A Carnival of Interns

At the overwhelming suggestion of friends, family, college career services employees, professors, newspapers, magazines, prospective employers, podcasts, pamphlets about this sort of thing, solicited advisors, unsolicited advisors, and cursory Googling I found myself convinced that it was in my best interest to sell my labor without charge for ten weeks.

Here’s a sampling from a college’s career services, a newspaper, and a prospective employer respectively:   

“Today, employers favor prospective employees who have done not only one internship but multiple internships.  A college education will serve to propel a graduate into a profession by conferring a degree, which demonstrates an academic proficiency in various theoretical and practical examples of ways that a job might be performed.”

“Internship programs have taken a lot of heat, particularly in the last year or so. Some for good reason—not every internship is legal according to the Fair Labor Standards Act, especially opportunities where for-profit companies expect candidates to work full-time for no pay… However, as long as the company abides by the laws surrounding internship programs, those opportunities should not be written off.”

“Playboy Enterprises is looking for creative, digitally savvy, and highly organized Interns to be instrumental in extending the brand’s legacy to all corners of the world.”

For ten weeks of this past winter I interned in Washington, D.C. Though the Capitol often evokes images of white-haired members of the House and the Senate in the shuttling down corridors from deal to deal, the truth of the Capitol is that Congress’s staff does most of the reading, the drafting, and the coordinating behind the scenes. The staffs are inundated with young, wide-eyed graduates and undergraduates and interns of both calibers. Next time you flip on C-Span, look around the periphery of a Senate hearing behind the Senators and in the audience. We’re the ones in the borrowed suits and the button downs sans tie who look like they started shaving yesterday. Some of us still don’t.

Around the time of my internship The New York Times published an article on the forming subclass amongst our generation of interns, Millennials who bounce from one low-paid/unpaid internship to the next, and boasts soul crushing quotes including, “‘No one hires interns’ said Mr. Lang, who sees himself as part of a ‘revolving class of people’ who can’t break free of the intern cycle. ‘Is this any way to live?’” Though my internship was flanked by a departure and return to undergraduate collegiate life, you can still catch glimpses of farce in ten weeks.

This is more or less what happened.

* * *

Scrolling down Craigslist ads for single room rentals in the $1-$200/month price range makes for so many surprises that they become mundane in their expression. The different rooms are classifiable into types, each unique, but uniformly horrific in their own ways (N.B. this is best done fewer than three weeks prior to moving to the city of your choice, with the backlight of your laptop serving as the only source of light in your room of choice, such that the dry-eyed migraine mixes nicely with your growing sense of dread and frustration and, perversely, mania).

First, and most common, is the “Derelict Looking Room” (DLR). The DLR sets itself apart by being recognizable as a room that was likely once livable. Yet the walls, ceiling, and, ideally, carpeting are all a similar shade of was-once-white having long since succumbed to looking completely dingy. This also might take the form of visible smoke damage, with webbed lattices of ash running up and down the exposed surfaces, striping the carpeting. There may also be a lamp, though there will likely be no table for the lamp to rest on. Instead, it will likely sit on the floor, plugged in and alight, in order to substantiate the ad’s claim of “well lite, 24/7.” 

There’s the “Basement Rental Without Picture” (BRWP). The BRWP in particular plays with the tried and true horror flick trick of keeping the monster out of frame and thereby keeping you on pins and needles with expectation. The ad throws up a picture of a isolated looking house, despite having searched for housing in the metro area, likely with wood siding of a coloration running somewhere in the color wheel’s faded spectrum. There are weeds around the BRWP that take up the place a walk way, or a side walk, probably should be, but in the picture it’s just the house, its faded siding, and an impenetrable window or two that may or may not have what looks like a quilt shielding your view of the interior. 

And then there’s the “Bizarre and Inexpertly Advertised” (BIA). The BIA’s are more diffuse, and are brought together by how mind-boggling it is that somewhere someone thought it appropriate to place this ad on the Internet so as to try to sell something. A shockingly high number of BIA’s have so much motion blur in their pictures that they look like they were taken while sprinting through the property, or spinning around in the center of the rental, or both. Then there are BIA’s whose images are maddeningly unhelpful. One BIA has a picture of a corner in a room where its two walls meet and that’s it. There are other BIA’s whose offers are in entirely different languages, and even after a rigorous treatment to Google Translate their phone numbers ring on indefinitely when called. 

Even when someone picks up on the other end, it became apparent that ten weeks in winter was an odd time frame to try to rent.  Or at least that’s what I was told. To be fair, though, most ads, even the seemingly less legitimate DLR’s or BRWP’s or BIA’s, had set times within their offers. “Kitchen Access” was followed by “Looking to rent for” not when I was looking to rent for.

