On Top of It #17 by Lisa Martens
A Lesson in Humility and Tone: Talia Jane
This weekend, the Internet caught fire with Talia Jane, a Yelp customer support representative who wrote a public, scathing letter to the CEO of her company and, of course, was fired soon after.
I agree with a higher minimum wage. I also agree that student debt cripples the dreams of many young Americans . . . such as myself. And so, I opened the link ready to read a letter written by an educated young woman, a fellow customer support rep, my peer, addressing these points.
What I read was a condescending rant that looked like a long drunk text I might send to the person labeled “Fuckboy” in my phone. Asking the CEO to pay her phone bill? Complaining that she couldn’t take the free food home? Bitching about the $20 copay to visit a doctor?
I cannot help but feel that the whole point of this letter was to be fired. It was cheeky at best, and outright abusive at its worst. The Internet always makes everything feel more sarcastic, and the anonymity it provides brings out this kind of behavior. As a customer support rep for a tech company, she must have experienced this phenomenon in her day to day. Which brings me to this question:
Would Talia have spoken to her CEO like this in person? Would she have compared her modern work environment . . . which is laden with free food . . . as a starving pack of wolves? Would she have said the coconut water tasted “like the bitter remorse of accepting a job that can’t pay a living wage”? Or said something as snarky as “Look, I’ll make you a deal. You don’t have to pay my phone bill”?
Most likely not. She would have had to craft her grievances like a human talking to another human, a twenty-something out of college talking to a CEO.
So I will use this opportunity to tell a bit about my own story, minus the snark, to express the kind of sentiments I had believed and hoped Talia’s letter was going to bring to light.
When I came to New York for college, I knew NYU was going to be expensive, and my parents were not financially prepared to support that journey. I knew if I wanted it, I would have to do it myself. I petitioned for aid my first semester at NYU, but it was decided that I would receive aid if I could prove myself with a good GPA. So for the first year at NYU, I had to take out private loans. I applied to every scholarship I could find. I lived with a family in Queens for $600/month, and then in ⅓ of a living room in Hell’s Kitchen for the same price. I worked as a tour guide, I handed out fliers, I tutored, and I participated in psychology experiments. A lot like Talia, I had to look for change and find metrocards so I could use the subway. I went to school club meetings just for the free food. I knew which supermarkets gave out free samples and when. I walked and rode my bike when I couldn’t afford public transportation, and I lived at work and at school several times when I was in-between places to live.
I once slept under a school desk with nothing but an electric blanket. It was winter, and the heat in the building was off. I could hear rats running past my head as I struggled to sleep.
I had fainting spells because I wasn’t eating frequently enough, and at one point I lost so much weight that I started to lose my hair.
All the while, my wealthier friends were having a great NYC college experience, laden with unprotected sex and popping prescription drugs in the library to stay up all night. I was jealous. I was human.
However, I still managed to get a good enough GPA for NYU to give me more aid, and this cut down on my dependence on loans. Once I graduated, I worked one full time job and one part time job so I could repay my loans. I shared a one-bedroom in Queens for $700, still keeping my rent low, because my student loan payments were double that.
I currently live in a living room again, having just graduated from graduate school. I have a full and part time job, and my rent is still low so I can afford my loans, which I am behind on. I don’t have privacy or even a real door to my room, but again, this is the sacrifice I’m making so I can have low rent. It’s been rough, but I’ve always been grateful to the places who have employed me, who have given me a chance to prove myself, and I’ve always understood that my personal and financial problems are not the fault of my employer, of NYU, or even of my parents, who help me every time they can.
What do I feel now? A little disappointed. Letters like Talia’s get millennials dismissed as spoiled and entitled, and any good points get thrown away in the sea of sarcasm. But this could potentially be an opportunity for growth for Talia, I hope, once the Internet fanfare dies down—a lesson in humility, tone, and appreciation.
Lisa Martens (Episode 22) currently lives in Harlem. In her past 10 years in New York, she has lived in a garage on Long Island, a living room in Hell’s Kitchen, the architecture building of CCNY, and on the couch of a startup. She grew up in New York, Costa Rica and Texas, and she’s still not sure which of these is home. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing from CCNY. Her thesis, What Grows in Heavy Rain, is available on Amazon. Check out her website here. Follow her on Instagram here.