For Mr. Unemployment, a ‘nice’ epiphany


(Illustration by Ryan Inzana)
July 12, 2012

Let’s get one thing straight: I never wanted to be Mr. Unemployment. It’s important to clear this up because, several months after I was laid off from my job of 18 years at a large media company, I wrote a piece for this magazine headlined “Terminated.” Up to the point of its publication, I was adrift, getting nowhere. Most companies didn’t even respond to my inquiries about openings. I even applied for a job making up and distributing fliers, figuring at least I’d be writing. In a year, I thought, someone would pass me on the street and shout, “Hey, what are you doing with yourself since they fired your butt?” and I would yell across traffic, “I’m a flier writer.”

“What??!”

“My left shoulder is killing me after tucking fliers under 280 wiper blades

at the bowling alley this morning, but at least I still get to practice my craft.”

“What??!”

Nothing. I didn’t get the job, anyway.

During this early stage of my unemployment, everybody kept telling me, “You need to find a niche.” I had indeed noticed that the journalists who had mastered one subject — such as the “Medicare reform” reporter with a computer file of 200 government sources — were still holding on to their positions. It made sense. As a journalist, I never stuck to one topic for long; so the most sources I had on any subject were three on Polynesian fire dancers, two on illegal midnight snook fishing and six, no, five, on roller derby girls. My writing life had been full of variety and adventure.

“Big mistake,” said a former associate who specialized as an elder-care writer for 14 years. “Just think: I’ll still have a job writing about old people when I’m old people. Won’t that be perfect?”

But then the “Terminated” story hit (May 2008), and there was something about the timing of it. The story appeared right on the cusp of that moment when absolutely everybody awoke, sat straight up in their beds and realized, This could happen to me ... today! There was such an overwhelming outpouring of solidarity from readers that I sat straight up in my cot and said, “This is it. I’ll be Mr. Unemployment. That will be my niche.”

What a thing to be associated with, right? The last thing I’d want to do is represent a bunch of whiny unemployed people. Plus, being known for one thing — unless it’s a maneuver like the Heimlich or the Shaun White Double McTwist 1260 snowboard move — is lame. Even that Sully guy who landed the plane in the Hudson must be sick of talking about it — someone always calling up on the anniversary of his heroics. No one could blame him for snapping back, “You know, I collect sea glass from all over the world. Could we maybe talk about that part of my life for one [expletive] second?”

On the other hand, one has to survive — do what is right for the family — so I was certainly prepared to be Mr. Unemployment. But when I mentioned to the then-editor of this magazine that I would be willing to be an employed person writing about unemployment for the next 10 years, there was only silence.

During this same period, I did try to write an article titled “Ten Things I’ve Learned About Unemployment,” but, alas, I could come up with only two.

1. This is the main tip I have for those still unemployed, or anyone, for that matter. I miraculously got out of serious debt within one year simply by doing nothing. It works. It’s almost impossible to spend money when all you do is sit in a chair and push the cat away once in a while.

2. If you’re unemployed for more than six months, something will stand out to remind you that, once you stop bringing home 63.5 percent of the household income, you become a little less significant in your family’s eyes. In my case, it was when, for the first time in my life, we did not have a big cake on my birthday. Rather, when my wife arrived home at the end of the day, she simply handed me a single piece of cake wrapped in cellophane. “Here,” she said. I guess she thought I should be thankful that I had the same birthday as someone at her workplace.

I was.

***

During my first eight months out of work I had a bit of severance and unemployment checks coming in. So, even though I was scared to death about the future, I still had a cushion, which allowed me a small window of freedom. But I am so easily sidetracked from searching for jobs online and revising my résumé that things reached the point where my wife exclaimed, “Freedom doesn’t agree with you.”

What a punch to the gut, especially since people are always fighting for it — dying for it, even — all over the world. How could she say that?

I’ll skip that part. Let’s fast-forward to the point where the money and my health insurance were running out. Suddenly, my concentration returned with a vengeance as I tried to home in on something I could do to pay the bills that wasn’t really work. It’s not that I minded good, decent, hard work. It’s just that I wasn’t sure if I was capable of it anymore. At my fluffy journalism jobs, other employees had an almost unexplainable need to do everything for me. I’d be at the copy machine messing with something, and four people would jump up giggling, “Look at you, trying to fix that. Let me get it.”

Since I thought I might have become incapable of doing anything at all, the only field I sincerely believed I might be able to step right into was showbiz. This was based solely on a conversation I once had with the late Spalding Gray, who told me that to keep his Screen Actors Guild health insurance each year, he would desperately seek out a small film role, even if it was only in a Whoopi Goldberg movie.

