Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cousin Itt: Alive and Well and Living in My House

Living on the dole brings me back to my roots. Adversity shows me my true colors. I am learning the lengths I to which I can go to survive.
The true color of my roots: grey
The lengths to which I will go: half-way down my back and heading south fast.
Indeed, what I see when I look in the mirror these days: visions of The Addams Family’s Cousin Itt.
That’s right—these days I’m actually drawing job-seeking inspiration from hairy Cousin Itt. (Remember the episode “Cousin Itt and the Vocational Counselor” where he/she/it found his/her/its appropriate career?)
My own hair (greying and inching toward my waist) is growing proof that I’m making it through tough times. Nevertheless, I like what I see in my long, grey locks: the outer reflection of my inner strength.
I had no hair until the age of three. My grandmother once taped pink foam curlers to my head when I begged her to fix my “hair” just like hers.
But, when I got hair, I grew a lot of it. Fast growing. Beyond plentiful. Super thick. I burn out hair dryers, and break brushes, barrettes and ponytail holders.   
The good news is I inherited Mom’s thick tresses. The bad news is I inherited Dad’s prematurely grey hair gene. I have more grey on my head than my mother does on hers.
Five years ago I decided to cover that grey with blonde highlights in summer, and red ones in winter. A mixture in spring and fall. And I chose Salon 74, the hippest salon in town, to hide those pesky “self-highlighting” (i.e. grey) hairs. The prices: equally hip (translation: not cheap). While I was employed, it was mere pocket change. A small price to pay for a “good hair day,” I told myself.
The new on-the-dole reality: I don’t have that kind of money for a haircut anymore. My hair has not been cut—or  colored—in eight months. I can’t remember the last time it was this long—some time in my twenties, I think. 
Perhaps I should contact Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that uses donated hair to make hair pieces for financially disadvantaged children who have long-term medical hair loss. Someone should benefit from my situation. But, they do not accept highlighted hair.
Over the years, Mom has frequently expressed her opinion on those expensive hair cuts at Salon 74. Too much to pay says my practical parent. She goes to one of those no-nonsense, no-appointment-necessary shops that charges $12 for a cut.

I could get my hair cut at her place, she tells me.
I don’t.
See, while I don’t have big bucks for a haircut—well, I don’t have $12 either.
Besides, ultimately her place would cost more because they charge $5 for a bangs trim. At my place, it’s complimentary. And those free trims extend the life of an expensive haircut for a long, long time. Just how long, I’m not sure. Ask me in another six months.
But, with a reunion coming up, Mom is suddenly stepping in as the style police, threatening to frog-march me to the pricey salon for a cut-and-color job at her expense.
“Unless you are leaning toward a career in country music, you need a haircut,” Mom  jokes. “Besides, your grey hair reflects poorly on me. You make me look old. How can I look young with a grey-haired daughter standing beside me?”
OK, maybe she has a point, but, as I walk away from my latest look in the mirror I am unfazed. What’s wrong with really, really long hair? It worked for Cousin Itt, didn’t it?
I begin to hum a nifty little ditty: “They’re creepy and they’re kooky . . .”
# # #
Just For Fun: Watch "Cousin Itt and the Vocational Counselor".
And for More Fun:

Cousin Itt photo courtesy of
Oshima Island Girl photo courtesy of

Monday, April 26, 2010

Mystery Date Redux?

Remember the Mystery Date board game?

Little girls loved playing Mystery Date. My mother, of course, wouldn't let me have the game. However, my neighbor, Joanie, an older teenager did have it, and at Joanie's house, I could—and did—sneak in a few rounds without Mom finding out.

The goal was simple: You always hoped to go on a date. You always hoped to get the handsome guy. You always hoped to not get the scary, sloppily-dressed date—the "dud".

That was then. This is now. Has my job search has turned into Mystery Date: Career Version?

Yep, that's right, folks! Decades years later, I find myself playing a real-life round of Mystery Date:

Phone rings.

