The Campus Job Talk From Hell

In January 2007, I was desperate. After completing my Ph.D., I’d managed to stave off academic annihilation by getting a two-year postdoc at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. But now that postdoc was ending. My tenure-track colleagues in the English department had prepared for the possibility that, in my death throes, I might ask them for something — another year, a summer course, anything — by adjusting their smiles to a sublime degree of impersonality.

Not that I ever referred to them in public as my colleagues. My friend told me an instructive anecdote on this score. He said he’d seen an Italian talk show where the then-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was the guest. The hosts were interviewing ordinary Italians about the state of the nation. One of the people they talked to was a trash collector, working for the government, who at one point referred to Berlusconi as his “colleague.” Berlusconi immediately interrupted.

“Excuse me,” he said. “But I am the prime minister. You are a trash collector. We are not colleagues.”

Now it was almost time for my colleagues to throw me into the trash. I’d had two campus visits that season, but weeks of silence had elapsed, and it was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to get an offer. And then, out of the blue, I got a phone call inviting me to a campus visit at the University of California at Irvine. A last chance!

I dug through the pile of dirty clothes in my closet and found my suit and tie. Used some of my dwindling credit-card balance to get it dry-cleaned. Then I got out my job talk and tried to work up some enthusiasm for my close readings of mid-20th century poetry.

To help me focus, I recalled my brief experience with the nonacademic job market before I got into grad school. The only position I’d been able to secure was repossessing lawn mowers for the Modern Acceptance Company. I’d call people in rural Illinois and work through a script, demanding payment, while they complained about cancer or unemployment. Then would come the creative part of the job, the part where I could use some of the critical-thinking skills I’d learned in college. I’d try to get them to tell me where the riding mower was.

“I see rain in the forecast Mrs. Kruck. I wouldn’t want the mower to get rusty.”

“What? It won’t get rusty out in the shed.”

And then I was slamming down the phone, calling out to Frank, and the chase was on. …

That’s what awaits me if I don’t put enough enthusiasm into the close readings of these poems, I told myself. I got very enthusiastic about the poems.

Now it happened that I was friends with a graduate student at Irvine. Let’s call him Cash. Cash had caught some bad breaks — getting convicted of a felony for drug dealing, and then developing a bit of a drinking problem. But he’d gotten himself together, finished college, and gone to grad school.

I hadn’t talked to him for awhile. In my dedication to preparing for my job visit, Cash had slipped my mind. Then, about two weeks before my campus visit, he called me.

“Hey,” he said when I picked up. “I saw you got a campus visit here. Congrats!”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m very — ”

He cut me off: “Listen. I need a big favor from you. Things haven’t been going real well for me here. I fucked up a little bit. Some shit I got off the street — made me a little crazy, I guess. Anyway, I think they’re trying to kick my ass out of the program.”

“Wow,” I said. “I’m really sorry, that’s — ”

“You gotta help me,” he said. “When you come here for your campus visit, you gotta tell them not to kick me out. Come on, man. I’m counting on you. You could, like, say a lot of your ideas in your dissertation came from me or something.”

“Cash,” I said carefully. “A campus visit isn’t really the best place for that kind of thing. This is about me trying to make a good impression on everyone there. I won’t be in a position to … advocate for you at that time. But if I get the job, then I might be able to help you out.”

A long silence.

“Cash?” I said. “Are you there?”

“So you’re saying you’re not going to help me?”

There was no doubt now. He was slurring his words. Drunk for sure. I checked my watch. Performed a quick calculation. It was 9 a.m. on the West Coast.

“What I’m saying,” I said slowly, “Is that the best way to help you is for me to get the job, and the best way for me to get the job is not to say anything about you. You know, it might even be best if we kind of pretend we don’t know each — ”


Illustrations by Wes Watson for The Chronicle

I held the phone. This is not happening.

“Cash — ” I began.

“I’ve got a gun,” he said. “Think a felon like me can’t get a gun?”

“No, I — ”

“I got a gun all right. And when you come here I’m going to shoot you.”

Then he hung up. Later that day he texted me a picture of a black handgun, lying on dirty carpet next to a copy of Billy Budd. The gun looked real.

From: Michael Clune
Sent: January, 2007
Dear Cash,

I must ask you not to call me when you are intoxicated. Anyone who cares for you will see it is a priority that you receive treatment as soon as possible. I hope you do seek treatment, and would be happy to speak with you when you are sober. But any contact with you when you are intoxicated would be bad for both of us.


