Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Get in THAT Line!

October 1, 2009: warm, bright and sunny.

Me: unemployed—forecast uncertain.

My mother, who is so annoyingly optimistic I sometimes want to smack her, insisted on a fun-filled "celebration day" to commemorate my "escape" (her word) from my hectic career. We'd inaugurate my new (hopefully temporary) lifestyle with lunch (her treat) and thrift-store shopping, ending with my sign-up for "life on the dole" (the delightful British term for unemployment benefits).

My inner HR professional confidently assessed my situation as career insight. After all, how many times had I fired workers, condemning them to life on the dole? Here was my first-hand chance to study life on the wrong side of the desk. I'd glean tons of insight from the experience. Having a sociology degree, I viewed the whole thing as a personal field experiment—an inside look at unemployment in America.

Then, there was the personal-growth potential. (Am I am starting to sound like my mother?) I could reinvent myself and my career. Anything I disliked in my prior job was—POOF!—gone—everything a blank slate, a rare opportunity to redesign myself and my career mid-life.

Thus, unemployment was not a "problem". It was an opportunity. (That DNA! Sometimes, my own optimism makes me want to slap myself, too.)

I got it that the downside was money—or the lack thereof. But, with savings plus a final paycheck and vacation time still to be paid, I wouldn't starve this week or this month or—God forbid—this year.

Overall, I felt pretty good about the whole thing.

But wait.

Phone: ringing; Mom: car accident

Four hours, three police officers, two wrecked cars and one orthopedist later, I confidently strode into the unemployment office.

Despite the day's calamities, I still had to apply on October 1. Benefits begin with filing, not job loss. Timeliness counts.

Accordingly, I had no choice but to dump my mother at the orthopedist's office and race to the nearest unemployment office. Unfortunately, that office was the one in a less-than-desirable county just east of the educated and refined community I call home.

My county is the one with low crime and unemployment and the state's highest per capita income. The place I had to go to sign up was the county with the higher unemployment rate, and the one making the nightly news for drug deals and homicides. No problem. I'd make it work.

As I hurried in, expecting to take care of business quickly and scoot back to retrieve my mother, it hit me: I'd fallen through an extra dimension into a parallel universe.

The building was packed—maybe 150 supplicants, some slumped in sleep (or, had they died waiting?). A line stagnated at "Information". I joined that line overseen by a professionally dressed, middle-aged woman. Her face and body radiated aggravation/aggression.

Me: "Where do I go. . ."

"Information" Officer (wearily): "Over there." (Hand gestures broadly to . . . the waiting area? Another line? Some empty rooms? Or, for all I know, the planet Jupiter?).

Me: ". . . to file for unemployment?"

"Information" Officer (more wearily): "Over there." (Again, hand gestures.)

Me (puzzled): "Where?"

"Information" Officer (forcefully): "Get in that line." (No helpful hand motions this time.)

Chastened, I picked a line. Hours passed.

I had time to understand these people did not care that yesterday I was a decently-paid, upper-management executive. They did not care that for years I hired the hard-core unemployed—possibly ones like those napping in the waiting area.

They did not care that I used to represent my employer at unemployment hearings to decide who would or would not get those precious unemployment benefits.

They did not even care that I'd had a large, plush office, a swanky title and a job with authority and responsibility—one where, when I asked questions, multiple people scurried to find answers.

And, they really, really, really did not care that in my last week at work, I earned more than any one of them would earn in the next three months.

To show their affection, they christened me "Number 132". Charming, but a tad difficult to monogram.

My mother, languishing in the doctor's office, may have been the only other human who cared that the digital sign remained stuck on "Now Serving: Number 23".

The air stagnated with the not caring.

I took a deep breath and tried to summon my earlier optimism. Maybe if I came to this place every week I'd get demoralized, too, but today I would not let "them" get to me. In my career, I'd handled workplace homicides, government inspections, difficult people and multi-million dollar budgets. It would take more than apathy to undo this tough cookie.


Anonymous said...

What hope do we have if the General is in line waiting for the "Firing Squad"?

Anonymous said...

You know, you really are a good writer. Perhaps and brand-new career is in order? Or, at least a temp job to bring in some cash?

Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like this is a foreign country where there is a need for an interpretor.

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