The economic woes our society has undergone over the last three years were crystallized for me in a single story. On March 17, a man who worked at a city office in Costa Mesa was called into work to receive a layoff notice at the city maintenance offices. Huy Pham, an employee of that department, was at home with a broken ankle and not supposed to work. Suspecting the news, he chose to skip the meeting and instead went to City Hall and jumped off the roof.
In one bold, rash move, he exhibited an impulsive behavior that has more frequently crossed my mind and, I’d bet, many others’ across the country as, if not a rational response to our failed economy, most certainly an act that is not altogether shocking.
In early 2007, I was laid off from a job I’d held for nearly nine years. It was a job I loved and a job that fit me like a clichéd, crocheted, personalized and otherwise lovely glove. I was a bookseller at an indie.
In January of 2008 I got a second job after having taken a few language classes, hacking away at writing stories and going through every last bit of money I had saved from selling books (read: not much). This new job involved writing and editing for an international engineering and project management firm. It paid as much in six months as I’d ever earned in the best full year of employment since I was in high school. It was corporate, and apart from being bearable because of a good friend who worked there, was so painfully dull that I once drew blood from my inner thigh while pinching it to keep awake during one of those two-hour, thrice-weekly corporate meetings whose riveting information would, in a small business, be disseminated perfectly in a five-minute conversation so we could get the fuck back to work.
Eight months later, in October of 2008, I was laid off for the second time in eighteen months. It was also only the second time in my life I’d lost a job not by my own choice.
Beginning in November 2008, I began collecting unemployment and diligently applying for any writing/editing jobs I could find. I scoured industry postings, Craigslist notices, searched on my own for firms or persons which were looking for people with my expertise and figured, naively, that within a reasonable amount of time, I’d be employed doing something with words.
I started applying for jobs that were even tangentially related to writing and editing, jobs which mentioned that a successful applicant must be able to communicate effectively with the written word or simply be able to speak well.
I peppered these applications with occasional ones for delivery drivers – from auto parts to paper products to legal documents. Weeks turned into months, months turned into years, unemployment ran out, and I became one of the 99ers (those people who are not properly reflected in the most disseminated unemployment statistic, the Department of Labor’s U-3 number. Once you are done with unemployment benefits, you simply vanish and become a ghost to U-3. This U-3 number is just one of the six ‘Alternative measures of labor underutilization’, the most striking, and accurate, of which is the U-6, a number which stands as of April 2011 at a seasonally adjusted 15.9 percent. Even this U-6 number may not reflect the actual amount of people who are suffering un- or under- employment. It is, after all, a figure that the government publishes, even though they use the U-3 number – a number which never hit ten percent because it is a psychological barrier that no one in control of analyzing and and publishing these figures could withstand politically if they wanted to be reelected or reappointed. And because the government does take ownership of these numbers, I am going to go out on a limb and say our truer number reflecting un- or under- employment has remained perilously close to twenty percent).
Over the last two and a half years, I’ve cobbled together shards of extra money by selling books online, purchasing curiosities at thrift stores and hawking them on craigslist or ebay, generously being able to fill my gas tank with my dad’s Sam’s club membership, receiving a hundred or two from him as I spend time at his office and use his computer to search for jobs and run errands for him and act as a boy Friday. Once, even, I found a ten dollar bill in a pair of pants at the Goodwill. I felt like a scratch ticket winner.
I don’t live month-to-month, or often even week-to-week. Sometimes I live day-to-day, choosing on certain weeks to live without: phone or power or gas or water for a couple of days so I can scrape together enough cash to restart these services and then be able to: go online to search for jobs, see inside my apartment without a lantern, cook on my stove or take a shower.
Though I have so far managed to keep myself hoveled and Ramened, I have gotten to the point where I expect that sometime soon in my life I will take residence in a homeless shelter or a friend’s couch for an extended period of time.
It is, to be blunt, a mentally taxing endeavor and depression triggerer to wake up each morning with the first thing on one’s mind if the day will win or I will eke out a small victory against the day. On the good days, the day and I run neck and neck, on the bad days the day dunks me repeatedly in the deep end where I have no footing and can barely gulp a wet breath.
I have fallen deeply in love with Saturdays and Sundays not because they afford me time to enjoy myself, but only because I know on those two days that if I have any of my previously mentioned utilities in tact on a Saturday morning, I’ll have it at least until Sunday night because municipalities and cities do not schedule shut offs for weekends. Thank fucking god.
A few weeks ago, I hit a benchmark which, as I’m writing this, surprises me still. I have sent off exactly 400 resumes. Though a handful have been for regular jobs in a warehouse or for driving gigs, most have been to magazines, newspapers, websites, journals, companies, individuals, institutions and other entities which have advertised a need for writers or editors.
