The tiny entryway to Midtown Community Court was cluttered with four security officers and an airport-style metal detector. I was retrieving my purse from the conveyor belt when a girl about my age walked in and loudly announced that she was a volunteer for the mock interview session. She wanted no confusion as to her status in the building, I thought with more than a touch of judgment.
Front-Row Sally and I walked to the elevator together, and I pressed the button for three.
My lips twitched into a tentative half-smile, for which I was rewarded with a blank stare. I decided that we were not destined for friendship.
We were there to prep low-level criminal offenders for re-entry into the workforce through a collaboration between New York Cares and Times Square Ink. The latter is a non-profit that provides professional and basic etiquette training to unemployed or disadvantaged New Yorkers, created in the aftermath of the more colorful days when drug dealers and prostitutes ran Times Square. State labor laws prohibit discrimination based on convictions on charges brought outside the workplace, so most of the participants had been sent to the program by parole officers trying to eliminate the revolving-door justice prevalent in the decades past.
The leader of the New York Cares contingent was an elderly labor lawyer who handed us questionnaires and directed us to choose any empty seat. I decided to leave my partner to the fates, and sat down next to an empty chair. When the room was nearly full, a heavy-lidded man in his late twenties slid into the seat.
He introduced himself as Jamal, and I began peppering him with questions. Most of his answers fell flat, and I figured it was my job as his “interviewer” to encourage him to look alive when he spoke. I seized upon the question regarding his interests. Jamal had done time several years back for selling drugs, and given the lack of light in his eyes, I thought it wise to emphasize his more relatable pursuits.
“When you talk about your hobbies, give me some specifics! Instead of saying you like to watch sports and eat, tell me which teams you like and tell me about your favorite restaurants.”
“But those aren’t my real hobbies. I don’ t think I can talk about my real hobbies.”
Against my better judgment, I asked him about his real hobbies.
“Pretty girls, girls like you.”
I laughed nervously and agreed that maybe he shouldn’t mention that in an interview, but now he was on a roll.
You’ve got a really great smile, he told me, staring at my chest.
I shifted position and tried to forget that I had run out of the apartment sans bra. It was time to regain control of the conversation.
“What makes you think you would be good at this job?”
“Smile for me,” my interviewee demanded.
I did so with gritted teeth.
“There, that’s a Kodak moment right there! What’s your number?”
I sneaked a sideways glance at the clock on the wall. Fifteen more minutes.
“I can’t give you that,” I said.
“What’s your number? You on Facebook?”
“You on Facebook, got naked pictures on Facebook? Twitter?
The program director was circling the room now, collecting evaluations. I scribbled furiously while wondering if Jamal might also be a registered sex offender. Meanwhile, my charge leaned in way too close and increased the urgency of his pleas.
The group was thinning out, and was now down to me, Jamal, the director, and about 25 other convicted criminals. I bid a hasty goodbye and rose to flee, but found my hand trapped between Jamal’s, where he was now whining and tugging at it. With one quick yank, I extricated myself and speed-walked out the door, where the second-to-last volunteer was waiting by the elevator.
“Wasn’t that interesting?,” she asked me. ” My guy was so sincere, I feel like he may actually deserve a second chance.”