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I’ve mentioned before that I dabble in the world of secret shopping occasionally.  It’s not a bad gig, but oftentimes the amount of money they’re willing to pay me to, for example, drive to Warwick (20 minutes) and pretend to be interested in a buying a motorcycle, just isn’t worth it.  So it’s not a steady source of income, but occasionally something lands in my inbox that I’m actually willing to do

A few months ago, it was secret shopping the University of Phoenix.

As a librarian, I have a rather large beef  with the University of Phoenix.  Since all the classes are online, there is no physical school and no physical library.  This, however, does not stop University of Phoenix students from needing a library, and they often come to me, the public librarian, and expect me to have materials to support their specific curriculum.  They usually become unpleasant when I tell them that we do not have medical coding books, and do not seem to care when I explain that buying those books doesn’t really fall within the purview of the public library.

As a secret shopper, I was all too willing to evaluate their level of customer service, particularly since their online nature meant I could do it from home in my jammies.   So I filled out the online request for more information stating that I have no college education (the secret shopping company said I had to lie about that), and was interested in a B.S. in psychology.  I used to want to be a psychologist when I was an angsty pre-teen, so I figured this was kind of a way to live the dream.  After filling out the form, U of P was supposed to call me and we would further discuss how they could meet my needs.

They never called.

They were supposed to call me within an hour, but it didn’t happen.  I sat there in bed awkwardly wondering what I should do with myself since I didn’t want to get involved with a project or book that I might have to abandon if they called.  I was also a bit anxious about flubbing the script, so I re-read the guidelines for the secret shop about ten times, and waited by the phone which is a truly unpleasant experience.

Finally after an hour and a half, I abandoned my waiting and went for a run expecting to come home to a voicemail–still nothing.

So I washed my hands of them, and decided to fill out the online questionnaire with my secret shopping company stating that the U of P did not call me back, then wait for my check to arrive.  Sadly, it was not so easy.  I needed some kind of code that I could only get from the counselor I was supposed to speak to (presumably to keep secret shoppers from going “oops, they didn’t call me, gimme cash”), and after three days of not submitting my secret shopping report, I got an email from the secret shopping company asking, “what the hell?” and concluding with, “you call them if you want to get paid.”

So I spoke to a very nice man named Jason about my career goals and what the U of P could do for me.

“What has your life been like with no college education?” he asked in a thoughtful and somewhat velvety tone.

“Hard.” I told him, “Really hard.”  There was a long pause where he seemed to be waiting for me to expand on that, so I threw in a “paycheck to paycheck, barely getting by.”

“And how do you think a degree in psychology will help you out?”

To this question, I had no answer.  All I know about the field of psychology is that it requires further education beyond a bachelor’s degree.  I imagine most people with a BS in psychology work in an unrelated field where they’ve been able to parlay their understanding of the human brain into some kind of asset, but this is all speculation.  Finally I just told Jason, “I don’t know, I hope to figure that out once I’m in the program.”

The secret shopping company had not warned me that this counselor would probably ask questions about my (fake) life, so I was very ill-prepared, but I think I pulled it off.

Then Jason called back.

This phone call happened four months after the initial one, and he was just following up (in a very concerned voice) to see why I hadn’t enrolled and started down the road to education and life improvement.  As I’d already been paid, I really didn’t want to spend anymore time mulling over my fake life with Jason, but as I am far too nice, I told him that I’d gotten a new, better-paying job, and would consider college again in the future.

“What are you doing these days?” he asked.

There was a long pause where I tried to remember what I had already told him.  What if he’d taken notes?  Should I just say “I’m a secret shopper, congratulations, I gave you a good review.”

“I have another call I have to take.” I told him and quickly hung up.

Nowhere in my secret shopper agreement and terms does it say that I have to continue to play along four months after the initial transaction, but my Midwestern niceness dooms me to, well, niceness.

I hope he doesn’t call back.

freelance_banner

Since this summer has been a bit of a drag workwise, I’ve actively stopped calling my parents.  Calling them is something that wears me out in the best of times, but when I can’t tell them anything they want to hear, it’s that much more taxing.  Last Monday was my birthday, and they called me Sunday night and left a voicemail, then Wednesday it was my mom’s birthday, so I made the call.

Naturally, the conversation eventually settled on my job prospects and she asked what it is that I’ve been doing all summer. “Well, I’m writing for a magazine, and doing that text-message answering thing, and I taught that screenwriting workshop, I did a medical study, secret shopping–basically anything that makes me a little money.”  She sat there for a minute taking it all in, then burst out, “So you freelance!”

“Yes, that is what I do,” I told her.