It's Joe McSwain, a recruiter in Wyoming. (A long way from my Georgia town. I've never heard of him.)

Joe can't recall how he came by my resume. Perhaps from someone else who possibly got it off the CareerBuilder site, he thinks?

(Uh-oh. I've got a bad feeling about this.)

He knows nothing about the company, CEO, position or salary.

(Um, you don't know anything about any of the important stuff? You are the one doing the search, right?)

A start-up healthcare company is looking for somebody to head up HR. Nope, Joe doesn't know the title either.

"Overqualified," he says of me.

That's a bad word in my book. So why did he even call me?

"But," he hastily adds, "the company may give you part ownership 'to make-up for it.'"

(What "it" are they making up for—precious little money? I thought he didn't know the salary. Part owner? Part owner of what?)

"The company is ABC Healthcare, but don't try to Google it" Joe warns, "There's not much on the Internet about it or the CEO. The company is very new."

Is this guy for real, I wonder. The fastest growing scams these days target job seekers. I've had my share of suspicious job propositions, and one friend actually lost money to a job search scam.

I cautiously continue the conversation.

"The CEO," Joe states with certainty, "will call this afternoon."

I ask for a time frame; I do, after all, have other things to do, yet don't want to be tied up when the call comes.

"He didn't say a time--just 'this afternoon'. Be available." Joe says.

Praying this is both legit and promising, I keep myself available and near the phone all afternoon.

I do not make networking phone calls; don't want to tie up the phone.

I do not clean out the garage; don't want to be up to my neck in junk and lose the phone.

I do not vacuum the house; don't want to be unable to hear the phone.

I do not start cooking dinner; don't want to burn food while being interviewed.

I do not clean the cats' litter box—oh, who am I kidding? I just plain don't want to do that.

I do nothing but sit near the phone. For hours. While it does not ring. Not even once. (Well, actually, I did do one thing: I went to the bathroom every 30 minutes. Didn't want to get caught in a long interview with a full bladder.)

The phone never rang. Yep, not only was my mystery date the "dud", he stood me up, too. This never used to happen in the board game.

Okay, I wasn't all that surprised. This--or something eerily similar--has happened several times before.

Let's review the facts: a mystery recruiter gets my resume in some mysterious way. He calls to screen me for a mystery job at a mystery company at some mysterious rate of pay. A mystery CEO will call me at a mystery time to interview me.

And he never calls.

Tomorrow is another day. Once again I'll play Mystery Date: Career Version. I'll roll the dice, draw another card, take another spin 'round the board, opening the door and my mind to career possibilities.

My dreamy Mystery Date career is still out there somewhere. I just have to keep opening doors until I finally find it.

# # #

Just For Fun: Watch the 1960s Mystery Date television commercial (I particularly enjoyed the groovy 1960s theme music!).

And, For More Fun: Check out the Mystery Date board game.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Tale of Two Women and the Pork Chop Shakedown

When I respond to friends' invitations with "I don't have money for that," do they believe me? They're all comfortably middle class, just like I used to be. This new financial situation of mine is not an experience they can identify with, I think. But, I'm serious; on the dole, I do not have any money for fun.

Therefore, when a favorite author lectured in Atlanta, I was overjoyed at the price: free. Yeah, that's in my budget. I rounded up a willing friend—also out of work—and made the trek into the city. (What about the price of gas, you ask. Fortunately, I have a paid-for, fuel-efficient Honda.)

I needed a break. I'd toiled for nearly three weeks on a complicated federal government job application. Trust me, executive-position federal applications are not for the faint-hearted: 27 single-spaced pages of supplemental materials.

This night out: my reward for completing and submitting that beast.

Just this once, Pat and I decided to splurge; after the lecture we'd enjoy dinner at Mary Mac's Tea Room.

This restaurant serves generous portions at what I used to call moderate prices. Yet, while not extravagantly expensive, a trip to Mary Mac's would still put a significant dent in my monthly food budget. But, I decided to allow myself this one treat, figuring I could compensate later at the grocery store. (Scrambled eggs for dinner, anyone?)

