwen, a rail-thin woman with pinched features, is “in transition” after more than twenty years as an HR professional; Murray (also “in transition”) was downsized from a large accounting firm where he worked for years, and from which he thought he would some day retire. “I’m looking for a position with any company that’s making big money!” he announces with a hearty laugh. I can tell that he has used this line before; he waits a moment for a polite ripple of laughter from the group, and then declares that he is “Linked-in and ready to work!” Next is Paul, who announces his full name, tells us that he has “extensive experience” with Six Sigma, and shares an illustrative anecdote about some successful networking he did at a family reunion. I picture him pigeonholing distant cousins by the pitch line of the bocce ball court or at the grill, handing out business cards. At the end of his story, Paul says his full name again, and then spells it.
After Karen (downsized after twenty years of working in human resources for various banks) comes Jim, who spent the last nine years at a large company that makes computer equipment, but is now “in transition.” Jim tells us that he has been working in human resources for thirty five years, and he looks older than my own parents. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says, then adds quickly, “But I’ve made better friends since I’ve been in transition than I ever did while I was working.” A note of defiance creeps into his voice, as though he is determined to believe that “transition” is actually better than working. “I’ve met people that I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life,” he continues. The group members look down, nodding in agreement.
Lisa, who is “in transition” after being downsized several years ago, follows Jim. “I’m really interested in people development,” she says, “but I’m open to other opportunities.” Like the others, Lisa has years of experience, but has been unable to find work since she was let go. She tried substitute teaching for a while, but could not support herself on the sporadic income it generated; nowadays, she tells us, she spends most of her time looking for work, and has started volunteering with an organization she learned about through one of the other members of the networking group (who, having straggled in late, is now seated next to me at the kids’ table).
After her elevator speech, Lisa declares emphatically that “you can make a networking connection anywhere!” To illustrate her point, she tells a story about an encounter she had while walking her dog, which ended in the exchange of business cards. “You see!” she adds, “even my dog networks!” Then, instead of ceding the floor, she continues, her words pouring out in a jumble. I imagine Lisa’s long days alone, looking fruitlessly for people to develop and walking her dog with a pocket full of business cards. With an uncomfortable flicker of recognition, I realize that she is lonely, or at least starved for human companionship. Life in the breadline, I find myself thinking, is a roller coaster. You may spend days mired in solitude so complete that life in the presence of other humans begins to seem unmanageable; you grow unfamiliar with the sound of your own voice, and forget the rhythms of normal conversation. But the need to connect is like a hearty weed, ready to emerge — full of life — when a crack appears in your isolation. When it does, your half-formed thoughts spill out sloppily, in no particular order, like a child describing a dream that he can’t quite remember.
Lisa is still talking. “I just want to tell you all,” she is saying, “that you shouldn’t be ashamed. We have to remember to hold our heads high, and not worry about what people will think. We may be in transition, but we’ve all done incredible things, right?” The group responds with a chorus of murmured “yeses!” and “that’s rights!” “And one more thing,” she continues, “Whenever you go out, make sure you look presentable. Even if you’re just going to the grocery store, pull yourself together, put on some lipstick, and wear a nice shirt. You never know when you could meet someone, so you have to be prepared.” The women in the group nod vehemently in agreement. I reach back discreetly and tuck my bathing suit straps further into my collar. Clearly, I conclude, Lisa has never enjoyed the convenience of a quick trip to the bank in her winter coat and pajamas.
Another late-comer, Yolanda, introduces herself next. Having been let go from a large bank, Yolanda was determined to find work in another industry. But, she says, after months in the breadline she is “open to any job, in any industry” In addition to looking for work, Yolanda tells us that she is also attending an ongoing certification program, which is paid for by a New York State grant program for employees affected by mass layoffs or closings at certain financial service businesses. The group members perk up, eager for more information, which Yolanda promises to dig up. “I guess I’ve been networking with other people who were laid off from banks,” she says gloomily, “but I just don’t think there are any jobs for us.” Yolanda’s anxiety is palpable, her pretty face imprinted with worry. If she were a cartoon, I decide, it would be wafting from her in visible, wavy lines.
Finally, it is my turn to address the group. It’s just like talking to the cats! I tell myself, except that the occupants of this room are human, and there are fifteen of them. “I’m Roxana St. Thomas,” I say, “and I’m a lawyer.” The networkers look at me blankly, and I try unsuccessfully to suppress an inappropriate peal of laughter. “Don’t worry!” I tell them, “I’m a friendly lawyer.” I’m like Glinda, I nearly add — the Good Witch of the South! “Oh, we love lawyers,” Paul exclaims. “They’re an HR person’s best friends!”
An unpleasant memory flickers at the edge of my consciousness. Here it comes, I think: the shock and awe of non-lawyers upon learning that – holy shit! — lawyers get fired, too. I explain hastily that I was laid off from a large law firm several months ago, and a few of the group members blanch. “You mean you’re in transition,” Rhonda interjects gently. “Right,” I say, “I’m in transition.” I explain that, after months in transition, I have been unable to find something less transitional, and hoped that attending a networking group might be a good way to transition into non-transition. Because I am still convinced that the group members think I stumbled into the wrong gathering, I tell them that Rhonda encouraged me to come. “She told me that you were all wonderful,” I add quickly, “so it’s good to meet you.” My words surprise me; not only do they sound genuine, but they actually feel sincere. The group beams at me, and it occurs to me that networking is an exercise in instant gratification. Although we are technically strangers, this gathering – and the sharing of fun meals, transition stories, at elevator speeches — at a suburban flair chain has magically rendered us friends, if only for the moment.
When I am done, Rhonda takes the floor. “Well,” she says, “I am excited to be here!” She smiles warmly. “And I want to tell you all a story about the power of a referral, to remind you that, when we leave here physically, we are still together as a group.” She looks around the room, making eye contact with each of the gathered networkers. I feel as though she is about to read us a story, and then let us nap until the wake-up fairy comes to rouse us for cookies and milk. Instead, she describes how, while running an errand with her mother, she had a fortuitous encounter that resulted in … a huge new account! “So you see,” she concludes, “what Lisa said is true. You need to be ‘on’ all the time, and to always, always be presentable, even if you’re just running out for a quick trip to the store!” Once again, my mind wanders sheepishly to my bathing suit.
Rhonda turns the floor over to Art, the group’s co-facilitator. Art explains that he, too, is in transition, but that recently (while attending another networking group) he reconnected with a contact with whom he had not spoken for five years. “Five years!” he says incredulously. “Can you believe it?” He begins to stutter. “It’s really in-in-incredible what ne-ne-networking can do!” Though Art is a large man, his energy is so puppy-dogggish that I have an urge to ruffle his ears and slip him a biscuit. “Wel-wel-welcome,” he says, opening his arms expansively as though embracing the group. “Let’s enjoy some di-di-dinner!” We turn dutifully to our fun meals, and I wonder whether our instant kinship implies the right to eat fries off your neighbor’s plate. Among other things, isn’t that what friends are for?
Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email (at [email protected]), follow her on