Fiction

Networking Coffee

By: Robin Doody

“Are you Michael?”

Michael looks up from his phone just a little bit. He’s tall with brown hair that is longer on the top than it is on the sides—both spiked and combed.

He has hazel eyes, broad shoulders and long arms, the kind of body that enjoys the gym, but the kind of stomach that enjoys beers many nights. Just like his email indicated, he is wearing a tan suit with a striped shirt—white background with soft stripes of pink. Burberry watch and a shiny class ring. He has big fingers, it must be hard for him to type emails on an iPhone. Nevertheless he typed this one:

“Cool. Meet you at Dunkin’. I’m wearing a tan suit with a green tie.”

His look is vacant and lingering, he has not moved yet. iPhone in hand, the bottom of his right foot against the wall with a bent knee, his left leg straight… his green socks match his tie… his time looks important.

I hate this part. Why hasn’t he replied yet?

Please, just tell me that you’re Michael. Even if you aren’t, can we still talk? I need a job.

There are always multiple, intimidating people perched outside the Dunkin’ Donuts lounging in their worth. “I’m the white guy in a suit.” That’s what every email could say.

“Yeah man, nice to meet you.” He offers a fist bump. His hand is so big.

“You need a coffee?” he says as he points towards the winding line, complete with rope and stanchion. I think this indicates he will pay for mine, but I drank five PBRs the night before at Hawk n’ Dove and hadn’t had lunch yet. 

“No I am already all caffeinated up,” I say, my response these days if I don’t want one.

“Suit yourself, man. Mind if I get one?”

We walk towards the line together, silently. He hammers away on his phone with his huge fingers.

Do I stand here? Do I pick a seat and wait for him? Do I look like an idiot?

“Busy day today?” I don’t know how to intelligently talk about work and we both know that.

“Blew up.” He says as he doesn’t look up from his phone. “Blew up” means you have to work a lot because of a Trump tweet. When this happens, press people in all the Democratic offices scurry to draft unique press releases they hope will be screenshotted by reporters on Twitter—Republicans “don’t pay attention to his Tweets.”

Other people in line include three girls in pearls and sweaters, arms folded as their skinny bodies shiver in the underground air conditioning. Their good looks and air of prosperity indicates that they are Republicans. They chat at a whisper’s volume with gravity—whether the subject of that conversation is the source of a leak or details surrounding this weekend’s party, I won’t be invited to find out.

I used to think that all the “fratty” types were Republicans, by default.

Before coming to D.C, I was a community organizer in Western New York. We had a diverse team that spanned age, color and background. I truly thought we were united by the goal of helping people—but maybe that’s because I was fresh out of college. Our boss was named Talia, she was 30, had a sleeve tattoo, and was the fiercest presence I had ever seen. She was going to run for neighborhood commissioner soon. I want to hold office one day, even though I am a white man and that’s not fashionable anymore. I got a grant to come to intern in D.C. in hopes of finding a job and learning what these elected people actually do.

But here, in DC, Democrat often means fratty white guy, too. This guy, Michael, plays softball, takes it too seriously and talks about interns’ bodies like he’s a guest on Howard Stern. His Instagram is public and features a lot of boats.

Why did I drink so much last night?

It’s imperative to be social on the Hill, with everybody… particularly your contemporaries. Even if you don’t like them, they will likely fail up to an important position and you may need a favor down the road. On Tuesdays, the guys from my fantasy football league go to Hawk n Dove. We’re all aspiring Hill people, roughly 23, the same intern class, congregating to make the same jokes about Joe Flacco and complain about constituents. It’s not fun, but if you’re not socializing you’re falling behind. This late in the year, a lot more of them are getting Staff Assistant jobs, while some of us remain interns. I’m still invited, but nobody asks for my advice anymore.


            Last night, I was sitting next to Ted. He is from Connecticut—his suits cost more than my grant—and carries this Legislative session’s pocket book everywhere he goes. He whips it out upon the mention of any Member he hasn’t heard of, locates him or her (most likely him), then announces the state and district, regardless of where anybody else is in conversation. “Bill Pascrell—New Jersey—9th District.”

            “That’s right, Ted.” Good boy!

            Last night, Ted also paused the whole group’s discourse, which wasn’t great anyways, to read out his own Facebook post (about the passing of a bill that named a post office after a white guy), citing it as evidence he should do his office’s social media.

That’s why I drank five beers.


            Gloria, a legislative correspondent from Amy Speer’s office, gave me her number last night. Even though I’m just an intern. Maybe she’s cool because she doesn’t buy into that hierarchy. We had a nice conversation about journalism, that meandered into the subjects of hikes and weed—which is risky business at a table full of government hopefuls, who knows if you need to apply for a security clearance down the road?