I know big actors are always going broke because of their lifestyles, but give someone like me, who can just sit in a chair for months at a time, a part in one TV pilot that is never even picked up, and I could probably live off a single Hollywood payday for eight years. I was hopped up about the idea until I realized my face doesn’t express itself. Peter Sarsgaard can make staring into the distance seem profound. My squinty gaze only made it appear as if I’d lost my car in the mall parking lot.

But perhaps I could eke out a niche in the business. I got excited about the possibility while watching a movie about an unstoppable train and noticing that Denzel Washington was pretty weak when it came to phone acting: all the pauses in the wrong places, phone too far from his ear. I’ve always studied people’s cellphone behavior, and I knew I could do better. I set out to make a phone-acting audition tape, and in some sort of delusional way, I decided I was the greatest phone actor in the world. But I didn’t know how to break in.

It was just about the time that I had become an unemployed man who made phone-acting audition tapes by the shed outside his home that I was contacted by a New York literary agent who thought the original “Terminated” story could be turned into a book.

“Yes, of course it could,” I said instantly.

“Your personal story could really cover a lot of territory, go a lot of different directions.”

“Oh, a million directions.” That’s one thing about me. I’m always in. All in.

The agent sent out a proposal pitching a story chronicling the trial and tribulations of my unemployment, and one publisher immediately responded enthusiastically by relating, “You know, unemployment is kind of a downer. Would you be willing to turn it into a novel?” I didn’t really get where she was coming from. On the one hand, a book about real unemployment: “Uhhh, too depressing.” On the other, a book about make-believe unemployment: “Oh, that could be good.” I didn’t get that at all. I had never written a novel before — didn’t know if I could write a novel — but I immediately said, “Yes!”

I was unemployed. The publisher could have asked me to turn it into a musical, and I would have said, “Hold on, I’ll get my xylophone.”

***

I was writing at a frenzied, heightened pace. I couldn’t wait for all the former co-workers I fictionalized to laugh their fool heads off about how they were portrayed. I envisioned having an esteemed real actor — one who could make all kinds of marvelous faces — play the lead in a 96-minute motion picture. Invitations to international book fairs were already coming in.

Shortly before publication, a book reviewer who received an early copy of “Nothing Happens Until It Happens to You” called me to gush about the characters and the climactic sex scene. I had friends I had never heard of piling up on my new Facebook page, and the publisher set me up with my own blog, where the unemployed masses would soon gather. Everything was going fantastically.

Then the book came out. If all the initial excitement about the book was the fantasy, this was the reality:

1. All my former co-workers hated me for how they were portrayed. “But it’s a novel. I was just. ...” Click. People whom I had spent nearly 20 years gaining the respect of now thought I was a jerk.

2. The blog was hijacked and turned into a porn site. It’s not even a good porn site.

3. One Amazon review called for Louis C.K. to play the role of the main character, which was quickly followed by one tweet and one retweet. My tweet spelled his first name Louie, and the campaign ended there.

4. The gushing reviewer got laid off before his review hit the presses.

5. Nobody bought the book.

I racked my brain about where I went wrong. “Maybe you shouldn’t have made fun of Bruce Springsteen in that one part,” one friend mentioned.

But I wasn’t making fun of him. I was just making note that the main character wouldn’t want to be Mr. Springsteen because of the unsanitary way Little Stevenalways comes over to share the microphone during live performances of “Glory Days.”

Sensitive readers did make mention of how the character also kicks a dolphin at one point. But the dolphin matter was based on a true incident, and I just wanted readers to know that riding a dolphin is not as easy as it looks. It’s not like you hop on and swish away. There’s a lot of grunting and trudging. The dolphin becomes mule-like. And there’s no place to put your feet, and it may appear to some people on shore that you’re kicking it; some nearby children might scream.

***

Around that time, my 25-year-old son came by wearing a T-shirt that read: “Don’t Stop Me From Dreaming This Century.” The quote was most likely associated with some band, but with everything coming down on the generations beneath us now, I both appreciated and understood the sentiment. So, in regards to my son, my thoughts on that idea were strong: Yeah, don’t let the state of this world stop you from passionately pursuing your hopes and dreams. But, in regards to my current station in life, my thoughts were weak: Maybe it’s time you stop dreaming. God knows you’ve wasted enough time on that.

I wanted an epiphany. I had certainly read about how many of the newly unemployed were seeing their layoffs as an opportunity to follow their passions, break through the restraints of a 9-to-5 job to do something daring, which usually meant opening a cupcake shop. I’ve always found my own evolution akin to that of the American school bus. I don’t know why it never changes shape or form, but it doesn’t, and no one expects it to anymore.

But something was erupting in me. In the past, I was always chasing dreams and waiting for luck to drag them across the finish line. Now I started to feel the need to go in the opposite direction of my dreams to grow and become more enlightened. No cupcake shop for me. Between the book’s failure, my son’s T-shirt and the fact that no one was offering to pay me to write another word, I yearned to forge ahead and find a new course.

