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Diploma in hand, a poet and dreamer looks for work

SARASOTA

Martin Steele had never been to the career center. As a student at New College, he could have visited any time.

Now, two months after graduation, he sat down with the director and told her he needed help.

"Okay, so ... Martin, what kind of job are you looking for?" Cathy Cuthbertson asked him.

"Well," said Martin. Silence swallowed the room. "Ideally I'd like some sort of position that uses my degree?" he said, as if answering a test question. His degree is in English.

"But if such a thing is kind of hard to get or not available, I guess I'd be willing to settle for something that would at least pay the bills."

Martin, 22, is one of three New College graduates the Tampa Bay Times followed as they tried to begin careers in an economy that is difficult for all job seekers, but especially for recent grads.

Cuthbertson asked him what sort of things was he interested in.

He had thought about journalism, but when he wrote stories for the college newspaper he hated having to ask personal questions. He could freelance, maybe submit magazine stories around Sarasota. But to do that, he would need a car. For now, he was using his expired student ID to get free rides on the city bus.

The director suggested he talk to the people at Sarasota Magazine and Pineapple Press. "They publish a lot of Florida authors."

"Speaking of which," Martin said softly. "I have also considered, not necessarily as like a sole means of income, but as a means of being published ... I like poetry and short fiction."

This time, the director paused. "Do you want to get paid for it?" she asked. "Or just to get something under your belt?"

"If I could be paid," said Martin, "I wouldn't say no."

Check out the Chamber of Commerce website, Cuthbertson told him; all kinds of jobs are posted there. Go to hospitals and nonprofits and Publix and ask if they need a writer or marketer.

Finally, the director suggested a practice interview. "So," she said, "tell me a little bit about yourself."

Martin froze.

"Okay," she said, "that question is pretty standard."

With tousled brown bangs, a two-day beard and hipster glasses, Martin seems slightly rumpled, geekishly handsome. In high school, he joined the chess club and won a spot on the scholastic bowl team. He didn't date.

"A reader," said his dad, Jeff. "A dreamer."

Martin grew up in St. Charles, Ill., the younger of two boys. His dad had dropped out of college at 19 to join the Marines and always regretted it. Now he is retired from helping set up Home Depots. Martin's mom is a singer and a teacher.

As a kid, Martin liked whales and dolphins. So when he applied to New College, his parents thought it was because he wanted to be near the gulf.

Instead, Martin was attracted to the school's reputation as a "Bohemian paradise." He loved the idea of studying for the sake of knowledge — rather than to cultivate a particular career.

His parents paid about half of the $30,000 out-of-state tuition. He won scholarships and took out a $20,000 Stafford loan. He worked during summers — at a library and garden store. But he had no idea what he wanted to do for a career.

During his sophomore year, Martin found his passion: the liberating ambiguity of English, where no one is ever really right or wrong. Finally, he knew what he wanted to be: a poet.

After graduation, Martin moved back in with his parents in Illinois, but they all knew it was temporary. His girlfriend still had another year at New College and he planned to go back to Sarasota to be with her.

One day, on Facebook, he saw an ad for assistant director of New College's writing center, where he had worked 10 hours a week. Quickly, Martin cobbled together a resume.

He listed his strengths: hardworking, open-minded. Strong oral and exceptional written communication skills. Diligent, patient and resourceful.

He listed his test scores, the poems he had published in the writing center's journal, volunteer hours at the Sarasota Boys and Girls Club. "President of New College Anime Club."

He was packing to fly back to Florida when he learned he didn't get hired. His dad gave him $5,000 and this advice: "Marty, write poetry. But let's be realistic about this. You also need to get a job."

Martin did the math: If he held his expenses to under $1,000 a month, he could make his parents' money last until the end of the year.

That's when he'd have to start paying off his student loan.

Martin had met Lauren Bernier at a party called "Kiss your crush." She walked up to him and kissed him, right on the lips, then turned to leave. "Hey!" he called after her. "I'd like to kiss you again."