            By now, I have over-analyzed every single thing I did last night and Michael has pecked away enough of an email and we’ve made it to the front of the line. He orders from the only person in the cafeteria who is:

  1. Black
  2. Not on his or her phone

            “Haaaaay Keisha. What’s good?”

He does not look up from his phone, but does know her name. Most of these types know the Sodexo employees’ names. It is a bit like a popularity contest, like, “Would these people vote for me?” type friendships.

“Hi there,” she says. “What can I get you?” She rubs her eyes.

“You know, the regular. Coffee. Black.”

If it’s the regular why did he have to say it?

“Alright.” She punches it in.

“You workin’ as hard as we are today, Keisha?”

“Yup, I am tired. Can’t wait for the weekend,” her face is long.

“Me too. I am going to LA for a wedding. What are you up to?”

“That’s nice…I’m gonna see my son if I can get out there,” she says as she hands him the coffee.

He ignores that, gives her a TV smile and says “Well hopefully they give us all raises,” and offers a “cheers” with the styrofoam Dunkin’ cup.

She says nothing as he pays with a shiny, clunky credit card.

“Keep grindin’ Keisha!”

He surveys the cafeteria style seating and says, “This place is a clusterfuck,” and walks briskly towards a long table with multiple networking coffees taking place. I am two paces behind him.

I look into the faces of people sitting in the cafeteria, checking their phones and whispering. I wonder to myself, which of these coffees are: friends just chatting? Professional “catch-ups”? Reporter meetings? Important inter-office negotiations? Or how many are interns, like me, fumbling to get jobs?

Whenever I do land on someone’s face, they immediately recognize the attention, and their eyes dart up to reach mine like Bumble dates in the wild. But then, seeing it is nobody worth their attention, they scowl. Don’t waste even a moment of their time.

Finally, we reach the long table and sit on the end. He takes the chair on the outside and makes me walk around to the side against the wall. As I sit, he takes 14 seconds to finish on his work phone, checks his personal phone, then makes a big show of placing them next to each other, faces up and within quick reach, like guns during a movie drug deal.

             “So you know Mary?” Mary e-introduced us.

“Yeah, she was a couple of years ahead of my roommate, so she…”

“At Vanderbilt?”

“Yeah. They went to..”

“Where’d you go?”

“I went to school in New York.”

“The city?”

“No, I went to state school.”

“Which one?”

“Fredonia.”

He’s never heard of it and doesn’t think that’s a problem.

He continues, “Cool! So Mary tells me you’re looking for a job. Finding a job in DC isn’t easy. You’re gonna have to grind you’re fucking ass off. And nobody will give you shit. You gotta prove yourself.”

The dance has begun. Here are some thoughts about these networking coffees.

            First: I want this person to like me enough so that if one day a job opening in his network arises, he would recommend me for it. That’s all. But we still have to go through the motions. As an intern, there is only one job I am qualified for — Staff Assistant. It’s a job whose duties are answering phones and making sure the printer is loaded. Only people who have interned on the Hill, for free, are eligible for them. It pays roughly 30K a year, but what’s a salary when your parents pay the U Street rent?

            Two: A lot of interns have trouble grasping the fact that they are no longer the “politics guy.”  These are the people who believe their position at XYZ’s School Government was comparable work to the Nuremberg Trials. They complain that answering the phone is beneath them. You can find these types scheming behind cheese plates at receptions, recounting George W. Bush’s funniest debate moments or shitting on constituents. Too much ambition, too little patience to be a good staff assistant. Don’t be one of these guys. Like Ted.

Three: Everybody here says “DC” when they really mean “The Hill.” As if the roles in the synecdoche were reversed. “Finding a job in DC isn’t easy,” he had said. He did not say this thinking about working as an architect, or a police officer, or even being a Sodexo cafeteria employee. No, to him and to many others, this city was nothing more than these halls of this aged institution, with all their networking opportunities, illusions of power, and fluorescent lighting.

With all that in mind, I still say shit like this:

“Yeah, well, I am working hard. Let me tell you a bit about myself to start. So after organizing in Western New York…”

“Organizing? God’s work. The frontlines. Not for me.”

Once, Talia, my old boss, convinced a local precinct chair, over Donuts at 6:00am on Election Day, to publicly support Obamacare on the radio. They were sitting on a folding table in an old union hall turned community center. That was organizing.

“I liked it because it allowed me to see real-time reactions to messaging [buzzword]. Folks’ faces (never say ‘people,’ always say folks) showed if they liked an individual talking point [buzzword] or didn’t. I understand the importance of polling [buzzword] — but found this experience to be a real-time litmus test of those results. I consider the organizing I did on the slate [buzzword] of down-ballots [buzzword] to be a strong beginning for me. But I want to be on the Hill.” 

