I met Lindsay Zoladz (@lindsayzoladz) in fall 2007 when we were both college juniors, at the Telluride Film Festival’s Student Symposium. Each year they take 50 students with various film-related interests, and those selected get to meet all the filmmakers, see the top awards contenders, and network with other students who share a love for movies. We formed a small clique of six or seven people, saving seats at each theater, staying up late to talk about the films afterwards, and discussing what we hoped to do with our lives after graduation. I wanted to write films, and Lindsay wanted to write about them. We sort of lost touch in the years after the fest, especially since she keeps a low profile on social media. We tried a few times to connect after she moved to New York from Washington DC in late 2012, but both kept rescheduling due to our busied, social lives; I still didn’t know what she was up to here. One day in September 2014, I got my New York Magazine in the mail, and saw at the top of the cover: “Zoladz on Summer’s Pop Sisters.” Surely, there was no other Zoladz, I thought to myself. It was her column, indeed, and it was about the various multiple-female collaborations that dominated airwaves over the summer (think Iggy + Charli, Nicki + Ariana + Jessie J, Beyonce + Nicki), and the curious, sometimes conflicted undertones behind such collabs. I beamed as I read the column on my morning commute, then sent Lindsay a congratulatory text on her new role at @NYMag: Music wasn’t movies, but this was the same heightened plane. And, to my delight, she had just moved to Clinton Hill, a few blocks from me in Prospect Heights. Our reunion was firmly on the books, and once we finally caught up, I was tickled and stupefied when I learned about her circuitous route to such a prestigious position.
“I’m not a person who plans ahead,” Lindsay admits. “I did no internships. None.” She spent her collegiate summers at a filmmaking camp outside of DC, assuming her bases would be covered. It was how she put her American University film production major to use. Lindsay was humbled to learn that, after her 2009 commencement, she was perfectly unemployable. Dirt broke and lacking any plans, she moved her bed into a friend’s living room, and sectioned it off with a sheet, like in a hospital room. Lindsay grew accustomed to falling asleep as her friend’s roommate watched TV late into the night, and finally came to the conclusion that she would have to move home with her parents—the first in a series of sobering realizations: “I couldn’t find a job, and without a job, I couldn’t afford rent.” So, for the first time since high school, she returned to “the part of Philadelphia that’s in New Jersey” (Washington Township, to be exact). Her life back home fell into a very compromised rhythm: “I have the distinct memory of knowing that there was a second, late-night Happy Hour at TGI Fridays,” she says with laughter, recalling how she frequented the restaurant on weeknights. It was in that Fridays bathroom that she had her next sobering moment: She was examining her singed eyebrows, a sad result of lighting up in the back of a friend’s car as he hit a speed bump. She studied her face in the bathroom mirror while her friends ordered drinks. “I took a cold, hard look at myself, very metaphorically, and thought ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?’” It’s almost cringe-worthy, how cliché millennial the whole thing is, like something a Lena Dunham character might do. But Lindsay is ever aware of this, and none too forgiving of her past self, which is why I am instantly in love with my long-lost friend.
Lindsay bolted back to DC, determined to get work and make good. She found a small attic apartment for $500/month in the Van Ness neighborhood. It had no A/C and no heat. It did, however, have a stink bug infestation. “Dozens at a time,” she says. “A friend was over one night and I cried as we peeled like thirty of them off the screen and curtains.” Employers were also peeling her resume out of consideration for various film and writing gigs, and after failing to get any interviews, she once again found herself without any clue for what to do next. “Go figure,” she says now, shaking her head and wondering what that younger version of herself must have been expecting. Then, in October 2009, she got an offer on the spot: with Georgetown Cupcake. As a cupcake clerk. But not the one in Georgetown—the stepsister one in Bethesda, MD. “I couldn’t even get a serving job or a fancy barista job without prior experience, and they were the first place to say yes. I needed money. I had no other choice.” And so, she worked each weekday 10-6, for $10/hour selling $3 confections. Idle time was spent folding boxes—“I could still do this by muscle memory today, I’m sure.”—or making glittery fondant, that weird edible topping that can take the shape of a rabbit or rose or heart. Her colleagues fit one of two molds: other liberal-arts also-rans, and high-achieving high school students whose parents insisted they get a part-time job as a character-building exercise. “You could see the beginning of the millennial dream just crumbling, as they looked at me and the other college graduates. Here, they were stocking up on AP courses preparing for a prescribed life, and my experience was their way of seeing that maybe things won’t go exactly as planned.” Still, she found herself in a mentor role, giving the younger girls advice on who to take to prom or how to get into a good college. That’s as far as her advice could go, really.
