"Yes, I've spent plenty of time around stat cameras," I said during the interview, which took place in an intimidatingly chic, sun-filled conference room in the agency's Toronto headquarters. "We had one in our department and we used it constantly."
Technically, this wasn't a lie.
"So you'd be comfortable operating one, then?" asked Stefan, an artfully disheveled, thirtysomething senior associate.
This was enough for Stefan. He offered me the job and I took it immediately, giving him no time to change his mind.
On my first day of work, Stefan and I walked down a flight of stairs toward a heavy, ominous-looking door: the darkroom. Agfa, Kodak, Agfa, Kodak. The door, which had a thick bolt, swung open. In the auburn light I could make out the silhouette of a hulking machine, taller than my head. This was it: the moment of reckoning, time for me to pull the trick and make it work. I leaned toward the camera. It was an Agfa.
"I learned on an Agfa." The second I said it, I realized my mistake. Unbelievable. "I mean, I . . ."
"Great!" Stefan handed me a large docket of print ads that needed to be created on the stat, all marked with various percentages and instructions for the proper exposures. "Go to it!" And then he swung the door closed and left me in the dark.
And now we enter antiMacGyver territory. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I looked around the room. Tubs of chemical baths rested on a table; a rack held drying prints; one wall was dominated by a cabinet that contained a warren of drawers and cubbyholes. Surely there would be an instruction manual in there somewhere? I opened a cupboard—no instruction manuals. But there, sitting on the counter staring at me, was a phone.
I called Kirk.
Speaking in a whisper, I explained my situation. Kirk laughed, sort of nastily. He was used to students botching things up.
"Stand in front of the machine:" he said. "Do you see a power switch on the upper left, right beside the image plate?" I did.
And then he walked me through the entire process. As I operated it, the camera made a grinding and moaning noise not unlike Mack trucks mating. "Totally normal," Kirk assured me. I pulled a stat; it looked reasonably professional.
"Okay, there's one last thing," I said, after forcing him to stay on the line while I shot another dozen. "I've been in here for an hour. Isn't this supposed to take five minutes?"
"Just tell them you weren't used to this brand of photographic paper," Kirk told me. "And that you had to experiment with aperture readings. And ask them, 'When was the last time you had the lens calibrated?'"
Kirk's advice worked perfectly. Though Stefan did raise an eyebrow at how long it took, he seemed pleased with the im ages I'd made. And the next time he sent me in to use the Agfa, I was finished in five minutes.
As I've polished my job-acquisition technique over the years—I've accepted and improvised my way through gigs as a bartender, waitress, French teacher, and yoga instructor, among others—I've come to realize that Kirk's lesson alone was worth the price of a university tuition. The trick is not to flat-out lie—no false claims about neurosurgery degrees or helicopter licenses, please—but rather to elegantly bluff, to display confidence in the face of a challenge.
It boils down to a three-word philosophy: Always say yes. After all, in the age of cell phones, you're never far from a lifeline.
Susan Casey is the development editor for Time Inc., and the author of The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks. She's Canadian, which explains her use of the word "university" in this story.
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