Graduating in the Recession
For the fourth annual Nation Student Writing Contest, we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how the recession had affected them. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and eight finalists total. The winners are Jim Miller of Henderson State University in Arkansas and Deborah Ghim of Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. You can read the essays at TheNation.com/student. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $250 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. This contest was made possible by the BIL Charitable Trust to recognize and reward the best in student writing and thinking. --The Editors
Despite the despicable insensitivity of former Senator Phil Gramm's "mental recession" remark during last year's presidential race, I wake up every morning approaching this employment-annihilating economic crisis as nothing that consistent hard work and positive thinking can't conquer. Now, there's an immense difference between me--a 24-year-old graduate student delivering pizza and living with dad--and, say, a laid-off couple with two kids and an "underwater" mortgage, so I don't complain. But staying unaffected by the recession is like trying to dodge raindrops.
Majoring in journalism at the College of Staten Island, print journalism especially, prepares one for moderate pay and intense competition anyway. But I declared my major before newspapers started dropping like Mike Tyson's early competition and pizza delivery tips shrunk quicker than the journalism job market. The recession has thus accelerated the demise of the profession that I studied to practice and rendered my plan to save money for graduate school obsolete.
As I approached graduation in October 2008, my hometown paper, the Staten Island Advance, started looking for volunteer staff to accept the first buyout offer in the paper's history. Earlier that year, across the Goethals Bridge in New Jersey, the Star Ledger announced that it needed 200 employees to accept a buyout. During my last semester as an undergrad I interned for XXL, a hip-hop magazine. The web editor who gave me my first assignment got fired before I finished the story. Disheartened but not discouraged by the apocalyptic plummet in job prospects, I planned on attending the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, regardless of the economic climate.
As a January graduate I planned on working eight days a week during the "free" semester between graduation and grad school. I mapped this out in late 2006, when I realized that I was one semester behind the four-year plan. Back then I could make around $100 per night delivering pizza, and I had a gig writing feature articles for Foundation magazine. I could pick up an extra shift at the pizzeria any time I needed cash because nobody ever wanted to work. Now my colleagues bombard me with text messages offering $10-$25 for one of my four shifts. I used to deliver five nights a week but dropped a shift to fit in an extra class, thinking it would be only for one semester--but I have a better chance of getting polio than my Monday night back. There's also a paucity of those old $100 nights. Lately, I'm happy to swipe a few free slices and make it out with sixty bucks.
When times and tips were good I'd accept $20 or so for a shift, but only because of academic overloaded or on an assignment for Foundation. I developed a solid relationship with Foundation, which started printing in 2006, and I went from making $50 an article to $250. They gave me a $400 bonus with my first cover story, a 50-Cent interview. Not professional level pay, but the checks certainly helped a scrounging undergrad. They stopped paying me in December 2008, and for the sake of experience and devotion to the magazine I wrote over 6,000 free words in the most recent issue.
I've landed one assignment since I graduated: a $75, 250-word article for Urban Latino magazine, about an actress, America Olivo, whom I managed to interview via telephone while delivering pizza. Actually, I was parked in the pizzeria driveway because there were no deliveries. Business was so slow that day I went home and transcribed the first fifteen minutes of the interview. (I live two minutes away from the pizzeria.) Some days I'll shoot home and wash dishes or vacuum until the "dinner rush," which hardly qualifies for a rush anymore.
No American is under any obligation to tip service workers; however, especially in a city that does not add 15 percent gratuity into the bill, tipping is a social responsibility with reciprocating communal value. Personally, I live by the Steve Martin line from My Blue Heaven, "It's not tipping I believe in, it's over tipping." The combination of declining business and shrinking tips hurts, but I never know how the recession has affected one of these "cheap" tippers, so long gone are my sardonic snipes when a guy says, "Here's an extra dollar kid." To which I'd reply, "No, please, go buy your wife something nice." Sure, delivery service is a luxury and not a necessity, but fiscal myopia is an epidemic and it's not nice to make fun of sick people.
Mentally, I'm recession-proof. I finished The Brothers Karamazov and Slaughterhouse Five and read countless issues of The Nation while clocking $2.50 an hour at the pizzeria. Maybe I'll write fiction and convince the Newseum to start an exhibit of recession-era journalism diplomas.