Illustration showing a series of Polaroid images of a gun at a man’s bare feet

Then, days of silence. At first I seriously considered canceling the campus visit. Was a tenure-track job worth the risk of getting shot? Then I calmed down. Yes, I thought, remembering my days at Modern Acceptance. Hell yes.

Plus, I reflected, Cash was obviously back on the bottle. Most likely he’d called me in a blackout. Chances were that he’d forgotten all about our little exchange. So, with a week to go, I tried to put it out of my mind and focused on preparing.

From: Cash
Sent: February 1, 2007

I’m getting ready for your big day! Congratulations by the way, you should know some things in regard to the weird situation in which we find ourselves. As I indicated I’ve been participating more and more each day in the department and will take an interest in this, as anything, and for an “unknowable” (in that I can’t tell if it’s my friendship with you or professional respect, either being high enough in esteem by itself) reason I will support you fully. It will be awkward of course if you pretend not to know me. I don’t know the date of your arrival, but clearly we must make up (I know it’s difficult as hell). Today I had another great conversation with Professor X and he tried to get me to tell him what our fight was about (because it came up unavoidably). I told him that I must recuse myself because both our friendship and the position were in play. We had an awkward laugh — surreal as I reflect upon it. But anyway, you are one of two or three people interviewing for the position. This is make or break shit for you dude! Also perhaps of interest, Professor X asked me if I was on some pills because I was so sped up (because, among other things, I had overlapping commitments) and then I said that I was just manic. He then asked for real? and I told him yes. The strange conversation continued high speed with his asking me what pills I take (orange or blue, etc. … ). In short I told him why I was so lackluster the first two years and he told me that he knows the pill colors because most grad students have some such problems. So there this is. I’ll leave it here now. All the best third brother Mike!


Cash’s older brother, Dave, called me, concerned.

“Hi, Mike. So I guess you know why I’ve called.”

“No shit. He’s off the chain.”

“Yes, well, I wouldn’t say that exactly.” Dave had a certain distaste for painting situations with too broad a brush.

“As in every situation, there’s a promising tendency, and a discouraging tendency,” he continued. “On the bright side, Cash appears to have stopped drinking. He got out of the hospital a few days ago and appears to be sober.”

“You believe that?”

“Yes, well, of course, he has not been acting very sober. But I’ve learned certain things that suggest a plausible alternative explanation for his, um, strange recent behavior.” Dave paused.

“Cash has been drinking three bottles of Robitussin a day,” he continued. “Hallucinating basically all the time. He’s been doing this every day for six weeks. He told me he has a $15-a-day Robitussin habit. Robitussin costs $5 a bottle.”

He let this sink in. Five minutes earlier, I would have said it was impossible to become addicted to Robitussin.

“There’s more, unfortunately,” Dave said. “Cash’s been taking steroids. He wants to get stronger. A not uncommon desire. But of course, steroids are well-known to cause rage, and these particular steroids seem to be interacting rather unpredictably with the Robitussin.”


“He also bought a gun recently. He’s a felon, but he got a gun anyway. I don’t know how. I’m not sure I understand it myself. I find it hard to see this as a wise purchase, given the circumstances. He sent several pictures of the gun to my mother. She forwarded them to me. The gun is on the floor. You can see Cash’s bare toes in the picture.”

“ … ”

“Cash’s a little … disappointed with you, Mike. I won’t deny that he’s made certain threats. I continue to see his avoidance of alcohol as a good thing, but, considering the circumstances, I feel this may be something of a Pyrrhic victory. In fact, I feel he is headed for some kind of spectacular breakdown.”

“ … ”

“I understand you are flying out there for an interview. I’ve stressed to Cash how unwise and, um, indelicate it would be to try to insert himself in the interview process. This is important to you. Cash’s understanding of the situation is, in some ways, rather flawed. I understand you are giving a lecture in front of the entire department. Cash has talked loosely of creating some kind of disturbance. I believe I mentioned the gun? I’ve strongly encouraged Cash not to attend your presentation. I believe he’ll listen.”

“What if he doesn’t, Dave?”

Dave was silent for several seconds.

“I understand your concern. Perhaps, given my more extensive recent contact with Cash, I am in a position to feel that concern even more strongly than you. Let me say, first, that I think it unlikely Cash will attend. It wouldn’t make sense, and I’m sure he realizes it would be upsetting to you. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that when you arrive to give your talk you see Cash in the audience. … ”

He trailed off.