This is the first opportunity where the subtle interns-as-subclass phenomena became apparent. Given our uneven semester systems and schedule demands, and low or non-existent income, interns find themselves taking seriously the offers of intern housing programs at the expense of family or savings or, in less likely but possible instances, scholarship; the kinds of places that promise to house “student’s like you!” at unsubtly gouging prices. I left Craigslist and signed up. 

* * *

On most mornings I’d walk to work. Two of my five roommates awoke around the same time each day and ate breakfast across from me on the large, circular table in our shared apartment. On the walls around the common space are framed sepia pictures of D.C. landmarks, the Capitol building, the Mall, and the Lincoln Memorial in case you happen to forget where you are. There are two bedrooms attached, one with space for four and another with space for two. 

I don’t speak much at most breakfasts since I don’t sleep much during the nights prior. I share a room with three of my roommates. Two snore on decibel level somewhere slightly below a sonic boom. As the sound waves from above me across the room undulate out and overlap like a musical round starring two jackhammers, I typically find myself afforded some time for silent contemplation. There’s usually a lot to think about.

One of my roommates, a recent graduate of a good school in Chicago who works at a well-known libertarian think-tank, has been behaving in ways that could most accurately be described as “red flags” as far as roommates go. During the entire first week, Chicago Grad, wore suits constantly just to “try them on” around the apartment. Come dinner, while looking like he had just exited a board meeting, he’d try his hand cooking and resultantly flooded the apartment with smoke to the tune of “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong while trying to sing along in false, guttural baritone forming a sort of hellish duet.

I eat breakfast with Chicago Grad and a recent graduate of a good school in the UC system who works for the Department of Transportation, who also throws up some red flags of his own. We have one black roommate, whom he insists on calling intermittently our “token black person,” which makes almost everyone cringe. Chicago Grad remains seemingly unfazed (and remains unfazed by almost everything, as embodied by his and California Grad’s daily exchange of Nazi and Holocaust jokes, respectively). California Grad is apt to point out that Chicago Grad is indeed Jewish and springboards off this fact to share those awful one liners that achieved immortality in middle school thanks to the internet. Meanwhile, Chicago Grad is apt to point out that California Grad’s goatee, shaved head, complex tattoos, and affinity for wife beaters make him indeed look like a member of Aryan Nation. 

Admittedly, I hold less sympathy for California Grad during these exchanges as over the course of the first week I discover a slightly pathological trend in which he eats my groceries and then deflects blame by claiming that I had actually eaten them while he watched. 

The living situation feels nothing short of surreal—every morning Chicago Grad dons a headset of questionable medical backing that “cures insomnia” by applying radio waves to his brain; each time alcohol is mentioned in any capacity California Grad is apt to point out that he drinks often and heavily to the point where he considers himself, bemusedly, an “Alcoholic.” Everyone (Chicago Grad excluded) cringes here too and Chicago Grad typically contributes that libertarians, such as himself and those at his think-tank, are all “Alcoholics” as well. Despite all this, work is actually substantive and seems to have value. I work at a small enough private firm that, in its consulting capacity, hands off what seem like serious tasks. It’s an education in geo- and domestic politics, large-scale defense trends and lobbying Congress. 

Still, there’s a feeling of absurdity that grows with each task’s completion. To document what exactly I do over the course of the day, I have to fill out an hourly time sheet that describes the nature of the assignment and, importantly, which of our clients the work was for. Though it’s never confirmed, I develop a nagging suspicion that my hours are being billed, despite the fact that I do not bill the firm itself for my work. 

And the suspicion grows when it turns out that other firms have the same practice. And the anxiety grows when it turns out that each of my roommates, who by now are graduates of good colleges, has yet to be hired to a salaried position. And it compounds when the interns in the building across the way have had the same experience. And then there are the fresh-faced, wide-eyed interns and staffers, borrowed suits and all, who, it wouldn’t be a stretch to venture, are all very much the same. And then there are the soul crushing quotes from the NYT: 

‘“I’m 26 right now,” she said. “I know that everyone has their own pace, but I don’t really feel like a real adult right now.”’

 “I consider myself to be pretty jaded already.”

***

At nights I’d run from Capitol Hill to the National Mall. Despite the darkness of the night, the street lamps and lit windows continue project light that reflects off the white facades brilliantly, at once presenting the architecture, in its majesty and stature, while casting oily, dark shadows. Recall that it’s winter, and that the snow and ice on the ground complements the marble of Union Station, and the slippery sidewalks are the only thing keeping me from constantly looking up at the dome of the Capitol building as I pass by. 

During these runs, the feeling of absurdity returns. It may be that the way that D.C. carries itself, in its serious facades and reverent monuments, only amplifies the feeling that we, the low and unpaid interns that flood, and in no insignificant way, play our part to run the most powerful country in the world are, in our own way, living and breathing anachronisms. We are the still-students working, but waiting for adult life to start, while living off of hope that it comes soon.