She seemed so relieved to put a name to it, I almost felt validated.  My parents like labels, they like to compartmentalize things, so even the fact that in the same conversation we also talked about them buying me emergency-only health insurance (just in case my appendix goes) she seemed relieved.

Later that afternoon, I was coming home from the grocery store and ran into my upstairs neighbor.  He’s a nice, older man– friendly, quiet, etc., but he also has a tendency to do what a lot of people do when they find out that I’m trying to find a full-time job–give me a lot of career advice that I already know. When he first found out that I was looking for work, his immediate response was, “The Rockefeller Library, that’s just down the street, why don’t you work there?  The Providence Athenaeum, that’s pretty close too.”

I listened politely, and chose not to remind him that just knowing where libraries are isn’t enough to get me working there–they have to want me as well, and have money to pay me.

This time when I saw him has asked, “How have you been? Where have you been?”  I haven’t bumped into him on the stairs in a while, but I haven’t been in hiding either.

“I’ve been in my office, mostly.” I told him, “I’m doing some freelancing.”

“Did you get a job yet?” he asked.

As thrilled as my mother is with me having this “job”, things that I’ve read about the perception of people who freelance, are becoming all the more true.  See, since I have the time, and no idea how long I’m going to have to shine this on (plus I figure I can keep it up once I’m actually working and pay those loans down that much sooner) I wanted to do it right.  So I did a bit of research.  A lot of people who get enough work freelancing that they’ve been able to quit their “real jobs” report that most people just don’t understand that what they do is a viable job.  People either think your schedule is completely flexible you can certainly avail yourself to them for anything, that you must not take what you do very seriously, or that you really don’t work at all.

I’m fine with it, even if my neighbor is not.  The fact that my mother accepts it is just the icing on the cake.

So I started a second job recently, because my motto has always been “why have one job when you can have 2 or 3?” I’m fairly excited about this one because it’s another library job, and something that I’ve never done before, so it’ll look good on the old resume. My supervisor seems like a pretty rad lady, and I believe it will be quite fun.

First day of work, I show up promptly at 9am and get the lay of the land. Then my supervisor looks at me, “So they’re hiring at your other job? What do you know about that?”

I blinked, “I know there were four interviews yesterday, and that’s about it.”

“So, have they made any decisions, are there any candidates that they liked better than others?”

By this point, we were in the office, ready to do my HR form-filling-out, which I have never been so eager to undertake in my life, but I tried to be accommodating. “I really don’t know; I spoke to the director at lunch and she said that the interviews were going very well. That’s all I know.”

She pressed on, and all I could think was: this woman has seen my resume, she knows that I am in no way important at this other job. Certainly, I don’t make hiring decisions, and no one discusses potential employees with me. I was completely baffled, but kept repeating that I didn’t know anything until she finally let up.

Later that day, we were discussing my role at the library, which is kind of a big question mark at this point, and she told me “I was thinking that you’d do one night of family programming per month, and then have a teen book group—do you like teenagers?”

How does a person answer that? I have no contact with teenagers at all, and haven’t really since I was one. At the other library where I work, the average age of the members that come in, is probably 60. What 28-year-old who is not a high-school teacher, or teen librarian has any contact with teenagers? So I answered honestly, “I don’t know. I like books written for teens.”

By this point, I was starting to feel like a bit of a gimp, answering questions with “I don’t know” has never sat well with me, because I like to have answers, and can usually say something else. So I sent a follow-up email later that day regarding the teenager question that said something like, while I don’t have the occasion to hang out with teenagers, I don’t doubt that I can get along with them well.

Second day of work my boss informs me that she’s going to send me to one of the branch libraries for some more programming training. “How are you with transitions?” she asks.

“Transitions as far as what?”

“Just in general.”

Well, I moved to a state I’ve never visited, where I knew no one with only what fit in my car—so I’d say that I am good at transitions, but that seems a bit broad as relating to children’s and teen librarianship. Then I wondered if she just meant the transition of driving to a different building partway through the day. Then I realized that I had been paused for too long and any answer was better than just standing there slack-jawed, so I said, “good?”

In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t be so shocked that I’ve gotten a lot of strange questions at the public library because the last strange questions I got that stands out in my mind was at my interview for the public library I worked at before this one. They asked me if I belong to any clubs or organizations. I told then that I had in college and grad school, and then they asked if I still did. I was completely flummoxed. Is that something grown-ups do? What, like, Kiwanas or something? So I said no, and felt like a non-joining bench-sitter with deep-seated social issues that I didn’t ever realize were holding me back.

Maybe librarians just ask really weird questions. Maybe I do it too, or will do it soon enough. Maybe I’ll never understand it, but come up with some way to answer odd questions sounding intelligent and not at all confused. I really doubt it though.