“Yes?” I said. “I look out at the audience and see him there? What do I do?”

“Run,” he said.

With Dave’s advice in mind, I read back over Cash’s emails. “I’m getting ready for your big day.” Most people, when preparing for these high-pressure, on-campus interviews for academic positions, feel a little nervous. “This is make-or-break shit for you, dude!” A case of nerves is perfectly normal in this situation. “It will be awkward of course if you pretend not to know me.” People worry they might spill wine on their tie during dinner.

I was worried I might get assassinated.

The English department at the University of California at Irvine had a storied history. Most recently it had served as the American academic home of Jacques Derrida, who had died three years before. I personally considered Derrida’s writing — with its mixture of incomprehensible sentences and its vague air of moral superiority — to be totally intolerable, but I was prepared to conceal this prejudice. I even packed a copy of Limited Inc to read theatrically in the public spaces of the hotel.

One of my faculty hosts picked me up from the hotel for dinner. When we arrived at the restaurant, I discovered none other than Professor X, of Cash’s emails, sitting at the table. As we exchanged pleasantries, I waited for the single, tell-tale syllable to fall from his lips.


I imagined several ways it could go.

“So Cash tells me you’re his best friend!”

“Cash!” Looking over my shoulder, a broad grin on his face. “There you are! We’ve been waiting for you, please sit down!”

“Cash?” Looking over my shoulder with the color draining from his face. “Put down the gun.”

I’d rehearsed, of course, numerous possible strategies regarding the Cash situation. At first, I’d contemplated calling the Irvine people and telling them about the threat to my life. But it didn’t seem that this could possibly end well for me. In the world of junior-level tenure-track hiring, the slightest misstep, as everyone knows, can get you cut. Having to explain my longstanding friendship with the worst graduate student they’d ever had or heard about — a student I’d apparently now driven to homicidal rage — might be disqualifying. They’d probably just tell me not to come at all.

If something like this happened today, of course, I’d alert the authorities at once. But now I’m an upper-middle class, tenured professor in my mid-40s. This was 16 years ago. I was broke and desperate for a job. The memories of my own experiences with incarceration and police brutality were fresh in my mind. I didn’t trust the cops, and despite everything, I couldn’t bring myself to rat Cash out. So I decided I wouldn’t say anything. If they brought it up first, I would have an advantage.

“Cash?” furrowing my brow. “Oh yes, the younger brother of an old friend of mine. Is he a graduate student here?”


“Cash? Doesn’t ring a bell.”

If Cash was guzzling Robitussin at a Promethean rate, who would believe him if he contradicted my claim not to know him? That way, I reflected, the revelation of a violent threat against me would be their problem. After all, his email showed that his adviser was well aware of his condition. Why didn’t he do something about it? Perhaps, if he did shoot me, I could sue, I thought. Maybe I could get enough money from a lawsuit that I wouldn’t have to get any job.

As it happened, Professor X didn’t bring Cash up at the dinner. Looking at him, I wondered if he was just as desperate to keep Cash from coming up as I was. Perhaps, as we sat there exchanging references to Derrida and Marx, we were both thinking about Cash, both desperately hoping the other wouldn’t speak the taboo name.

When the other professor went to the bathroom, Professor X leaned closer to me.

“I’m very sorry about Professor Y,” he said. “She’s an idiot.”

I nodded. I hadn’t heard anything particularly objectionable in what Professor Y had been saying. But then my mind had been on other things.

That night I looked over my talk. Then, to relax before bed, I read on the internet about how hard it is to be accurate with a handgun at any distance beyond 20 feet. Even trained sharpshooters can have difficulty in moving combat situations at that kind of distance.

Moving combat situation, I wrote down in the margin of my talk. Keep moving. Don’t stop moving.

The next day Professor X took me on a tour of the local real estate, which was famously overpriced. He pointed out his own small undistinguished residence with what seemed to me misplaced pride. He enthused about the faculty-support program that had enabled him to purchase it at a rate far below market price. Then he told me that program had been discontinued.

At lunch I met with more faculty members, who rolled their eyes as their colleagues spoke, and when it was their turn, gave little speeches on sophisticated literary topics. I realized gradually, incredulously, that these people were trying to impress me.