After that, they were inseparable. They moved in together when Martin returned to Sarasota. While she started her senior year, studying chemistry, Martin sat alone most days, making ramen noodles, constructing cyber shelters in a video game called Dwarf Fortress.

He didn't miss being in school, he said. He didn't want to go to graduate school just to have something to do. When asked, "What's your dream job?," he sighed and said, "Something I could do for a long time without feeling my soul is being crushed."

He parsed out his money frugally: $435 a month in rent, $25 for cable and power, $50 a week for food. He seldom went out. He was getting by, for now.

In late September, Martin and his girlfriend ordered a pizza to celebrate their first anniversary. But by then, even she was starting to push: He needed to work.

"I try not to let it get to me," Martin said. "It's weird, not really like what I imagined my life would be like right now. It still feels like summer."

Everyone expected so much from him. But he sought so little for himself. He had his whole life to figure out forever. For now, it was enough just to play, dream and be with the girl he loved.

Sure, he put in applications.

He applied to do communications for the campus police station, to be a manager at Target. He even rode the bus to a kitchen store, Sur La Table, after his girlfriend saw a job on the website.

"I met the manager and everything," Martin said. "I'm not sure why that one didn't work out."

He didn't make a list of jobs to apply for. Didn't contact the Chamber of Commerce or temp agencies.

One afternoon, he saw that a fledgling company was hiring comedy writers for a new YouTube series. If they liked his stuff, he could write weekly shows for $350 per episode — more than enough to meet his monthly bills. He penned a five-minute sketch about people his age just hanging out: a modern Friends.

His rejection letter came with a check for $25, the only pay he had earned since graduation.

By then, Martin had run through more than half his savings. He couldn't ask his parents for more money. He wouldn't.

With no interviews in sight and his girlfriend bugging him and both of them getting tired of ramen noodles, he finally logged off Dwarf Fortress and logged onto the New College jobs board.

"Tutoring," he told his dad. A new agency was hiring tutors for students in Bradenton and Sarasota. If he could log 20 hours a week at $16 an hour, that would be twice what he had made at the writing center, more than enough to cover his costs.

But there was a catch. He needed a car.

So in October, Martin's dad flew to Florida. "I don't think he's giving this job search thing 100 percent because he doesn't have to right now," Jeff Steele said. "Maybe I can help get him going."

They found a 1996 Civic, 128,000 miles, for $4,000. Martin would have to pay his dad back as soon as he got a job.

That afternoon, Martin's dad took him to Beef O'Brady's to toast his first car — and ask about his plans.

"Well, I wouldn't say I feel particularly ambitious," Martin told his dad over Bud drafts. "We won't be in Florida forever, so I don't feel like I need to look for something long-term. When Lauren graduates we might want to go west, maybe try Portland or Seattle. We've talked about getting married."

Suddenly, Martin's dad understood. He slapped his son on the shoulder and ordered another round.

"I think it's wonderful that you've found someone you care about," Martin's dad told him. "Maybe you have found your passion — just not your work."

The next week, Martin tutored three high school students in math.

Soon, someone else wanted help studying vocabulary for the SAT. His first check was for more than $100.

Finally, he was getting paid to work with words.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

ABOUT THE SERIES

Tampa Bay Times journalists Lane DeGregory and John Pendygraft followed three new graduates of Sarasota's New College for six months as they struggled to begin their working lives in a sluggish economy.

Read the series at tampabay.com/features.

Sunday: Liz Usherwood keeps a spreadsheet tracking hundreds of job applications, and winds up going to the ends of the earth to find work.

Coming Tuesday: Rachel Barnard puts her psychology degree to good use creating characters for a novel. But will anyone pay to read it?

Diploma in hand, a poet and dreamer looks for work 11/18/12 [Last modified: Sunday, November 18, 2012 11:28pm]

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