I graduated college and collapsed into an unemployment-fueled depression spiral. I had no idea that a chance encounter with a certain red-haired celebrity would yank me out of it.
The summer after I graduated from college, I cried a lot. My friends had all moved and spread out over the country. I had moved too — back home with my mom in Long Beach, Calif. My boyfriend, who was a year younger than me, was still studying at our small college in Portland, Ore., so we were now long distance. And like many people my age, I also had no job prospects.
And so I cried.
I cried when movies were too sad, and I cried when people in commercials were too happy. I felt lonely all the time, but when I tried to hang out with my high school friends, I felt lonelier. The idyllic college world that I’d lived in for four years was gone. Instead, here I was, back in my teenage bedroom, sleeping on the same pink Ikea bedspread I’d lost my virginity on.
I was living with my mom because I thought I wanted to be a TV writer. A devoted television watcher, I loved voyeuristically exploring other worlds, so I’d made a snap decision my senior year: Great stories were being told on television, and I was going to write beautiful shows like the ones I loved. I was going to make it in Hollywood.
Holed up in my mom’s un-air-conditioned apartment, home alone and sad, I sent out my résumé futilely every day. Every time I went out, I felt the sting of my dwindling savings account. I talked on the phone with my boyfriend and fretted that we weren’t going to survive as a long-distance couple. I listened to Darkness on the Edge of Town lying on the floor. One day the temperature hit 114 degrees; I made milkshakes with Bailey’s and vanilla ice cream and spent all day taking a cold bath in the dark with the door closed. I didn’t know what I was doing. I sent my résumé to HBO and Showtime for every opening they had, hoping one thing would lead to another and in no time I’d end up a TV writer — even an assistant to a TV writer! — but it wasn’t working.
Frustrated and tired of skulking around alone in the heat, I decided I had to try harder. I paid for an IMDbPro subscription so I could get the phone numbers of every production company in Los Angeles. I cold called them until one of them gave me a job: an unpaid internship at a production company on the Warner Brothers lot.
The production company made films I liked — films that had made me cry before commercials made me cry. I was so excited! Surely I was going to meet actual TV writers who would see how smart and talented I was, take me seriously, and teach me. One thing would lead to another in no time.
Clearly, I was mistaken. My “job” was to sit at a desk in reception and be a telephone operator for the executives — connecting calls and waiting on hold so they didn’t have to — and asking the writers who came in for meetings if I could get them a water. Almost no one spoke to me at all. I cried on my first day in the bathroom during my lunch break.
Things only got sadder. Every morning I drove my mom to work and then drove myself another two hours to the lot: the 710 to the 405 to the 110 to the 101. When I showed my ID at the entrance, my heart sank in my stomach. Sometimes I was asked to go on a coffee run or deliver papers to another office, but most days I did nothing and was ignored. At the end of the day, after another two hours in L.A. traffic, I picked my mom up, and drove us home. By the time we got there I could barely stay awake to help make dinner. I flopped on the couch afterward and fell asleep there most nights. And the same thing the next day. I was still crying. I wasn’t writing.
The only thing I liked about my days was wandering the lot. The Warner Brothers lot is huge, with different office areas, soundstages, and open-air street sets. The street sets were always decked out like real streets, but almost always empty. I explored them during my lunch break. My favorites were the New York City set and a set that looked like a real suburban cul-de-sac; I’d walk up and down the faux cobblestones and pretend I was somewhere else. A few months into the job, I plopped on a stoop in fake New York City, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I realized that when I was 12 years old, watching Felicity Porter and her friends walking in the East Village on Felicity, they’d really been right here, on this flimsy set in Burbank.
