My first year out of college was brutal. I’d just left a small liberal arts school armed with an amorphous arts degree for which I quickly found no real-life applications. Filled with blind optimism, I moved into a tiny apartment in Brooklyn with a million people, into a room that boasted a sad double bed and a small, soot-covered window overlooking the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The trucks that barreled by during rush hour made my room vibrate like a bomb raid. And that fall my boyfriend, a very successful, slightly older computer programmer, dumped me. He said I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. You might call him a jerk—I definitely did—but he was also right.
A year before the financial crisis, I struggled to find a job and went on endless temp interviews. I did my best to present a calm, poised, confident version of myself. But I was convinced that every human resources manager knew the exact balance of my bank account, that I had no direction, and that I’d forgotten to make my bed that morning. I began to score a few receptionist placements, mostly in the fashion world, but none lasted for more than a week. I had no connections, no real safety net, and felt like I was running on sheer pluck. My naturally anxious personality was exacerbated by the complete lack of promise.
Then one day I received an unexpected call. It was from a recruiter who had been impressed with the names on my temp list, my perceived confidence, and, I secretly think, the fact that at the time I was a size 4. She wanted me to interview for a prestigious role as a front-desk receptionist and one of multiple assistants to Ivanka Trump, daughter of then-real estate mogul and now-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. I remembered Ivanka from a long-ago cover of Seventeen magazine but learned she had become a rising star in both fashion and within the Trump empire. “It would be on her floor at Trump Tower,” the recruiter said, “in a highly visible position.”
The recruiter, who I remember as a done-up middle-aged woman with lacquered nails shaped into perfect ovals, had the easy but deliberate laughter of a Hollywood agent. On the phone she pressed to see if I thought I could keep my cool in front of celebrities. “You’ll be seeing a lot of Donald, he’s a great guy,” she said. “You’ll also see Melania—she’s just gorgeous—with their little son, Barron. They come down all the time. You just can't be nervous.”
The day of the interview I put on the only nice outfit I had, a button-down shirt and pants from H&M, and took the subway to Manhattan. As I stepped into the opulence of Trump Towers on 5th Avenue and rode up the golden escalators, I felt more dazzled than I had in a long time. That, and like a fraud. I didn’t belong in such a gilded wonderland. I ate lentils every night for dinner. I didn’t have cable. I felt like every person there belonged to some magical club and I was a lowly gate crasher.
Miraculously, I made it through the first round of interviews with an impossibly beautiful woman. Her perfect skin, sleek hair, and impressive height made me think she could have easily been a model. The floor was decorated in muted beige tones, which I remember distinctly because I worried I’d scuff the rugs. The woman pointed to where my desk would be, next to the wall of glass that enclosed Ivanka’s office. It was early morning and no one was on the floor. It had the odd feeling of an abandoned showroom. She asked me about my experience, which was limited. I remember desperately hoping this perfect woman wouldn’t spot my flaws—that my heels were worn down to nubs, that I’d missed a spot with the lint roller. I tried to convince her that my short receptionist gigs and time working in the student fundraising office, calling alumni for donations, had prepared me for any challenges that lay ahead. I might have even told her I once met Ken Burns in the school cafeteria. Mostly I just remember feeling paralyzed.
The second interview was with a human resources manager, a slightly older woman in a tiny corner office. "Melania will be here all the time,” she also let me know, “and so will Donald. So you can't get star-struck.”
All this was fine. I was nervous, but I really needed a job.
Then she told me about payment: I would be making $35 an hour compared to the $9 I was currently making at my temp job. And that’s when it happened, when my own personal Trump Tower came tumbling down. The tiny jolts of anxiety I’d been fighting back for months exploded into a panic attack. A full-blown, the-kind-where-you-think-you're-going-to-need-an-emergency-tracheotomy panic attack. I didn’t feel worthy of such riches. Surely I must be an imposter, wasting their time. I gasped for air. It felt like the most embarrassing thing in the world, and the face of the interviewer was a mixture of concern and disgust. “Just breathe,” she said “Do you need water?” I could see I had blown it. I had never experienced anything like it, both the panic attack and the shame.
The woman made the motions of filling me in on the rest of the job. She even went through the benefits, responsibilities, and had me complete application paperwork. But I knew I would never get the call. When I left Trump Tower a few hours later I felt like a liar and a failure. I was nothing compared to this golden dream that had just escaped me. In that moment, I felt like the building offered something I could never achieve somewhere else, or on my own, and I had ruined everything. It was drizzly and cold outside, and as I left the climate-controlled warmth of a lobby that looked like Liberace’s bank vault I just wanted to dissolve into the sidewalk.
I was supposed to call the temp agency afterward and let them know how it went, but I felt such shame that I couldn’t. In their offices I had presented myself as a chic young woman, fearless and experienced. But now I was a girl overcome with emotion. They kept calling and finally I picked up. “How did it go?” she demanded, genuinely curious. “I choked,” I said miserably. She was irritated . “You CHOKED. In what way??” But I couldn’t even explain what had happened. That I had gotten in over my head. “This was a very important client, I really thought you could handle it. Who ARE you?" she said, insinuating some epic feat of sabotage. I don’t remember what she said after that, mostly because I had never felt so awful in my entire life. For years, when LinkedIn suggested I should be "friends" with her, I felt sick.
This seems strange, but I blocked out most of this experience until the recent election cycle. Previously I had chalked it up as one of the many learning mistakes one makes in their 20s. But with Trump’s rise this past year, I’ve become especially attuned to the power that his perceived wealth and stature have on people—because I know first-hand the effect the Trump family aura can have, especially if you are down on your luck. They are the winners, and we are the losers—hoping to be saved by a big paycheck and entrance into the grand castle. If we are poor, heartbroken, and rudderless, it’s our fault. We simply lack the confidence and showmanship.
As Trump has said repeatedly on the trail, he is the American dream achieved. He is better than us, and with his help we can be lifted higher. But the truth is that The Donald isn’t a self-made man. He was given a million to play with by a crooked, racist father. He’s spinning the yarn that only he can save us from our shortcomings, our poverty, and our humiliation. But I hope the American people learn, like I did, that the Trumps are not the singular answer to anyone’s problems.
After I interviewed for the job, a new, more perfect job didn’t immediately manifest, Devil Wears Prada-style. I struggled for a while. Then the economy crashed and I struggled some more. But I slowly discovered I had a passion for writing, and that people would pay me for it. It wasn’t a lot, but it kept me going, and I kept trying. I slowly built a career and a life I am extremely proud of. Today I work at a company whose goals and message I care deeply about.
I’m not going to lie, sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if I'd gotten the job. My boyfriend—a far kinder, more supportive partner than the one who dumped me years ago—joked that I would probably be working on the Trump campaign, wearing an expensive pencil skirt, and living in a gigantic Manhattan apartment. It’s an entertaining fantasy, but ultimately one completely outside my realm of comprehension. At my core I will always be an unrepentant liberal, an arts major with a commitment to social justice and a suspicion of vast wealth and unchecked authority.
Money is important, and anyone who says it isn’t has never had the feeling of going without. But it’s not everything, and your lack or abundance of it does not indicate your talent, intelligence, or worth as a human. A decade later, it's nice to realize that no one moment, person, or job defines you—and you should never let someone else tell you it does.
Even a Trump.
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.