There’s no limit to human egocentrism, I reflected. Here I am, wearing a monkey suit that marks me out to the entire population of the school as a junior-level job seeker, the lowest of the low. Each of the other people around this table has tenure. And yet when they look at me, all they see is an opportunity to reflect back at them their own high opinion of themselves, their abysmal opinion of their colleagues.

“That’s fascinating,” I said. “Can you say more about that?”

Then lunch was over, and it was time for me to meet fate.

As soon as I walked into the large lecture hall, I scanned the rows frantically for Cash’s face. Not here, I thought. Not here yet. But then I had to sit down in the front row, with my back to the audience, while Professor X stood at the podium and gave an interminable introduction of me.

Jesus, I thought, as he began to summarize the first of my two minor academic publications. Shut up, I thought. Just shut up already.

The back of my neck was prickling. The primordial reaction of the human animal when targeted by a predator.

When Professor X finally finished droning, and the applause started, I found I couldn’t get up.

Get up! I told myself. Stand up!

Illustration in the style of a comic book page showing a make nervously approaching a podium to speak to a large crowd of people.

At last, with what I imagine was a truly ghastly smile, I stood, walking shakily up to the podium. Then turned around and looked out at the crowd.

It reminded me of the moment when I’d pressed the button after taking my GRE test and the scores had flashed on the screen. The scores that would tell me — so I thought — whether I’d have to go back to Modern Acceptance, or whether I’d won the academic lottery and would never truly have to work again. I was so charged with anxiety that I couldn’t actually recognize the numbers. For long seconds, all I saw were meaningless shapes.

Standing there at what I believed was my last chance to secure an academic job, searching the crowd for the face of my assassin, all I saw were shapes. The practically identical hair and orifices of hominids. I saw what a squirrel would see.

Then, finally, my brain’s facial-recognition software came online. It clicked through the faces in nanoseconds. No, not that one, no, no, no. Cash wasn’t in the room! I let out a deep breath, smiled beatifically at the audience, and began:

“Since the beginning of time, people have enjoyed writing and reading about poems. … ”

Something like that. I actually forget how my paper went. I didn’t care. I felt alive. Truly alive. The fear that you’re about to lose your life, I realized at that moment, is actually more intense than the fear of not getting an academic job. The Q and A session was a breeze.

Maybe Cash is dead, I thought, shaking hands with various beaming faculty members after the talk. Maybe the gun was for him.

I got to the airport, still in my suit, worn out after two and half days. The utter brightness of terminal exhaustion. Windows everywhere. The California sun dripped poison on the people.

My flight was headed to Chicago, where I had a layover on the way to Detroit. There was a number on my ticket. When my number was called, I trooped to the back of the plane. A small woman sat down next to me.

“California is the best place on earth, but Hawaii is paradise,” she said. “Hawaii is heaven, California is a very good place on earth,” she said. I was in California. I wasn’t dead yet.

It turned out her son-in-law was a top-ranked surfer. He was in Hawaii with her daughter. He considered his surfing ability to be a gift from god. He’d brought her daughter back to god. They were with god in heaven. The surfer had a Porsche in California.

“How much do assistant professors make?” she asked. I told her.

“Oh.” She put on her headphones. I ate a pretzel. I checked my watch. Then I looked up. Cash was coming down the aisle. He stopped maybe 10 rows ahead of me. He lifted his bag into the overhead compartment.

I jumped in my seat. I looked away. I looked again, furtively. Then I stared. Was I going crazy? It was Cash. Cash. 110-percent Cash.

Relax. The plane was going to Chicago. Dave had mentioned in an email that Cash was thinking of going to Chicago. It was just a coincidence that he was taking this flight. It didn’t mean anything. It was a coincidence.

He’s not turning around. He didn’t see me. Pretend I didn’t see him. Slouch down in my seat. Raise my magazine over my eyes.

I sat there like that for the whole flight, visions of me creeping up behind him and twisting his head off his neck playing over the magazine’s unread words. When the visions got too intense, I said the Serenity Prayer.

At the layover at Chicago, Cash got off the plane. Later, Dave told me he had gone there on a trip to a mental hospital that ended up being a vacation that ended up being an amateur drug-smuggling operation. Eventually the cops took his gun away, after he shot up his apartment’s ceiling.

A couple weeks after I got home, I got an offer from one of the universities I thought had rejected me. I called Irvine and withdrew myself from consideration. I never had to get a real job. And I never saw Cash again.

This essay develops an anecdote introduced in the author’s White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, just released in a 10th-anniversary edition.


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