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.
The long-term effects of unemployment have a power that few people grasp until it’s them. The New York Times recently reported that long-term unemployment affects the lifelong health and well-beingof the jobless. Kate Strully, a professor at SUNY,found that people who lose their jobs are 83 % more likely to develop stress-induced conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis and depression. Till von Wachter, an economist at Columbia University, has even more ominous facts.Von Wachter looked at mortality rates and income records and concluded that death rates increased astronomically for the unemployed in the year they lost their jobs.
Don Peck, the feature editor for the Atlantic haswritten a book entitled Pinched. Peck describes the aftermath of being out of work for more than seven months. This is what he found: More than half of the respondents were withdrawing from their friends; marriages had become quite stressful, and 15% of the unemployed had acquired a substance abuse habit. “Being unemployed is about the worst think that can happen to you. Psychologically it’s equivalent to the death of a spouse and is a kind of bereavement in its own right.”
My Second Debacle
My second interview—via Skype—was terse. Can you write research they asked me? How well do you write? Describe your educational history. Upload samples of your work, as well as a vita and a cover letter affirming your interest in the firm. My cover letter was understandably short because the firm never told me what they did. In my second Skype interview, they explained the job.
The firm’s goal was to write papers for college students who didn’t want to. I was tempted because I like to write and pursue answers. Unfortunately, I was also disgusted. However, this was never mentioned. I was growing up; I was cynical by now. I was improving. They hired me. My gratitude had no bounds until the next day when I quit. Apparently, I still had some ethical remants.
Third Time Around
My best friend gave me a job writing grant proposals so I could launch my own firm. One of the grants I wrote resulted in $858,752 dollars. The second grant was short-listed. This should be the paragraph where I grab the moon and sail into some sunset with a job. And then, my realization: I’m an introvert who can be socially capable. But never a diehard extrovert who schmoozes, who remembers to carry a business card when get apples. I’m from Boston inside, and therefore mildly repressed.
After the Facts
Everything is too important to me now: the length of my black dress, the right shoes if I get an interview. In retrospect, I wonder was my bat-like sweater too avant-garde? What day of the week was I being interviewed?
So, what’s a woman to do? Resort to social media, industry leads, join LinkedIn, swap phone numbers with everyone in the grocery store? Rent a seat at the Unemployment Bureau? Answer: All of the above.
The Job That Got Away
Good interview. Got the job: Exactly two states away from anyone I knew. And of course, what would I do with my husband? What to do with this beautiful warped luck? My prospective boss saw my value. Her kindness was palpable. I could restart a new life or rupture my marriage. I chose home.
Fears erupt in the morning when whole days sit in front of me. Hard work feels so enviable.But really, I am just an ordinary worker dethroned from safety. Pushed down an economic notch; lost in America’s broken promises. At least Paul Krugman understands. He doesn’t “have the impression that Americans are spoiled; despair seems more like it.”
At first, my best friends assured me that every skill set I owned would rise up and save me. After 100+ resumes and six months, I knew they were lying. This is what I did with their enthusiasm: stopped listening. Hummed like a child, my hands over my ears, rejecting whatever anyone said--as though their lies were the reasons why I had no work. Or rather, fragments of work.
Labor statistics confirm my pessimism. More than 14 million Americans are currently unemployed. In California, 12% are now unemployed. Nowadays, the Bureau’s statisticians wonder how long will people keep looking for work. Ironically, the likelihood of becoming employed decreases the longer one is unemployed.
These facts assure me that I am not alone.
Aside from the brazen men and women on Wall Street, I don’t think anyone meant to deliberately harm me. But, none of us could imagine what we never saw before: A moment as depressing and as ominous as the Great Depression.
Perhaps I followed America’s script too scrupulously: Get an education. Buy a house. Invest in the market. Swap up for bigger, better, larger, huge. I bought a mortgage that smelled like secrecy. It was too good to be true for three years. And then I bought a car that worked. Yes, that was me in my air conditioned car beside you, feeling beneficent. Handing money to tired men who wanted to wash my windows. Unaware, I’d lose my job. I’m not in shock now, but I’m also not any safer.
This woman I thought I knew lies dormant, still hoping things will change. My mother-in-law Cynthia [who lived through the first Great Depression] comforts me this way, “We had nothing, and we knew it. But we had so little, we never lost so much. Whatever you do, don’t internalize any of it.”
I have one more story to share. When Max was four years old, we went to an amusement park with a fountain that spit water at us unexpectedly. We loved these surprises because we never knew when the fountain would catch us off-guard. Over time we ran toward the water to master what might happen next. But we never really knew really when the water would find us.