This is a true story. Names have been changed, times and locations have not.
I am standing in front of a dwarfish door, perhaps six feet by two, blobs of sweat trickling down my face, wondering what lies ahead and why the devil has this nonprofit established its headquarters in a basement. The walk from Lechmere Station to Cambridge Street had taken its toll on this already ridiculously sweltering July day. My heart is throbbing, pulsating into oblivion: the idea of spending the next hour in a basement unsettles me profoundly.
I take a deep breath and turn the doorknob. A stale, mildewy smell overwhelms my nostrils. The interior is a claustrophobic mishmash of tiny hallways and low ceilings that connect room after room after room. I take a left down the hallway, then a right, then another left before I end up in what appears to be a common room.
A common room or makeshift office space, call it whatever you will. I glance to the left and notice an intern, an Asian girl in her early twenties, casually pasting a photo she had pinched from the Web into Illustrator. Or is it Photoshop? I can’t be certain from this distance. Alongside the girl’s office is a somewhat disheveled sofa where two neatly dressed young ladies sit. They must be here for the interview too. Towards the rear, a grotesque, bulky desk adds a gracious final touch of dinginess.
And then the smell, the same old stinking stench. And the insufferable heat — who on earth turned the AC off?
Looking across the room towards the other two internship contenders, the ladies sitting on the disheveled sofa, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in attire. Both are dressed in the usual flat-heels-skirt-blazer winning combo. I, as ever oblivious to stereotypical social conventions, am sporting a navy v-neck t-shirt, a pair of distressed indigo jeans, a pair of purple canvas Converse and proudly showing off the Shakespeare quote tattoo that adorns the interior of my right forearm.
Judy from Career Development would most certainly not approve of my sartorial choices.
That summer of 2015 I mostly spent watching movies and catching up on TV series. I had planned to take two elective courses at my school’s film department and work on a memoir piece I had written for my literature of journalism class the previous spring. But my plan outwitted me forcing a last-minute course correction. So I binged and binged on the big screen and, in-between splurge bouts, designed my website and business cards, a project I had been postponing for the past two years.
Towards the end of July, as I was done designing and branding, I realized I had a full month before school started and decided to look for opportunities to volunteer. Volunteering in Africa had always been a childhood dream of mine, back when I fantasized about becoming a neurosurgeon and sliced open my plush dolls for practice. But the dreams of one’s childhood are not the realities of one’s adulthood. And I never went to medical school, and for years Africa remained the quintessential forbidden fruit: a dream never to be fulfilled, an illusion at best. Yet that inexplicable, nagging feeling of duty never truly waned, and in that free month in the summer of 2015 I saw an opportunity to make a difference.
As I was skimming through hundreds of nonprofits online, I came across one specializing in environmentally and socially conscious documentary films. As it happened, they needed associate producers. The appeal for an aspiring documentary filmmaker like myself was too strong.
We are now all, myself and the two other contenders whom at this point my brain has knighted Ladies Of The Disheveled Sofa, crammed up in Simon’s office. Judging by his LinkedIn profile, Simon, the director, has been in this business for twenty years and has worked at such prestigious institutions as PBS, BBC, NPR and WGBH. After the usual introductions round, Simon zeroes in on current projects when suddenly paternal duty calls: it’s almost noon, and his sixteen-year old son is still asleep.
It seems that, when you’re a parent, interrupting an interview to wake your lazy teenage heir is a justifiable emergency. And so for five minutes, we are treated to front-row seats to Simon and Simon Jr’s lives. Simon is trying hard to convince Junior he needs to finish his AP essay, but the latter is exhibiting quite the resistance. Finally, the promise of a reward fishing trip whets Junior’s appetite and seals the deal. Thank goodness!
Next, we take a quick tour of the audio and editing labs and meet some of the staff. When finally we return to Simon’s office, a surprise awaits: this was a glorious day for both the Ladies Of The Disheveled Sofa and myself.
On the first day, Monday, Aug. 3, I arrived thirty minutes early, shoved the polka-dotted lunchbox I had purchased on Amazon the previous weekend in the fridge, and began the newcomer ritual. By the time Simon arrived, around 8:50 a.m., I had already set up a work email, filled in the employees and interns list, and read the regulation sheet.
During our first editorial meeting, Simon explained that we would be working on the story of T.L., a fundamentalist and famous Christian evangelist from Florida. My immediate focus would be on writing a grant proposal and rewriting the narrative for the accompanying video demo reel, all due in a few days. We had spoken about that story the day of my interview but only briefly, and I was not especially familiar with it. So I requested access to their research.
As it turned out, they had hours of video footage of interviews they conducted in situ a while back. Of course, no one thought to write summary points. What divine being was I to summon then? By what supernatural powers was I to devise a proposal?
Simon had an idea — call in a favor from Wikipedia.
After I protested, based on Wikipedia’s unreliability, Simon suggested RationalWiki. I had no idea what RationalWiki was, but I figured I might as well check it out before crying foul. I went back to my office and started digging. I quickly discovered that, though progressive and left-leaning, RationalWiki was based on the same model as Wikipedia and it was, in fact, no less bogus than Wikipedia. Already the two were disagreeing on the most basic of facts: was T.L. born in Florida or did he move to Florida at some point in his life? Who’s right? Who’s wrong?
I looked at the video narrative some of the other interns had written up. Each draft, and there were five or six of them, left me ever more confused. No matter how much I read and reread, none of it made any sense, and I wondered whether they truly understood what they were writing about. There was no way I could write a proposal or rewrite the video narrative. I had reached an impasse.
I wrote to Simon requesting an urgent meeting and waited. One minute. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. The coveted chirp of Google chat would not come. I asked Fiona, the office manager, to clarify their fact-checking standards. I made it clear that if there were none, I would quit. Fiona had no idea what their fact-checking standards, if indeed they existed, were. She recommended I wait for Simon to reply.
Again I waited.
When he finally showed up, Simon asked that I leave the common room and wait in the adjacent empty audio lab. Some time later, Fiona joined me in the audio lab to pass on Simon’s message: I was too good, too much of a journalist for the work they were doing; if I wanted to leave, I was free to go.
I grabbed my things and left. It was 11:45 a.m.
For the next couple of days, I went through the entire spectrum of self-pity: from “I was wrong” to “I’m useless”; from “I’ll never find an internship again” to “is there no place on earth for me?” I recalled in vivid detail the events of that dreadful day. I played and replayed them a hundred times in my mind: did I rush and waste an opportunity?
It took some time to come to terms with my decision and realize I was right to stand by my beliefs and refuse to compromise. Certainly, had my livelihood or that of my children, if I had any, depended on that internship, my choice would have been less obvious.
But this time I got away with it; this time I could make a choice.