Vol. 1, No. 3: Slobberknockers & Buttonhooks photo

UnderdogsEllen Rhudy

I could be excited about ball bearings. I had a passion for processing orders, I had a zeal for running reports on the ball bearings, the gaskets, all the minor elements required for the efficient workings of the machineries of Philadelphia. Yes, I had missed office life—stale donuts, unwashed coffee pots—while in the Peace Corps, and would like to spend forty hours a week in this still-industrial pocket of Callowhill.

Despite this, the interview was not going well. First there was a man about my age, who watched as I completed a paper application containing the same information I had emailed him the week before. On his interview form he checked a box that read “Did not bring pen.”

“How much did you earn in the Peace Corps?” he asked.

I explained that as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I didn’t earn a salary. I was serving my country! “But,” I said, “I had a stipend of two hundred dollars a month.”

He introduced the company’s owner: a middle-aged man, thinning brown hair in a rakish ponytail, sunglasses. After sitting, he lifted the Ray-Bans to reveal two black eyes. “Racquetball,” he explained, and lowered his glasses. He, too, was intrigued by my Peace Corps salary/lack of salary. “Has the salary structure been explained to you?” he asked.

“It was posted as thirty thousand…”

“It’s twenty thousand,” he said, “but if you can prove yourself a team player, eventually we will bring you up to the posted salary.”

I had been home almost two months and it seemed possible no one would ever hire me. I had forgotten my pen. I frequently calculated the pace at which I was spending my Peace Corps readjustment allowance. I nodded and tried to figure the hourly wage as the sunglassed man spoke about machinery supplies.

“So,” he said, “if you were on our team, I mean, if we were a football team, tell me what position you would play.”

While in the Peace Corps I had watched all of Friday Night Lights. I understood locker room pep talks were needed to win. I understood it was common for underdog teams to win big games in the last minute, nay, in the last second, while Coach Taylor windmilled his arms and screamed from the sidelines. I did not know the job descriptions for any of the players.

“The quarterback,” I said.

The racquetball fan was damp in his polo shirt. “Tell me more.”

I thought of Jason Street. Vince Howard. The asshat JD McCoy. Mostly of Matty Saracen, that tire hanging in his grandmother’s yard. “I like to make decisions,” I said. What else did quarterbacks do? “I like to lead people.”

“That’s interesting,” he said. “That would be unusual for an administrative assistant.”

Sweat threaded down my spine. I did not want this job, but I wanted a job. “Administrative staff are quiet leaders,” I explained. “You have to help people do what you want them to do, without them knowing you’re the reason they’re doing it.”

He liked this enough that he offered a glimpse at the heart of the company: the warehouse of ball bearings. I had a half-foot on the owner and tried not to exude my height as I trailed him through the echoing, dimly lit space. There were not as many employees as I’d imagined. He told me to climb some stairs, look at the boxes on the second level, and I wondered if he might murder me.

I was, though, the quarterback. “Thank you so much for this tour,” I said, to indicate the tour was over. I shook his moist hand and fled onto Spring Garden Street, where I lifted my heels from their shoes, blisters bleeding into my stockings. Perhaps the Peace Corps would be the height of my life. Then the 25 bus came; a bird shit on my head en route to an interview with an education non-profit that styled itself as “Peace Corps but in American schools”; I got the non-profit job; I turned twenty-seven; Hurricane Sandy hit, and days trapped in my apartment trying to unclog the sink my housemate had ruined with bacon grease; then six years and three jobs and one Masters degree later, we became a city of winners. We would win and I would still know nothing about football except that whatever the Philly Special was it looked like something off Friday Night Lights, and Fishtown was all fireworks in the gaps between rowhomes, and I got a day off work for the parade—not just a fair call, but the only one possible.