My order came: three tender, gorgeous, delectable, boneless, center-cut chops fried to a crisp golden brown. Yummmm. Heavenly. Meal and tip: just under $17.

There was a time when I considered $17 mere pocket change. Not now. In my circumstances this is big money. But, I did leave with two untouched pork chops. l'd eat twice more from those glorious leftovers. Three meals equal $5.67/meal. Not too bad.

I clutched my pork chop package proudly as we exited, congratulating myself on having eaten well and carting off additional meals, too. A pretty good deal while "on the dole."

We rounded the corner. A skinny, dirty, homeless woman approached.

Woman (aggressively): "Do you have any money?"

(Yikes! Is she mugging us or asking for a handout? I wondered, trying not to panic.)

Woman (not waiting for our reply): "Do you have any spare change? I'm hong-ry."

Me (cautiously): "Um. . . no, I don't have any money."

(I could only think, she truly has no clue how accurate this statement is.)

Woman (pointing at my bag): "Are those leftovers?"

I nodded, dreading what I knew was coming.

Woman: "Can I have them?"

I truly believe in feeding the hungry, both human and animal, but oh, Lord, I thought, why tonight? Yet, how could I deny this woman my leftovers? Truth is, I could not, and both of us knew it. This was not hunger in the abstract—the kind for which you write a check to the Salvation Army. This was hunger here and now and in my face.

I can't bear for any human or creature to be hungry. Especially not when I have a full belly myself. In my more affluent former life, I used to make soup for my church's homeless mission. I've served food to the hungry in soup kitchens, too.

I'd like to tell you I instantly, willingly and altruistically handed over those pork chops—just one human gladly helping another with nary a selfish thought. That's what I'd like to tell you. But, I can't. The plain truth is my first reaction was that it genuinely ticked me off to part with those two precious pieces of pork.

The only way I'd justified spending $17 for one meal was by making two more meals from the leftovers.

The reality is, at that moment, I wasn't moved by the woman's hunger. What I was thinking was: That's $11 worth of pork chops in that bag—a giveaway I could ill afford in my own circumstances.

But, then the thought raced through my brain: "There but for the grace of God, go I." True, some people become homeless through their own poor decisions. Others land there because of mental illness or addiction. But others are homeless because they—just like educated, middle-class me—lost jobs through no fault of their own, resulting in a downward spiral from which they never recovered. Some, unlike me, may not have family or friends to circumvent that slide into poverty and homelessness.

I still have savings. I have a house. I still have an income albeit limited. I never go to bed hungry.

Probably two-thirds of the people in the world would label me "wealthy" right this minute, even in current circumstances. True, I can't shop or go to movies, but unlike so many in third-world countries, I have plenty to eat, a nearly paid-for roof over my head, a dependable car, a full wardrobe, air conditioning and heat and family and friends in a position to help if I need it. I have much for which to be thankful.

I knew what had to be done.

"Sure," I said, after that first hesitation. I handed the bag to her, and hoped my smile was convincing. "It's two pork chops. They're really good. I hope you enjoy them."

Pulling out of the parking lot, I knew I'd done the right thing even though I still longed for those pork chops. Then it occurred to me that even minus the extra meals I was still the winner in that encounter. I would go home to a nice house, full pantry and refrigerator and a materially blessed life—not one of which the homeless woman would ever likely have or even dare to aspire to have.

That night, all some nameless hungry woman on a dark Atlanta street corner got was two cold second-hand pork chops; I got a new handle on just how blessed my life is even "on the dole." 
Photo courtesy of
Additional Reading: How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill.
Michael Gates Gill was a well-paid advertising executive in a major New York City firm. He was born not just with a silver spoon in his mouth, but with a whole service for eight. Yet this affluent, Yale-educated, well-traveled, arrogant, pompous "family" man loses his job and his self-esteem leading him to make a series of poor personal choices that will hurt those he loves and send him spiraling into dire straits. While the author's personal choices do not qualify him for sainthood, he is brutally honest about his actions and their subsequent consequences. Gill embarks on a journey of self-discovery—all through hourly employment at Starbucks. Proving that those who give a second chances to those who deserve it the least can—both literally and figuratively—save a life.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Dance of the Unemployed

8:00 AM: Eyes open. How is it possible to awaken at the same time every day with no alarm? Maybe, because I get enough sleep. Who says there are no perks to life on the dole?

