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.


mjupton said...

Best one yet...

Tina said...

Really good. You told me earlier about how rude these people were & included your comment (sans name of course) in my chapter entitled "Are You Being Served" in my new book, The Stradivarius in the Basement. Another "customer service" rep gave a hard time to a friend of mine who is deaf after meningitis..The guy barked at my friend, "You don't have to talk so loud..I'm not deaf." "Well, I AM!" said my friend, and displayed his cochlear implant.

Anonymous said...

Mama and Daddy took months to teach you how to talk and She-Beast taught you how to shutup in two hours. She must be awesome.

Post a Comment