Before the world fell apart, I went to college, acquired good jobs and produced meaningful work. A lush life actually. Naturally, I didn’t recognize this. But there were clues: I got up early to go to work, threw on my shoes, and jumped into my research. That was me in the Hanes commercial fixing my tights while men twisted their heads to look at me. Or, rather, that was a dream I had about my life. When I worked full-time.
A year ago, I didn’t wonder who I was. I was a policy analyst imagining how incarcerated teenagers could get out of jail and stay out of trouble. I felt…what? Confident and periodically useful.
My life included friends who confided in me over chardonnay in my dining room; my son loved me despite his teenage angst; and my husband brought home flowers with some regularity. My house—ramshackle as it was, was filled with chairs that enveloped people. No matter that the sofas were worn and stitched in another color of thread. This was a house with room for mistakes. When my son (Max) was eight, his best friend Rasul broke my favorite ceramic bowl. “Don’t worry,” Max told him, “ it’s only a thing, not a person.”
My dining room caressed good friends full of opinions and wisdoms, advice, and laughter. When bad things happened, we talked our way out of them. When things got complicated, I knew exactly what to do. I relied on foul language I borrowed from my mother.
“Fuck them,” my mother would yell until the Puglia family closed their windows. I’m not my mother but sometimes I wish I could wear her rhinestone dresses and sing alto with a good Tom Collins nearby. I want her ferocity lately, and the bravura to survive when it matters.
Nowadays, I’m a woman who lusts after those shredded chairs. And broken zippers sewn tight up the side of my couch.
But that was yesterday and now I’m somebody I never met. I’m one of the millions of people in the world who are unemployed..
Two glasses of pinot noir later, my friend Val asks, “If I’m not a mother, and I don’t work, who am I?” I have no bromide; Val is lovely, smart, kind, etc. but I am not sure any of these qualities matter any more. Indeed, who are we without work, without cash, without a place for our children?
It gets harder to decipher who I used to be and it’s premature to imagine who I will become. I was what? A good mother? A decent wife? Hopefully. A colleague surely. Always a worker. Clean sheets, hard work and smooth floors. Incessant notes competed with each other on the front of the refrigerator. Monday this, Thursday that way too much too fast to accomplish. Except I did. Picked up my son on time. Grabbed food for supper, talked at conferences, wrestles with late night edits. And I enjoyed this.
That was me the day before I joined the 12.0% unemployed Californians who are jobless…or…underemployed and became one of the 5 million Americans who have been looking for work for six months or more.
The First Interview
My first interview was too important. It required a new look, a deliberate confidence, a Michael Kors dress (marked down three times.) I wore a jacket that resembled bat wings. So far, so good. My lips were enchanting in a soft pink. I listened carefully, had questions informed by my research. I shook hands firmly and sat up straight…except when I leaned forward to answer questions.
There was just one problem: I was a mess and quite nauseous. What is the correct protocol for nausea in a job interview? Tell them? Leave fast. Run out?
When the committee asked me if I had any questions, I emphatically said ‘No.’ I saw their weird looks as I left the room.
There was no follow-up correspondence. I was understandably embarrassed by who I had become, but in retrospect, it seemed normal after 6 months no offers I grew ashamed. Six months later, I was hopeless, but I know that I am not alone in my despair.