It was 2008. As I walked out of Grand Central Station, on my way to my six-figure-a-year job as an architect for a high-end firm, I was confronted with an image that made me shiver, and for me, a harbinger of things to come. A well-dressed gentleman, somewhere between 45 and 55 years old, stood on the street corner of Vanderbilt and 42nd Street, holding up a huge sign in well formed letters: “I am a high-level executive. I need a job, any job”. I realized in that instant that our world had already changed.
That man became the face of our times, for more reasons than the obvious. What I saw in that man’s demeanor was something noble. Yes, he was on the street corner begging for a job, yet I sensed in him a certain self-respect that said, This is who I am and these are the circumstances of my life, BUT I am willing and able to do a good day’s work. I will do whatever I have to in order to survive and I am not ashamed to do it.
He became the symbol for what so many well-educated, successful people – men and women who had reached top levels of accomplishment in their respective fields – were going to be reduced to. Within a matter of months, I became him.
My world became a place where I had to adjust my resume to not sound quite so impressive; otherwise I would be overqualified for the few coveted jobs available (my Master’s in Architecture from Columbia was sure to keep me unemployed). With all the resumes and cover letters being sent through cyber-space, employers were inundated with hundreds, if not thousands, of faceless, voiceless applicants. The days of getting a response to your application, albeit negative, were long gone.
I went through my savings, gave up our home of 18 years, my health and life insurance. But the most devastating blow was the loss of my beloved big brother, Julian. This monumental event threw me to the ground, and I didn’t know if I could get up again. And then it all became very clear. What I had always felt deep in my heart really did turn out to be the absolute truth. Our children, our families and friends – our peeps-and our connection to one another are the only factors in our life that truly matter.
My gem of a son, Ben, my extended family and friends soothed my heart and gave me a reason to get out of bed and still find beauty in life. Remembering where I came from and my parents’ struggle to bring our family to America from a communist Romania, gave me the courage and determination to persevere. If my parents could take all their medical exams and re-do their training to be able to practice medicine in the States, and give my brother and I every opportunity available, then it was my mission to do them proud and fight on.
After a number of false starts, I finally took a sales job at a local store. I went from designing apartments for Ambassadors and resorts in Europe to being a shop-girl. Upon starting my new job as a sales associate, I was startled by the new pecking order. As an architect, I was treated with great respect by my clients. In this situation, I was being treated as a low-level servant by many of my customers. After being a leader for such a long time, I was now being “lead”. My natural enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and out-going personality was now being perceived as something to be “toned down”; my need to be creative and make a difference responded to with cautious tolerance.
Yet, I am so incredibly thankful for this job. Now, six months later, I have made amazing friends and have met unique and interesting people. Above all, I am doing an honest day’s work. I am still me, a constant under any circumstances and I am surviving with my soul intact, surrounded by my “peeps”.
And this journey, though incredibly challenging, is presenting an unexpected opportunity. I am forced to contemplate what I really want to do with the second act of my life. How do I reinvent myself? In the years since 2008, I’ve been involved in a development project, learned how to do mortgages, ran the front desk of an historic inn, and learned how to sell clothing and run a store (yes, my dear reader, I have been promoted).
While I am burning the candle at both ends by accepting architecture projects as well as putting in my hours at the store, I am going to do one more thing that I’ve wanted to do since I was in high school: I’m going to take an acting class. It sounds crazy, but I feel like I’m being given a second chance. And I’m going to grab it with both hands. See you at the Oscars.
Alina Rodescu-Pitchon is a freelance architectural designer, photographer and writer. She is the proud mom of Ben, 25, and lives in Wilton.