8:30 AM: Turn on TV. Turn off TV. Weather and traffic—not useful. Scrub face and teeth, dress in sweats. Tug a brush through really, really long hair that I cannot afford to have cut. Ready to commute.

8:31 AM: Commute downstairs. No traffic. Sip store-brand diet cola (brand cola is too pricey). Now, energized, ready to set the world on fire, I crank up the computer.

Today's the day to find my dream job!

8:40 AM: Great news! My Google Reader has delivered 53 job posts that fit my search criteria. Busy day ahead. I'm pretty sure several of these jobs are going to be just what I'm seeking.

Job Post One: Vice President - Human Resources. Anchorage, Alaska. Right job, wrong location.

Job Post Two: Chief Human Resources Officer. Los Angeles, California. Salary 20% below my previous job—in a city with a 74% higher cost of living than where I now live.

Job Post Three: Vice President - Human Resources. Washington, DC. "Local candidates only," it says.

Job Post Four: Chief Human Resources Officer. Birmingham, Alabama. Close to home. Good salary. But, wait, it says "Candidates without manufacturing experience will not be considered." Oops, not me.

Job Post Five: Vice President - Human Resources. Atlanta, Georgia. Finally! "Company seeks candidate with no previous executive experience."

Wait, did I read that right? "We seek a former Director ready to move up. Experienced VPs will not be considered."

Um, what? So, they want inexperienced candidates?

Translation: "We don't have enough money to pay someone with a clue." I guess that means that those with 19 years of experience starve in the streets, right?

Job Posts 6-53: Much the same.

10: 30 AM: A new e-mail message:

Thank you for submitting your résumé for our HR Business Partner position. We have finalized our candidate pool. We moved forward with the candidates that we did select, based on specific requirements from the client.
Enjoy your day!

Well, Susan, I might would have enjoyed my day a whole lot better without this e-mail.

I review the position Susan filled without me: mid-level HR position in Atlanta. I had tried to be open-minded about the job, not limiting myself only to management or executive positions even though that's my background. But, I have been turned down for every mid- or lower-level position for which I have applied.

"Overqualified" is the familiar refrain.

Translation: "We cannot afford you,"


"We don't think you will stay after the economy recovers."

At least Ol' Suze had the good graces not to say that.

11 AM: My mom calls.

"No, Mom, no good job postings today—and I got a turndown from that Atlanta one I told you about last week."

11:30 AM: E-mail from my friend, Kate. She's been terrific about checking in for updates.

"No, I haven't found a job yet."

Feeling close to putting my head through a wall, I stop for lunch. Turn on the TV. While I chew, I reflect glumly that I'd really rather watch TVLand all day. Or take a nap. But as I clean up my lunch dishes, guilt heads off TV or sleep.

I return to my office. I must toil at this task to feel worthy to receive that precious dole check.

Noon: My father calls.

"No, Dad, no job today. Not even any good leads today. Yes, I checked all the job boards. Yes, I saw that one. They want union experience. I don't have that. It's a no-go."

12:30 PM: I need a jazzier market plan. All the experts say professional networking unlocks the "hidden job market"—jobs that never get posted. I compile a list of top-notch contacts.

I hate calling people to ask for favors. In my career, I've always been the one giving, not the one receiving. This is new for me and it makes me uncomfortable.

My career coach some times quotes from Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I'm not afraid, I just hate it. But I'll do it.

Back to my network list: At the top: Nina Smith, HR executive with lots of connections—this is my Grade A Prime contact; Tim Darren, head honcho with a prestigious executive search firm; Adam McNair from the outplacement firm; Jane. . .