Lindsay started writing for the music zine Coke Machine Glow. It was pro bono; the exchange was that she wanted a portfolio, and that they had the platform for publishing her articles. She was already buying these albums and going to the shows, and now she could pair interest with opportunity. She would jot notes and write in the break room at the cupcake shop, hoping the side hustle would lead to something. For the time being, however, she was stuck making fondant, leaving each day covered in glitter and frosting. One afternoon, some television producers came in to meet with her boss, and Lindsay overheard them planning the logistics of a reality TV show about the business—what would become “DC Cupcakes” on TLC. Lindsay connected the dots: a video crew, filming here, at her job…this could be the production gig that validated her private education film degree. She ceased rolling and cutting little carrot fondant shapes, and surreptitiously asked one of the producers if his whole crew had been hired. His response: “Yes, but don’t worry, they’re all really cute guys.” Another sobering moment: she was nothing more than “Cute Cupcake Girl.” She would soon sign a waiver allowing them to include her in the show, when one of her “save-me-from-this-hell” job applications—for an administrative assistant role at AARP—turned into an interview. Her teenage colleague Nina helped her get ready in the back of the shop, coaching Lindsay on her outfit, hair, and talking points. Lindsay left work early for the interview, got the job, and had her one-way ticket out of “DC Cupcakes.” On quitting the role of Cute Cupcake Girl: “It was the best day in a really long time.”
The AARP chapter of Lindsay’s progression is the most interesting, I think. She started as an office assistant and was, of course, unsettled. “But it felt like a respectable thing to tell people I was doing, because I was sitting at a desk with a computer and working for this big, well-known organization.” When a web producer quit unexpectedly, Lindsay was asked to step into the role despite being five years too junior. (Her film production background finally worked for something.) She was assigned to the series “Your Life Calling,” hosted by Jane Pauley, which aired monthly on The TODAY Show. It followed 12 people who, fresh off a mid-life crisis, had reinvented themselves and significantly altered their careers. There was a Broadway dancer who became an acupuncturist and moved into a chicken coop. Another, a lawyer turned chocolatier. “These people on our show, they were miserable for the prime of their lives because they were defining success on something they didn’t believe in their heart,” she says. They were much happier after pursuing whatever synced with their passions and interests, but still pragmatically. It’s why I—and Lindsay, I’m sure—hope that our generation is much happier for the prime of its life. These meanderings and compromises and frustrations that are more common with us often start from a place of entitlement, but they’re sobering, too. And better to be humbled at 25 than at 50. So, after a year at AARP, Lindsay had her biggest realization yet: “I recognized that I was on that path of inaccurately defining my success, too. I didn’t want that to be my life. So, I quit.” She vowed to make ends meet by freelance writing. Considering AARP’s purpose—helping people plan and lead a secure retirement—nobody understood her decision to leave without anything permanent lined up. “These people all hated working there too, but they each thought they had to keep doing it.” To be fair, they were also probably supporting families or nursing tenure. They had something to lose, and being stuck kept all of that preserved.
Lindsay began writing features for the Washington City Paper, and doing reviews for the music site Pitchfork. “I read an article in the Columbia Journalism Review a year ago about ‘the right time to go freelance,’ and they said ‘When you know at least five editors at major publications well enough that they’ll open any pitch email from you.’ I laughed, because that was not at all the case when I went freelance—I just dove right in. I didn’t follow the rules. And yet, looking back, I think that getting in over my head was crucial to succeeding as a freelancer, because it put me in this survivalist, sink-or-swim mindset.” She was tired of sinking further behind her peers who did something practical right out of school, or who had at least derived some pleasure from their day-to-day profession. A visit to New York turned into a little idea that maybe this city could offer her more culturally, and particularly on the music scene. Three months after moving—January 2013 now—Pitchfork offered Lindsay a full time job as Staff Writer. She was finally living one month ahead on her freelance paychecks, and seriously considered declining the role, if only because it might slow her momentum. But, she was rounding 26, and would soon be off of her parents’ health insurance. So she took it, largely for practical reasons. She stayed with Pitchfork until August 2014, having graduated to Associate Editor. New York Mag’s lead music critic Jody Rosen left for the Times earlier that summer, and Lindsay was asked to apply for the vacancy. After enduring numerous intense interviews and writing a slew of “audition articles,” she found herself with a job offer that would make a humiliated, humbled Cute Cupcake Girl very proud. It’s been over a year now, which she counts a feat: “There’s part of me that feels like one year is a really long time. I’ve never made it two years anywhere. When that happens, it will be an achievement because longevity is not something I ever had to value. It never before played into my perception of how my life is going.” And now, the loyalty and practicality matter for something, particularly because she is happy.