The Meaning of Work
Sunday, November 19, 2006
On the morning of his 25th birthday, Chris Dansby made the same wish that he'd made when he turned 24, 23, 22 and 21: Let this be the day where everything worked out, the one he'd been promised since he was a boy.
He was living for the moment in his girlfriend's apartment, surrounded by nothing of his own. It was her bed he awoke in. Her leftover rice in the refrigerator. Her plastic bowl that he spooned the rice into. Her spoon, her sink, her shower, her iron, her everything except for Chris's clothes, a folder he carried that contained a copy of his résumé, and a wallet that contained no money and the business card of a potential employer who had stopped returning his calls.
Her car, too. With its gas tank on empty, Chris steered it into the parking lot of a city-run job center in Southeast Washington at opening time, 8:30 a.m. "It's my birthday. I don't have no money. I don't have no job. I'm feeling kind of mopey today," he said as he went inside the job center, which is in Ward 8, where he has lived his entire life, a part of the city that is 93 percent black and on this day had an unemployment rate of 16.3 percent.
Far away from the life of Chris Dansby, academics and policymakers debate the reasons that unemployment among black men is consistently and disproportionately high. Are the reasons societal, as some argue, or a matter of individual responsibility, as others argue? Are they a reflection of racism? Of defeatism? Of laziness?
Chris's attention, though, was on a list of jobs on a computer screen. Senior litigation paralegal was the first one. He needed a job suitable to a high school graduate who hadn't worked steadily in months. Account executive. And who didn't have a car except when he could borrow one. Software requirement analyst. And who had a Metro fare card only because a relative gave him one. Director, corporate strategy. And who was so broke that the only thing in his pockets other than the keys to a car that had no gas was a pair of dice that he extracted and rattled whenever he had nothing better to do.
Mail room. He paused and read the job description. "The responsibilities include sorting and delivering mail." He looked at the address, saw that it was nowhere near public transportation, and moved on.
Wellness coordinator. VP human resources. Biotechnology scientist.
Out came the dice.
"Twenty-five," he said.
"I thought I'd be doing better than this."
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