Wait. A new e-mail. It's Nina. Great coincidence; she contacted me. Perfect excuse to network. Nina knows everybody who is anybody in HR in Atlanta.

Hope all is well. Since I last saw you, my position at Express Medical Equipment was made redundant when Ace Medical took over. My last day was four weeks ago. I am writing in hopes that you can provide advice or referrals. You know everybody in the local HR community so I'm confident you can help me! I am seeking a local HR executive opportunity. Would love to meet for coffee to discuss this further.

Uh-oh. Not good news. Nina out of work?

My network is now unemployed? How do I network if my network is also on the dole?

I squash the rising panic. I'll set-up that coffee meeting with Nina and then return to my networking plan. I will finish my list. I will make my calls. I will remain calm.

I can do this.

Tim offers to be a reference. Adam knows of nothing. Jane . . .

5 PM: After telling yet one more concerned friend "No, I haven't found a job yet" I review the day's results.

(1) I have two coffee appointments. How does a person who doesn't even drink coffee get two coffee appointments in one week?

(2) I have two résumé critique offers.

(3) Two others expressed regret that they "didn't know anyone." (How do you work in a career for twenty years and not know anyone?) And, one executive search consultant bemoaned the fact that his business was so slow.

7 PM: I work and rework my résumé until dinner. After I eat: TV. Maybe some mindless entertainment will help me unwind; it's about the only leisure activity still available on my limited dole budget.

8 PM: Dancing with the Stars is on. I used to dress up and attend charity galas. Not this year. Now, the only evening festivities I attend are vicariously through the DWTS cast. The only “dance” I do is in my job search. I pull a cat into my fleece-clad lap and snuggle into the sofa to watch.

Yet, my job search woes flit through my mind like Edyta Sliwinska
quick stepping across the dance floor.

For the rest of this evening, I will not think about the job search, I tell myself, as I blissfully lose myself in visions of sequins, spray tans, foxtrots and Argentine tangos.

Photo courtesy of Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Monday, April 12, 2010