I have applied across the state, across the country, even, on a few occasions, overseas. I have applied for job postings as an assistant writer for people who believe their life stories are ultra-intriguing and as a ghostwriter for people who have ‘a novel in mind’ but just don’t know how to get it down on paper. I even threw my hat into the ring for a job that involved writing ‘juicy stories.’ Had someone advertised a need to write a suicide note for fear of being misinterpreted legally and their estate thrown into interminable probate, I’d have sent off samples of the dandiest last-ever words.
I have reformatted my resume a dozen times to reshape it into what I think a particular firm would find most enticing. I have, since about submission 150, even included in my cover letter a note that I am willing to take the job and work gratis for the first month if only to prove my worth, to offer them up a voluntary probationary period in which they can assess if we’re a good fit or not.
I know just how desperate that must seem to the resume screener but desperation tugs at my thoughts only during the moments of the day I’m awake.
I have received a few dozen automated replies that an entity has received my resume, thanking me and that they will contact me if I fit a need they have. Out of those 400 resumes I have received no job offers and exactly, get this, one response.
It was, needless to say, a note saying I wasn’t quite the candidate they were looking for and was personalized in that way credit card offers are personalized – with the salutation ‘Dear Mr. Mark Sutz.’
Apparently, the other 399 submissions I made have disappeared into the same black hole in which float millions of lonely, uncoupled socks or into the same 900 mile high virtual slushpile in which linger dozens of my stories that literary magazines conspire to not read.
None of these other 399 entities has found it within their abilities to even send out a rejection email or letter.
I know I am not the only person in this boat, but those 399 non-responses have served to both build up a thick, cynical hide and redefined demoralization for me. I feel a camaraderie with people that I never would have four or five years ago.
I took my regular employment for granted and have now been firmly, absolutely, depressingly humbled.
I suspect I share versions of these feelings with many tens of thousands of anonymous worker bees across the country and stare with a similar stunned face into the mirror at night as I brush my teeth and wonder if I am indeed an unwitting character in an unscripted, unaired, unfilmed, unending episode of The Twilight Zone being sent into the future by a maniacal, time-bending puppeteer spirit of Rod Serling whose hand has crossed time and space and multiple dimensions and lodged itself perfectly up my ass and animates me by fingering my bowels.
Remove the hand, Rod. Please.
I have, as many others also have done, reassessed every single choice I’ve made in my life that is remotely related to education and work. I have come to the conclusion that, somehow, in my acquisition of a BA and a Master’s, I utterly missed the boat. I feel, like Silent Cal said, an ‘educated derelict.’
Given the choice to go back in time just around high school, I’d place in my path a person who was a tradesman of sorts and a very persuasive one: maybe a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician, a taxidermist, a phlebotomist, a cryptologist, even a damn meteorologist, and I’d also give myself openmindedness enough to listen to that person and be taken on as an apprentice with him or her. I think I missed my ist somewhere along the way.
I suspect working with my hands would find me at least one more opportunity than moving bits of the alphabet around blank pages has found me.
I have thought greatly through my 400 blows about what the value of work is in our country, what the value of the worker is, what it means to negotiate a system which we have been told since we could speak is the greatest on the planet.
The only thing our country certainly owns as its unique brand is an ongoing lesson, perhaps even a type of indoctrination from early on, that rampant, unabashed capitalism is the only way out and the thing we all deserve.
There isn’t a kid in the country who doesn’t understand that if you buy a few lemons, some sugar, a stack of cups and a pitcher that you can’t double your money simply by laying out your cost per glass of lemonade on one side of a piece of paper and then doubling it on the other side then hawking it on the sidewalk on a hot summer day.
Making a profit is something that kids from Hawaii to Maine understand and are told is something uniquely, personally, rightfully American.
I do not disagree that it is a keen and necessary lesson, but it is not the only one.
A lesson they’re not told, one I wasn’t told by my father, a disciple of pure, unfettered Capitalism, is that behind this profit motive are dozens of other concerns, chiefly involving those profit-making things, human beings.
I won’t go into those dozens, but I’m pretty certain whoever is reading this might have been softened a bit to recognize a few of them by, if not personally experiencing the ride on our economic slide, at least knowing someone whom has been affected by it.
The sad thing is that even the dumbest, most selfish, fish-breathed, communicatively challenged bosses that exist (for me as recent as my penultimate superiors) understand how to eke out another point at the cost of a person. To a degree, they’re as knowledgeable about the economy as Warren Buffett. Buy low, sell high.
Some of them should take an etiquette class and learn about responding to earnest inquiries for employment.
Come to think of it, that’s a job I’m well qualified for. Hire me to write your rejection letters. At least those folks will know someone out there has heard them.