Klim's Great Escape from Communist Romania

Part-15: The First Job Interview

In the morning of April 2, 1970 I arrived by bus to Chicago, the city which would become my first love with America. After checking my luggage at the bus station's terminal, my first order of business was to find a room that I could rent. Through the Chicago Sun-Times paper, which I bought at the station, I was able to find, late in the afternoon, a room that I liked. It was in the North side of the city close to Evanston. That entire part of the city was heavily populated with Polish immigrants. The rent for the room was, as in Pittsburgh, $50 a month. The room was on the second floor of a house which was occupied only by tenants. The owners of the house lived in the next house as they owned three (3) consecutive houses --one for them, the second for tenants (where I was living), and the third house for their daughter, son-in-law, and grandson.

Because of the security deposit required on my rent, I had no other option but to cash the $5000 check that I was carrying from Pittsburgh. Extremely uncomfortable with using this option of last resort, but nevertheless grateful to have it, I pledged to myself that my very first priority would be to put back the entire sum of $5000 and send it back to Pittsburgh where it belonged. Thus, my first priority was finding a job as soon as possible.

The "El" in Chicago

Next day, on Friday, April 3, 1970, I went by subway (known in Chicago as "The El" and standing for the Elevated Subway, see picture at left) to the downtown area to the State's Employment Agency in order to find a job. After I told the clerk that from the time I was six (6) Astronomy was the only thing that had interested me and that I had a degree and working experience in it, I asked him:

"What kind of job could I get here in Astronomy?"

To this, the clerk in disbelief of what he had just heard, said:

"You could not be serious! You are kidding right? I have openings for any kind of job, but Astronomy ... give me a break!

Staring at him without saying a word, the clerk eventually got the message as soon afterwards he stated: OK, let me look anyhow."

After a few minutes of searching, the clerk, not believing what he had just found, stated:

"Listen, I see here that there is an opening at Encyclopaedia Britannica for a Research Editor in Astronomy, and the only thing that I see here in terms of requirement is a good background in Astronomy. I am going to give you the address which is not too far from here. When you go to Britannica have with you a Resume and dress appropriately to look professional. Good luck."

Downtown Chicago

After giving me the address, I took immediately a taxicab to Britannica. I had no idea what a Resume was, so when I reached the Personnel Department of Britannica I stated immediately to the woman that was there the following:

"I am here because the clerk from the Downtown Employment Agency stated that you need somebody with a good background in Astronomy."

Then, treating the "Resume" as being some sort of disease, I stated to the woman:

"And I don't have a resume. Whatever that is, I am sure that I don't have it!"

Upon hearing this, the woman started laughing so hard that I could see her crying of laughter! I did not know what to make of this. After a few minutes, recovering from her laughter and regaining her composure, she stated in a very friendly voice:

"To work for Britannica, you have to pass our test. There is no exception to this. We do not care about letters of references, fancy diplomas or anything of that sort. For us, the most important thing is the test which takes about two (2) hours."

"What kind of test do you have?" --I asked. To this, she continued:

"Well, if you apply for a Geography position, we have a test in Geography, for Chemistry --we have a test in Chemistry, and so on. You said that you want to apply for an Astronomy position. For that we have a test in Astronomy. Go home and prepare for this test as you can be given this test only once. You cannot come back and repeat the test until you eventually pass. This is a one shot deal."

To this I responded: "I want to take the test right now if this is possible." The woman concerned with my answer stated: "Are you sure that you want to take the test right now?", to which I responded: "Yes, I am." Then she said: "OK then, follow me."

She put me in a room all by myself and the test was based on a multiple choice format. There were 100 questions and each question had associated with it five (5) possible answers --one of which being the correct one. You had to be completely out of your field not to recognize the correct answer which was beaming right into your eyes! After about 90 minutes, I informed the woman that I had finished with my test. As I was prepared to leave, the woman stopped me and said:

"Please have a seat. I need to go into another room to score your test. Then, I would like to talk with you for a few minutes. Is this OK with you?"

Nodding my head in the affirmative, the woman left with my test sheets to another room. After about 10 minutes she returned and informed me of my score by saying: "You made 98 out of a hundred." To this, in disbelief, I stated to the woman: "There was no way that I could have missed two questions. Please go back in that room and check again." After that, this dialog took place:

[Woman]:  "No, you misunderstood me. You made a perfect test."
[Me]:       "If it is so perfect, now what?"
[Woman]:  "Oh, you will be called for an interview. And since you did not know what a resume was, it is my job and my responsibility to explain to you what an interview is. In about ten (10) days you will receive a postcard from us informing you of the place and the time of the interview."

