The spring semester is finally coming to an end for us (classes end next week; we are on a slightly different schedule than the rest of CUNY) and while I was getting ready for the end of the semester I realized that this marks the end of my 10th year at LaGuardia! I officially started at LaGuardia September 1st 2007 but I was interviewed sometime in June of 2007. This is definitely the longest I have ever held one job in my entire life! If you count the four years I taught at Brooklyn College before coming to LaGuardia that makes 14 years working for CUNY! I hadn’t really been planning on including this period in my current series of memoir-note posts. The plan was roughly to get up to the point where I earned my Bachelor’s degree (January 2000; I am currently up to 1987 or so) and save graduate school and beyond for a possible ‘second volume’ in the future (Volume I=the life of the body; Volume II=The Life of the Mind ?) but I can’t help adding a couple of comments about what was going on in my life 10 years ago.
Back in 2007 I was a graduate student with at least a year and a half or so of work on my dissertation (which I finished in the summer of 2008 and defended September 3rd 2008). It is a long story (aren’t they all!), but I had started working on my dissertation officially in 2006 and at that time it had been a project that I had had on the back burner for a while. I worked on it for about a year with my committee and then had to basically start the project over because of various things.
I was also a full time faculty member at Brooklyn College teaching 5 classes a semester (and beginning to form what would be the New York Consciousness Collective), on what is known as a Substitute Line. These are two year contracts that are limited and non-renewable. I started at Brooklyn College in the fall of 2003 as an adjunct lecturer and I really liked teaching there. Especially since I was allowed to teach philosophy of language, philosophy of biology, scientific revolutions, and philosophy of psychology (as well as Ethics, Business Ethics, and Intro to Philosophy). I knew my time as a Sub was coming to an end (I had been hired on the two-year contract in 2005 and so in 2007 it was up). I had had a taste of what a full-time salary was like and I didn’t see how we could go back to just what an adjunct makes. As a result I was on the job market pretty heavy at that point. I forget how many places I applied to but it was quite a few. I was really hoping to leave New York and wasn’t planning on applying to LaGuardia at all but the chair of our department at Brooklyn College told me that I should apply there and that it was a really great place to work.
So I did.
I was getting no responses and I was getting worried. I even considered the possibility that blogging was having some kind of detrimental effect (I had received an anonymous email after all). I wasn’t sure but I brushed off the concern (no one even reads my blog!). It is striking that I didn’t talk to anyone about where or how I should apply. I just did it because I needed to get a job. I had taken out over 100 thousand dollars in debt. I started taking loans out my first semester of community college back in 1994 and took the last one out in 2003 or 2004. I was taking a lot of classes so I mostly used the loans to support myself over those ten years. I did work here and there, most notably at the mortuary (which I’ll get to later) but also at several coffee shops and restaurants in San Francisco and a few other odds and ends, but that was usually during breaks between semesters. So, I knew that once I defended my dissertation and was awarded my PhD (should I be so lucky) I would have to start paying that back. And so I *needed* to find a job. I was really really nervous. I had known going into this whole thing that it was a long shot and that the market was pretty bad for philosophers (and this was before 2008!) but I really had no other choices (or so it seemed to me at the time). I had been on the market the year before (in 2006) and got an interview but ultimately nothing panned out so it was really wearing on me at this time. If I graduated with all of that debt and then failed to find a job (and/or then failed to get tenure…but one step at a time!)…
On top of all of that I had just found out that my aunt had died. This is a very sad story that is probably best for another time but I had been very close with my aunt before I ran away from home. She had had a very rough life and back in 1982/1983 she was kidnapped at gunpoint by an ex-boyfriend, driven to a secluded place, told that if he could not have her then no one could, and shot point blank in the chest. The coward then turned the gun on himself and shot himself in the stomach. They both survived but my aunt was paralyzed from the waist down after that. Her life spiraled from there (I will skip all of the details) and though she was a strong independent woman I don’t think she every fully recovered from that event. I lost contact with my family when I moved to Connecticut in August of 2002 and was focused on graduate school.