The life I thought I wanted wasn’t going how I thought it would. I had thought this was my dream, but I was too miserable. I didn’t want to be a TV writer anymore after watching the writers who came into the office. I didn’t even know if I should keep trying to be a writer at all — maybe I wasn’t even good at it. I was scared. What was I doing with my life? I started to cry, hunched over on my “stoop,” peanut butter and jelly glopping out of my hands and onto the pavement just as a tour group strolled past me. I slipped on dark sunglasses and pretended to be an emotional starlet, instead of a girl firmly stuck in a job as dead end as the fake street sets. I wiped my eyes on my hands after the tour was gone.
The cry was cathartic, but I knew I had to compose myself before I went back to the office, so I took a walk to settle down. In a park area on the lot, I sat down on a bench, and called my dad to vent all my feelings before I had to go back. In my peripheral vision, I saw a man sit down next to me on the bench while the phone was ringing, but like any grouchy city dweller, I threw strong “I hate you don’t talk to me don’t look at me” body language at him.
I don’t remember exactly how I explained to my dad how upset I was or how much I hated the internship. I only remember the phrases I was using to explain how I felt. These were mostly: “Fuck this shit; I’m over it,” “Hollywood is for fuckers,” and “Fuck Hollywood; I’m moving back to Portland.” I knew the fucker sitting next to me could hear me, but I didn’t care anymore if anyone heard me or knew how I felt. “Fuck Hollywood,” I repeated emphatically.
“So…. what else is new?” my dad asked me after a while.
I’m a pretty honest person. “I’ve been researching reusable menstrual products,” I said. I was feeling better. I kept going.
“Pads and tampons go in landfills when you’re done with them,” I told him. “Can you imagine how much waste just my body has contributed to those landfills — every single month? Have you ever heard of a DivaCup?” The last thing I remember saying was, “I just feel bad that my period is hurting the environment.”
Immediately after I uttered those grave words of concern, a woman approached the man sitting next to me, who I’d kind of forgotten about. I faintly heard her say the words “take a picture,” and I assumed the woman wanted a souvenir photo of herself on the Warner Brothers lot. But you can’t even tell we’re at Warner Brothers, I thought. It just looks like a park. Why does she want him to take a photo of her here? Then I saw that the woman was taking a photo with the man who had been sitting next to me. That’s weird, I thought. Why does she want a photo with that guy?
Oh, I realized. Because that guy is Conan O’Brien.
Conan, tall and sporting his unmistakable tuft of red hair, put his arm around the woman and took a photo with her while I stared, agog, still on the phone. He was wearing a tracksuit. In my ear, my dad was going on about the environment. Then Conan just sat back down next to me.
I sat there holding my phone very tightly, trying not to turn my head and look directly at Conan. I couldn’t tell my dad what was happening, and he was still rambling about pollution and climate change, so I painfully kept up a steady stream of Uh huhs until finally he had to go. I hung up and sat tensely motionless, staring ahead. Conan was still there, looking at his phone. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. Long, silent minutes went by. I knew he’d heard the whole thing. He was right next to me the whole time. The tampons! The deforestation!
At long last, he got up and left without a word.
The encounter between me and one of the most famous talk show hosts in history was purely silent. But in those moments that Conan and I shared a few square feet of park bench, a tiny fire inside me sparked. If Conan fucking O’Brien can coolly sit next to a girl while she yells things like “Hollywood is for fuckers,” and rants about her period with her dad, I’m choosing to believe that the world truly is a funny, strange, and amazing place.
Conan’s silent presence next to me was a sign. Not a sign to keep at it and try to make it work in Hollywood, but a sign that in this funny, strange, and amazing world, I had to quit my job if I was ever really going to follow my dreams.
The next day I gave my two-week notice.
I did move back to Portland. And then I moved away again — a safe and comfortable location isn’t the big secret to being a writer. It’s not about landing the perfect job, either, though I’ve tried my hand at lots of those now because being a writer isn’t a career that gets handed to you. I think it’s a lifetime of living and trying and writing, instead of waiting. I’m still scared and don’t know what I’m doing with my life — that hasn’t changed. But I’m not waiting anymore.