He sits up and shuffles his shoulders. Talia would roll her eyes and walk away if she heard me describe our experience like that. But this is Michael’s world.

“Do you want to do press or leg [pronounced Lej-—legislative, we use abbreviations here]?”

This question is the Hill way of asking, “Do you like policy or politics?” — which is the DC way of asking, “Do you like learning about Medicare, or learning enough about Medicare that the tweet makes sense?”

I answer, “At this point, I am laser focused on becoming a Staff Assistant. I can develop beyond that within the needs of whatever office I land in.”

That’s a good answer, it shows I know the realities of the position, even though I want to be a Press Secretary.

There are two types of networking coffeers, at least as far as I have seen. Talkers and listeners.  There are pros and cons to each. With a listener, you have to be much more prepped, you gotta know their background, gotta guess who they might know, so you can ask pointed questions and climb their list of people to recommend.

            Then, there are talkers. There are more of these. The pros: no prep. They will ask very little about you, but reveal a whole lot about themselves. You can plug that stuff into your networking spreadsheet, then weeks later send them an email like this:

            “I saw your Badgers put a beating on Purdue this weekend! Also do you know anyone in Jeremy Connor’s office?”

            Usually, they recount their “path,” reveal some naked ambition, then ignore your emails. Cons: these monologues are so repetitive. The goal for the talkers — remind this person of themself.

He opens his mouth. Talker, for sure. Also, +5 odds he mentions playing sports in college.

“Yeah man, sounds like you know what the deal is. Staff ass is bitch work, plain and simple. But you gotta do it. Everyone does it. I was a staff ass for a year and a half before I switched offices, didn’t get promoted because my chief was a dick…” He pauses. “He’s retired now.” He winks.

It is a faux-pas to talk shit about someone in a coffee, particularly in your current office. Bad for your reputation. It’s different if they’re retired. After a beer at a reception, the rules become murkier. 

He continues, “Let me tell you how I got here.”

Alright, time to appear “The End of The Departed”-level enthralled.

“When I was at GW, a buddy on the rugby team put me in touch with some people who did advance for FLOTUS, good folks who hustled their asses off and many who have become some of my best friends.” He pauses for a second to smile about his life.

College sports: check!

Advance is a strange professional world where you go in “advance” of a candidate before an event or a rally to set it up and make sure there are signs pointing to the bathrooms. It is low on the totem pole, but with great access. His LinkedIn profile picture is a selfie with Michelle Obama.

“So through those connections I made in FLOTUS’ office [His GW college internship], I got a staff ass job on the Senate-side…”

Senate is more prestigious than the House and he worked that in fast.

“Earning nothing. Grinding.”

How much was your allowance?

“Managed to convince them to give me some LC [legislative correspondent] work, and then made the jump to LA [legislative assistant] here in the House in Ryan Johnson’s office.”

Pro: Huge title jump, good career move.

Con: Ryan Johnson has a reputation for being objectively stupid.

“Then I got the call to go do Obama’s re-elect in ‘12.”

This is part of why I really want to talk to him. How do these creatures get these campaign jobs, move cities, then have jobs waiting for them back in DC on The Hill? How can you spend some time in union halls and in DC government?  “Yeah, that’s so awesome, what did you do in ‘12?”

He starts, “Political.”

Vague.

Political means many things. Sometimes, it is a glorified organizer, where you are managing field people, the very people he said he could never be at the start of our conversation. 

Often, it is ensuring local elected officials don’t fuck shit up for the campaign. Babysitting adults and fielding the worst kinds of verbal abuse. But again, good selfies.

I am disappointed to see he is not going to go more in depth.

“And the connections I made there set me up to come back to the Hill and be an LA doing committee stuff. My boss is a bad-ass, so that’s cool.”

His “boss” is the Ranking Member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and doing committee work means power for staffers. On the Hill, people often call the Representative, or “Member,” whose office they’re working in their “boss.” Usually, it’s never the Member doing any performance reviews or issuing feedback, it’s the Chief of Staff. But I guess saying an elected official is your “boss” puts you closer to all of it.

But I understand. Just that morning, I signed an email “Press Intern/Personal Aide.”

            “Yeah that’s fascinating. What is it like to work so closely with the committee?” Ego stroke. But his phone buzzes. You would think it was a live grenade the way he grabs it. His face intensifies and he puts all of his energy into that tiny phone. I look at mine, too, to fit in. As an intern, I will never get an actual work email, this isn’t even a work phone. But I check it all the time, in case I get an interview, which I did not, but I see that Gloria, the woman I met last night, has texted.