It turns out that my mom had hired a private detective to find me and she found me teaching out at Brooklyn College. She called and left a message with the department secretary and left her number saying she had ‘information’ I might want. I am pretty sure this was in late 2006 or early 2007. I eventually called her back and she told me about my aunt. That really hit me hard. It was a such a sad, pointless, story. I hadn’t talked to her in years but it brought back a flood of memories and threw me for a loop for a few weeks. I also found out that both of my mom’s parents (my grandparents) had died in 2002. I had talked to both of them sometime before I moved to Connecticut and apparently my grandma had died shortly after that, in May 2002, and my Grandfather followed her a few months later in August. The last time I spoke with her I told her that I was sorry for all of the trouble that I had caused as a kid and how much I appreciated her and grandpa sticking by us through it all and letting us live with them when we needed to. She said she was proud of me but that they never expected me to be the one that did so well. I remember trying to explain Sartre to her. People are not static objects, they can change if they choose to change. Not just once, but every day.
It turned out that my grandfather had dementia from Alzheimer’s and would get angry and upset. He would misplace his keys, for instance, and then accuse my grandma of hiding the keys. Apparently she was terrified of him and so she took a bunch of sleeping pills and killed herself. She was laying on her bed with a bunch of photos of the family from when they were all young played out around her. After that my grandfather just withered and kind of gave up. So, my favorite aunt died of a drug overdose, her last words were “I think something’s wrong” according to my mom, my grandmother committed suicide because of my grandfather’s potentially violent rages. So I was not in the greatest of moods back then. I kept hearing my mom’s words from the last time we spoke echoing in my mind. All of this had happened while I was ‘polishing the brass on a sinking ship’. If I had stayed in California was there anything that have been done differently? It seemed like my life might still ultimately end up like that of the rest of my family. Maybe I hadn’t come as far as I thought I had.
But then I got a phone call one day from LaGuardia asking me if I was available for an interview. This was the only place that had contacted me at this point (I did hear from one other place but that was later). All of my eggs were suddenly in this basket!
I was overjoyed at having an interview, but not entirely happy that it was here in New York. New York is great for philosophy but if you don’t have a lot of money it is difficult to live here. But anyway, it turned out they were holding the interview on a Friday and I just happened to be going to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology meeting up in Toronto Canada to present a poster of “Consciousness, (Higher-Order) Thoughts, and What It’s Like” (blog post here). The plans were all set and I asked if there was any chance to reschedule. I was told they would get back to me. I hung up the phone and then, in shock, realized what I had done. Had I just passed on this interview? Should I call back and say I would cancel my trip? I was panicking and my wife (then girlfriend) was at work. I was about to call back when the phone rang. It was them. I answered and was told that they really wanted to interview me and could I come in the following Monday (or something). I said no problem. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was the only one coming in for an interview that day. They were all meeting just to interview me. Luckily I was in the city already so it was no big issue to get there.
As I sat in the office waiting for my interview, nervous of course, the secretary, Alice (remember no real names) who I later came to know really well said to me “you want to work here?” I nodded. She laughed and said “you should run!” and I laughed nervously with her. After that an older professor walked by, stopped and looked at me and said “you’re applying for the philosophy job?” I nodded and he turned to the secretary and said “he has a great tie on, hire him!” and walked out of the room. What had I got myself into?
After my first interview I had a second with the Vice President, and then a third and final interview with the President. I think that was in July. I did not find out that I was actually hired until mid-August and was hurriedly prepping for a Philosophy of Religion course (I had never taught this course before but obviously I was interested in the topic!). I stopped teaching philosophy of Religion regularly back in 2009 (I think) since we hired people who actually knew what they were doing.
My interview was actually a lot of fun and I really liked the environment at LaGuardia. I had started at a Community College myself and so I knew the power that education had to transform lives for the better. I still believe that. It is funny because at the end of the interview they asked me if I had anything I wanted to say to the hiring committee and I said that I had come into the interview not knowing if I would be happy at LaGuardia but that they had convinced me that this would be a great place to work. I walked out feeling good but also wondering if I should have said that. Truth be told, I did not really want to stay in New York. Back then I was still hoping to ultimately end up back in California and was naively assuming that if it didn’t work out this year I would try again next year. Boy was I wrong.
I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if they had not decided to take a chance on me. For most of my life I thought of myself as a Californian more than anything else but now I am proud to be an honorary New Yorker (14 years in the city!) and a part of the world’s community college. Here’s to 10 more years!