Uniquely Qualified to be Poor

As I crept out the unemployment office, minus the earlier optimism, I pondered surviving on my meager new “salary”. The monthly dole amount? Equivalent to three days at my old job.
Reality check: Just how does one cut 90 percent from the budget? Ninety percent!
This situation would require a lot more gumption than just giving up restaurant meals or skipping massage appointments. Extreme measures must be taken immediately.
New mantra: I can do this. I can do this.
My mind reeled, but I remembered: my life hasn’t always included domestic help, European vacations, restaurants and mindless shopping . In fact, most of my life included none of these.
And, then it hit me: I really can do this. In fact, I may be uniquely qualified to be poor. I have the genes, background and experience for it.
My grandparents married in the Depression. With little education, Grandpa quickly learned that “smarts” are the key to survival. Even without formal education, he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. With education, I’m sure he’d have rivaled Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.
While others couldn’t find one job, he worked three, supporting his family and three others. He held lowly jobs: sharecropping; saw milling; fishing. Granny cooked for a boarding house; Grandpa gigged frogs for a fancy restaurant featuring fried frog legs and, in his spare time, gathered and sold moss to a mattress company. One harvest year, while sharecropping they earned only enough to have cash left to buy two small items: a tiny pouch of tobacco for Grandpa; a small jar of peanut butter for Granny.
Grandpa felt strongly about three things that he tirelessly reiterated to me: get an education; buy property; save money. He left behind a daughter with a master’s degree, a granddaughter in graduate school, a paid-for home, no debts and money in the bank.
His other legacy was a daughter with his no-nonsense monetary values. In the 1960s when my parents married, Baby Boomers were opting out of rampant consumerism and living “green” before it got labeled green. They were into organic before most people knew what it meant. They were on board with compost making, herbal teas, canning and preserving, baking bread, home sewing, and most of all, not buying.
Life choices determined where family money went. My parents invested in what  mattered to them: mostly me. While “women’s libbers” stormed off to work, my mom gave up a promising banking career to stay home with me. She ran various home-based businesses long before it was “cool”. We certainly weren’t rich, but our family gave money to causes we believed in while paying bills on time and buying a house (a FHA repo they bought for a mere $12,000 long before most people even knew you could do such a thing).
I didn’t actually know we had less money than most of my friends. When I needed something, I got it. We had yearly vacations just like everybody else. True, our vacations were only to Florida.  Also true: my mother carried an electric skillet in the trunk of the car. She actually cooked our vacation breakfasts right there in our room.
I learned early on that one sure way to rile up my mother was to mention the unholy trinity: Izod, Jordache or Reebok—all her sworn enemies. We did not wear brand names on our buttocks or our feet.
“They can splash their names on our chests or rear ends when they pay me for the privilege,” she told me firmly when I even dared express a wish for such things.
As an adult, I tried to follow my parents’ example. (Okay, I’ve fallen off the wagon from time to time and been seen in public sporting a famous logo or two, but I’m too much my mother’s daughter to enjoy it).
As an adult, I, too, lived below my means, turning down bank offers of a heftier mortgage and paying extra principle each month (against the advice of my friends). While acquaintances racked up debt (bigger homes and ever-larger luxury SUVs), I paid my credit card balance each month, drove an older car and set my sights on burning my mortgage by age 45. And, while I enjoyed nice vacations and employed a maid (mainly because I was at work too much to clean), I also donated to causes and charities and, most of all, my own savings account.
Lurking always in my brain was the thought that anybody’s lifestyle—including mine—could change dramatically with job loss. While I was, according to economic experts, employed in the “most stable” industry (healthcare), I woke up one day and my job was gone.
As I exited the Department of Labor parking lot, determination overrode the discouraging afternoon I’d endured. I knew--not in a silly Pollyanna way but with realistic certainty--that I have the skills to succeed in my new role as a (relatively) poor person.
My life’s résumé proves I’m uniquely qualified to be poor. But, more importantly, I’m uniquely qualified, just like my grandparents, to work my way out to the other side of poor.
And, then it occurs to me: I am The Little Engine That Could: I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.
I know I will.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Well, Shut My Mouth: A Survivor’s Story

Unemployment Office, One Last Time (I hope):

I settled into the molded plastic chair that fit about 70 percent of my backside. I’d brought a book, but felt conspicuous—too self-conscious—to read while those around me slept, stared into space, or, for all I knew, slipped into suspended animation prior to Mars blast-off.

Reading just seemed too active a pursuit for the time and place. Out of respect for those suffering a lingering death-by-plastic-chair, I refrained.


A nicely dressed, middle-aged woman arranged most of her posterior into the neighboring chair and smiled warmly. (At who? Me? Me!)

Me (trying to rein in my intense gratitude for this small kindness): “Have you been here before?”

Smiler: “Yes. They make me come in every few weeks to show my application record.”

Me (struggling not to appear too needy): “Would you please explain this system to me? The woman at the information desk said she didn’t have time for questions.”

Smiler (rolling her eyes): “Yeah, I’ve experienced her before. She’s like that. Don’t let her get to you.”

My new buddy explained the drill: groups of 10 are periodically herded off to file claims. Ms. No-Information at the information desk notwithstanding, I was, after all, in the right place, doing the right thing—apparently just doing it 45 minutes early.

Relieved to understand the system—finally—I made small talk with my new best friend.

Me: “So, what did you do before you wound up here?”

Smiler: “I did medical billing for 23 years. That is, until I was required to train my replacement in India. What about you?”

Me: “I was a senior HR executive for a healthcare company.”

Suddenly, Smiler wasn’t smiling anymore. She dropped her forehead despondently into her hand.

Oh, God,” she exclaimed in a voice of total despair. “Don’t tell me you’re here, too. You are the kind of person I’m trying to get into see. If people like you are here, what does that mean for the rest of us who are trying to get jobs?”