            Michael’s phone has taken hold of him completely, like some sort of digital flu. Sensing our “coffee” will end at any moment, I realize I have one last opportunity to make my pitch:

            “Well, I want to be respectful of your time. So perhaps I can send any follow up questions about your path by email. As a parting note, please think of me should you see any Staff Assistant openings in the coming weeks. I have had six interviews by now, and am getting closer and closer with each one. I think my skills are sharp, and I understand the realities of the role. I’d be grateful if you could connect me with anybody else you think I might benefit from talking to, and again, please keep me in mind.


            He stares. Did he hear me?

            Even if he didn’t, The Michaels of the Hill know how to do the dance in their sleep. He says, “Well man, it seems like you’re doing all the right things, keep meeting with as many people as possible and something good will work out for you.”

            The same advice that concludes all of these coffees. His phones light up simultaneously. It looks stressful.

            My other questions would have been:

            Why didn’t he go back to the Senate? What was the campaign like? Do Hill skills help on a presidential? How did he support himself in between his campaign job and his Hill job?

He stands up and offers his hand, “Sorry man, gotta run. I will shoot you stuff that comes across my desk.”

I shake his hand, but before I can even stand up, he walks out of the cafeteria. I was going to close by hyping the one year of baseball I played in college. It’s unlikely I reminded him of himself.

Sitting at a table alone in this cafeteria is worse than showing up to school naked. I look around to see if anyone noticed I got coffee with a 27 year-old with an impressive job. By now, the people in the cafeteria have all changed, the Hill’s rotating door of scowling faces and fumbling interns. 

            I get up and button my coat. Sometimes, at the end of a coffee, I feel exhilarated—one step closer to unraveling some deep and unobtainable secret, like Woodward and Bernstein darting through parking garages. Today is not one of those days.

            As I turn the corner out of the cafeteria, I get caught behind a tourist family outside of the gift shop. There’s a Mom and Dad wearing goofy t-shirts. Round, ruddy faces, sweaty from walking in the sun. Then two kids, the younger girl is probably 10, and is wearing a tie-dye Washington DC shirt. The older boy is probably 14, athletic build but very skinny, three inches taller than his dad, wearing an Under Armour Shirt that says Ohio State Buckeyes, Nike socks with Sperries, and a Make America Great Again Hat. 

            They smell like a field trip.

            I guess I am stopping and staring for too long, because the mother says, “Excuse me, sir, would you mind taking a picture of us?” as she hands me her huge, clunky Android. It feels sticky.

            “Sure!” I say. My face lights up a bit, like Michael’s big TV smile.

            “How we doin’ today? First time in DC?!”

            “First time for the kids!” says the mother.

            “What have y’all done so far?”

            “As much as we can,” says the dad.

            “You visit old Honest abe? Ask him to re-deliver the Emancipation Proclamation for the kids?”

            Folksy.

            They laugh. Except for the boy. I raise the camera.

            “We’re from Ohio!” says the little girl.

Swing state. I hope the whole family didn’t vote for Trump. Would they vote for Michael? For me?

“The Buckeye State. Everyone say Go Buckeyes!”

“GO BUCKKKKEEEEYYYYYYEEEEESSSS!” they all say in slow unison. All except for the boy. We hold each others’ eyes.

Fuck your hat.

His mom breaks this moment by saying, “Thanks again sir!”

“No problem ma’am, y’all be safe and stay outta trouble.” I tossle the little girl’s hair and drown out my y’aaaallllll.

            I used to fantasize, daily, about shaking hands and shootin’ the shit with all different types of people when I run for office. Because that’s politics baby!


            I wander to Rayburn’s courtyard to avoid going back to the office and pull out my phone to look at something.

            I read that text from Gloria: It’s a selfie of her next to a digital clock in her office that says “4:20.” “Bout time for a hike.” I wish she didn’t text about weed—when you apply for a security clearance, do they go through your text messages?—but that’s still very funny.

            Talia texted me a selfie of her with Alfred, our favorite local volunteer. They were drinking day beers at a phone bank. Bliss.

            I check my email. No interviews.

            I check Twitter. A Republican congressman made an “off-color” joke about women on their periods. It covers my feed. I wonder if this is one of those things that is normal now.

I check LinkedIn. Oh my God.

Ted got a job. Staff Assistant in Catherine Mahoney’s office.

Ted—“Mahoney!-New York!-12th District!”—got a job as a Staff Assistant in the House of Representatives of the United States of America. Technically, now that he’s on the payroll, Ted is a representative of America.

            And I am a Press Intern/Personal Aide.

Just an intern.

###

Robin is a writer and performer in Washington DC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Catamaran Literary Reader, Isele Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. He teaches and performs with Washington Improv Theater.

Categories: Fiction

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