***

It was on a Wednesday that I crawled back to a job fair because I heard Amtrak was hiring. It would be a way to drift, ride the rails, be a vagabond with benefits and a decent union salary. Of course, the fair was mobbed, and as I waited in line listening to those around me discuss how they were surprised you can use food stamps to buy all treats — “Even Häagen-Dazs bars!” — and complain about how you can’t wear shorts to the state’s Workforce Alliance office, one woman suddenly pointed toward a booth and said, “Look at that guy. Look at the way he walks. Tick-tock, Tick-tock,” while mimicking his obvious physical disability. Others nearby were hardy-har-har-ing and insulting the younger woman accompanying him. “Probably just with him for his disability checks.”

Irritated, I started backing away until I was in an empty row of seats near a booth touting window-washing franchises. I sat there forgetting about riding the rails and instead stewing about how no matter where I went, there was this undeniable harshness. I don’t know if it was just too much freedom again that made me dwell on this, but I suddenly found it overwhelming and disturbing.

Later the same day, I was walking by my optometrist’s as he was taking a break out front, sitting in the sun, eating a bag of peanuts. I don’t think he recognized me as his patient, but as I passed, he looked up, grinned and whistled. It gave me a little lift. And I thought: Man, that’s what I want to do. Not become an optometrist and have to stare into dilated pupils all day. No, I want to be so nice to people that it puts a skip in their step.

I went home and went to the extreme, revamping my résumé so, no matter the job, it sold me as being nice. Essentially, like this:

WORK EXPERIENCE:

1996-2008 – Being Nice to People.

I expanded by noting, “I am a genuinely nice person,” which was a stretch. We all know certain bubbly creatures with serotonin dripping out of their ears who can’t help but be nice. So, don’t get me wrong: Miss Sunshine who checks you in at the Hyatt, I ain’t. In fact, I’ve always had a reputation for being a bit edgy, unsociable, with off-putting body language, and I have never made actual eye contact with another human being. And when I did have a job, I was dead set against having part of my salary deducted for United Way.

I decided my kindness would have nothing to do with randomness. I was going to be much more deliberate about my niceness. I was going to aim for nothing short of cold, calculated, meticulous kindness.

Remarkably, once I went all in on nice, I had a job within a week. At my interview, the question arose. “Says here you are a genuinely nice person.”

“That’s me.”

“Well, we have a couple of other people to talk to, and then we’ll possibly get back to you.”

They called to offer me the job in 45 minutes. I pictured them weighing the other candidates. “This applicant has nine years of management experience, speaks four languages and invented a small chip that will one day allow you to DVR more than two shows at once while he was still a freshman at Cornell. Then there’s this guy — he’s nice.”

“Nice,” the hiring committee must have chorused.

There are many responsibilities to my job: overseeing a staff , handling donations, processing housewares and clothing, setting daily sales and budgets, lifting heavy furniture. I’m not particularly good at any of that, but I never forget that I am first and foremost to be nice to all. I promised nice, and I’m delivering. Jerks, cynics and critics: The only thing they have in common is that I am enthusiastically nice to all of them.

There’s nothing phony about my niceness. (Confession: I’m a phony about many other things. For example, I always went along with Ray Charles being a genius, but I never thought he was. I thought he was a really good piano player and had a cool singing style. There, I said it.)

I even have my own rules of niceness. You would think I might allow for some leeway because it’s only human that one might get upset and slip with certain people in certain situations. Nope, not allowed. And, of course, I can’t get annoyed by people who aren’t “half as nice as me,” because ... that wouldn’t be nice.

This niceness is not some trial, some resolution that will pass like a gym membership. In fact, it’s close to permanent. I’ve been at it for over a year now. And I’m not looking to get anything back. So far, no good karma has come from it. Personally, things are probably a lot worse, but I can’t let bitterness seep into my niceness.

I know being nice is not a real plan for the future, but it is my starting point. I know someone I’ll pass on the street will shout, “What the hell you doing with yourself these days?”

“I had an epiphany ... when my optometrist whistled at me.”

“Huh?”

“My thing is just being nice to people.”

“You kidding? How lame is that?”

Maybe it is. And perhaps there’s more to it. Maybe the main reason I am 24-hour nice is because I so desperately want people to be nice to me. Just as I didn’t want to be known as Mr. Unemployment, I don’t want to be labeled “Mr. Nice Guy,” but that’s mostly because I noticed it’s also the name of a synthetic marijuana they sell at the gas station near my house.

With my new endeavor, the money is short and the hours long and all-consuming, but I think I’m evolving.

And I’m all in.

T.M. Shine is based in Lantana, Fla. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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