After the woman from the Personnel Office explained to me the purpose, the scope, and the format of a job interview, I knew that I would not have a prayer in passing successfully such an interview. The major culprit was my horrendous accent which was so heavy that the great majority of people were having a hard time understanding me. Any job I could have conceived, but not the one of an Editor for the prestigious Encyclopaedia Britannica. I visualized that in the moment that I would open my mouth, my interview would be over as I could not have imagined a person who would hire me for that position with the accent that I had. And since I could not have gotten rid of my accent overnight, I had to find a solution for this seemingly insurmountable obstacle that I was facing.

Pondering over these ideas, I took long walks in the city mostly to observe how Americans behaved when they were engaged in a conversation. And to my astonishment, by contrast to Italians, I noticed that Americans, during a conversation, do not use their hands at all as a form of gesticulation but instead they use heavily their head, nodding the head in a most prominent way and interjecting so often with the awful "ah-uh!" sound. In my perception that I was able to form from my visual observations, a common American conversation in Chicago would look like this: while one was talking, the other person very frequently nodded his or her head and was saying "ah-uh!, ah-uh!" repeatedly. When the conversation was over, the person doing the talking would say to the other person who said nothing except "ah-uh, ah-uh ", "Nice talking with you!"

Based upon this perception, I reasoned therefore that my only chance of passing the upcoming interview was to employ the "ah-uh" routine! Thus, my plan for the upcoming interview was as follows: No matter what, throughout the entire interview I would stick only to "ah-uh" interjections for as many times as needed and then, at the very end, I would say a simple sentence expressing my desire to work for Britannica. And the sentence that I chose to use at the end of my interview was that "I will be very happy to have the opportunity to work for Encyclopaedia Britannica." For hours and hours, for a week or so, I rehearsed this very simple sentence. And to make sure that people were able to understand me, I stopped a number of them on the street and asked: "Do you know what I am saying?" And some of those who chose to reply stated: "Yes, that you are a nut!"

On Monday April 13, 1970, I got the postcard from Britannica that on Thursday, April 16, I should come for an interview. I was prepared with my script to the finest points. The interview that I was scheduled to have was with the Research Science Coordinator of Britannica--an extremely nice woman in her late twenties or early thirties, an American born of Swedish descent. The woman, in an extremely friendly voice, began congratulating me on my excellent score on the Astronomy test and on my knowledge of so many languages (Hungarian, French, Italian, Romanian, Russian, and English). Then, she stated:

"Listen, when an article comes to Britannica, we have an English Editor, a Grammar Editor, a Punctuation Editor, a Layman Editor --in all some seven (7) editors. When we get an article in Astronomy, we need somebody with a strong Astronomy background to check, after all the editing has been done, whether the edited article is sound from a scientific standpoint. You see, sometimes the English Editor in rearranging the structure of a sentence may, inadvertently, destroy the scientific meaning or the entire content of that sentence. Or, we may have other situations where a diagram or a formula has been misplaced from one page into another. Since no one knows the Astronomy stuff those errors would not be detected by any of us. It is therefore your job to make sure that the text makes sense from a scientific point of view, that the text and diagrams correspond, and so on.. You forget about the grammar, you forget about the punctuation, you need only be concerned that the text is making sense from the scientific point of view and nothing else."

I acknowledged all this with "ah-uh" and the nodding of my head as needed. The woman then went on explaining to me how the Research Department was the core of Britannica and how other departments were integrated with each other and with the research center. After some 45 minutes of countless "ah-uh" on my part and recognizing that the woman had exhausted every imaginable subject with respect to this opening and that the interview was about to be over, I stated to her "You know what!" to which the woman hearing me for the first time speaking exclaimed: "What?" To this, following my script, I said:


"I will be very happy to have the opportunity to work for Encyclopaedia Britannica."

"You got the job! --the woman replied. You will start to work on Monday [April 20, 1970]. Congratulations!"

Extremely happy of the outcome, I left her office with a simple "Thank You." A tremendous door of opportunities had just been opened for me. My title "Research Editor in Astronomy for Encyclopaedia Britannica" sounded really good. I was on cloud nine!