Frankly, I didn’t know what it meant either except that apparently, it wasn’t only my world that had tilted. I was now able to suck other innocent souls into this parallel universe with me.

There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. Awkwardly, we sat silently in the painful unity known only to those in adjacent too-small plastic chairs while the wall clock ticked away the next 44 minutes.

Ultimately, an armed security guard ushered me into the black hole that was the claims room. Yes, that’s right, an armed guard. What is this place, I wondered—not for the first time.

“Fill out those forms as best you can, but don’t mess them up,” the guard said, “She won’t like it if you get them wrong. She’ll be here in a minute.”

OK, so who is this mysterious She-Beast and just exactly what would She do to us if we get them wrong, I wondered as I started on my forms.

Ten minutes later, She—the employee assigned to “help” the group file claims—entered the room.

“I swear I hate this place!” She exclaimed loudly to the room in general. “I’m quitting tomorrow! I’m just going to come in and put in my notice and walk out. I just cannot take this anymore.”

Fighting the overwhelming desire to raise my hand and ask if I could have her job if she no longer wanted it, I wondered how many others in this room felt the same urge. Apparently, in this parallel universe, those with jobs and paychecks are allowed to gripe freely about their jobs to those without.

With the question still burning on my lips, I closed my half-opened mouth. No good could come of that silly question.

How to shut up—that’s what I had learned in the last two hours. I’ve always thought myself rather bright, but I have to admit that skill took a while to penetrate my brain today.

Yep, I was catching on, albeit not as quickly as the average pound puppy learns to sit or stay. Mouth firmly shut, I grasped my pen and obediently filled out forms as my crazy, tilted world spun on its mixed-up axis in this tiny parallel universe known as the Unemployment Office.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sitting Down: Lessons Learned at the Unemployment Office

As I finally progressed from line to desk at the unemployment office, the employee manning it gave me a blank stare. No “May I help you?” would ever fall from those lips.
Me (cheerfully): “I’m here to file for unemployment.”

Blank-faced Employee (bored): “Sit down. They’ll call you.”

Me: “They’ll call me?”

“Blank-faced Employee (with a sigh): “Yes.”

Me (puzzled): “Do I sign in or anything?”

Blank-faced Employee (wearily): “No, just sit. They’ll call you.”

Me (more puzzled): “How will they know I’m here?”

Blank-faced Employee: “They’ll call you.”

I sat.

Following long minutes of contemplation, I deduced something was clearly not right. I knew from my HR experience that some people would be there for interviews, others for classes, some to write résumés and others for appeal hearings. “They’ll call you” did not seem reasonable to me.

I noticed people signing a clipboard at the information desk. Convinced I had done something wrong, I decided to brave the “information” officer again. She was smiling and chatting with someone who was clearly a personal acquaintance. That is until her eyes landed on me. Her expression returned to default setting: supreme annoyance.

“Information” Officer (scolding): “I thought I told you to get in that line.”

Me: “Yes, but, I have a question . . .”

“Information” Officer (more annoyed): “I don’t have time for questions. Just get in line.” 

She had time to talk with a friend, but no time for questions? Despite getting paid to provide information, she had no time for questions? Despite the huge “Information” sign over her desk, she had NO TIME FOR QUESTIONS?

Deep breath. Repeat to self: I will not get annoyed. I will not get annoyed. I will not get annoyed.


I would get in line again to check back with my old “they’ll-call-you” nemesis.

Me: “I’m not sure what to do. I’m here to file for unemployment. I’m supposed to sit in the waiting area here until I’m called, right?”

Blank-faced Employee: “Yes.”

Me: “How will they know what I’m here for?”

“Blank-faced Employee: “They just will. They’ll call you.”

Scanning the room I could see that everybody else seemed to know the drill. Clearly, it must be just me. Apparently, when I lost my job, I lost my good sense, too.

Meekly, my self-esteem at zero and my spirits at twenty below that, I sat down as commanded—again.

And, I had to wonder if I—or my situation—would ever rise again.