By T. M. Shine
Sunday, May 25, 2008
The exodus began with the word "Bob."
"Bob, can I see you for a minute?" the boss had asked.
Within minutes, Bob was exiting the office with a wave and a "Nice working with everybody."
What the . . . ?
Instinctively, several employees followed Bob out to the parking lot.
"They told me not to say anything, but I'm not going to work with people for 13 years and not wave goodbye," Bob said as co-workers surrounded him before he could reach his car. Bearded, disheveled and wearing shirts that should have been retired in 1984, Bob is one of those beloved characters. When my teenage niece and a friend had visited the office, they'd simply said: "We like Bob. He reminds us of Jack Black."
More of a "why not me?" than a "why me?" guy, Bob graciously accepted his fate along with some very erotic parking-lot-in-broad-daylight hugs, and as I waited my turn (just to shake his hand), I thought of how he is made of the good stuff. Whatever they use to puff up those unbelievably comfortable Natuzzi couches or cram into the extraordinarily delicious grande burritos at the Mexican place down the road, that is what Bob is made of. His interior is high-grade.
But before I could blurt out, "Bob, you are one high-grade SOB," the boss was yelling out the front door of our office complex. "You all need to get back inside," he barked. "You shouldn't even be talking to him."
Shouldn't be talking to Bob?
What an absurd thought. That's all we do most of the time.
And now, another co-worker, Jana, is in that tiny room, plucked straight out of the line as we filed back into the office on command. If they can dispose of Jana, who would have been last on everybody's hit list, no one is safe.
They don't let you come back to your desk. They don't let you come back to your desk. The word spreads throughout the office.
Now everyone prepares for the worst. It's all going -- family photos, thermal coffee cups, knickknacks from the trip to Amsterdam, Thai takeout menus, SpongeBob action figures . . . We are frantically sweeping the contents of our desks into makeshift boxes, cloth sacks and plastic shopping bags.
Thumbtacks pop off cubicle walls as faded magazine shots of Josh Hartnett's smile and 50 Cent's abs are stripped away.
Two employees race to the bathroom to split a mini-bottle of tequila that had been smacked out of a monkey pi¿ata at a holiday office party two years ago and then get right back to it -- loading crates, making runs to the car, returning for more.
"I was specifically told I had to be here today," says a co-worker who usually works from home on Thursdays. "If I had to be here, it must be because . . ."
Our company has not been impervious to layoffs. Positions have slowly been eliminated in our branch, but the usual MO involved the doomed employee getting a call at home to report to our main office on Green Road, a.k.a. the Green Mile, where one would be disposed of quietly.
But today is obviously a dimension beyond. Human Resources has come to us and literally set up shop in a tiny unoccupied office. Managers don't have time to be subtle anymore. They are not concerned that an employee will make a scene or set off the fire sprinklers on the way out the door. No, this time the cuts will be swift and multiple, consequences be damned.
"Oh, I know the company doesn't really need me. I don't want to go into that tiny office," one employee mutters as artifacts swept from her desk pile up at her feet.
"You're right," I say. "Let's disappear." (Who wouldn't want to disappear at a time like this?)
In seconds, we are all back in the parking lot, slapping a Post-it on Jana's car -- "Meet us at Rotelli's" -- and fleeing a quarter-mile down the street on foot so that when the boss comes back out, there will be no one here to fire.
By the time we make it to the front doors of the Italian restaurant, Jana, who always carries herself regally, is getting out of her car, beaming and primly clutching the severance package to her chest as if it's an award for valor, which, in her case, it may very well be.
The walking papers quickly become a coaster for a Diet Coke, and we laugh at the thought of the boss coming out to find everyone gone and marvel at Jana's full-of-glee Mary Poppins attitude at being terminated. We half expect her to break into song, but instead she breaks out a sheet from the packet that reveals the job description and age of every employee being fired today. "I only had a chance to look at it quickly," she says, putting her finger on the list.
There's Bob. There's Jana. There's . . . me.
No one else.
My cellphone rings. The boss. I ignore it, but I know this is a summons I can't escape for long. Instantly, I am separated from those who fled here beside me. The people across the table are now simply workers on lunch break arguing over pizza toppings -- mushroom or pepperoni?
I am a fugitive.The 4700 Club
But I am still the class clown. I excuse myself to "go get fired" and promise to return before the pizza arrives.
At the office, I make it back to my desk, but the boss, who must have choked down a sandwich while we were gone, is quickly over my shoulder like a garlic-breathing dragon: "Terry, can I see you for a minute?"
And the termination minute is not an exaggeration. It is all a blur as I sit in the tiny office with him and the HR woman and nod and nod and nod, the way you do when you buy a car or close on a house; anxiously waiting for the command to initial there and there and there and sign here and here so you can be on your way.
I already know there will be days, weeks, to sit around in my underwear and study these papers. "I always prefer to read the fine print in my underwear," I almost blurt out, but I do not want to kid or laugh with these people. The pizza is getting cold.
The company is beyond giving reasons for dismissing employees, but, as the HR woman shuffles papers, I go through a checklist in my head, trying to decipher why I was chosen. Age? In context, I'm only a little older than Prince and not nearly as old as Jerry Seinfeld. Performance? I can see my "Staffer of the Year" trophy from here. Money? That was the rumor -- they whacked the three who made the most. But all things considered, I thought I came pretty cheap.
The HR woman gets up to make a copy of a final form declaring that I do not possess a company BlackBerry. While she is gone, the boss stiffly sits as witness in a chair against the wall, and my thoughts travel from the immediacy of the paperwork to wondering if, after 18 years with the company, I will get even a simple, "Thank you for your service."
Where are the kind words? In the end, even death row prison guards get a little sweet on their condemned prisoners, pamper them in those final moments. In the movies, the predator that killed 42 innocents ultimately gets a, "Hey, you're not all that bad, Jimmy Ray," before they shave his ankles and strap him down. But I am getting nothing but loud and clear silence.
The HR woman hands me the last form to initial, smiles politely, and that is that. I briskly grab the folder as if it's an annoying car-detailing flier left under my windshield wiper at a strip mall and head toward the door. The boss lays a not-so-subtle maneuver on me in case I want to try and pull off a wave, but he's oblivious to the fact that there is no one left to wave goodbye to. When I reach the foyer, I hear an urgent, "Hey, Terry!"
Okay, I get it. Here it comes. The boss was only waiting to get out of earshot of HR to show his true appreciation. Here it comes, here it comes . . . "What's your code?"
"Your pass code to get into the building."
And with the surrender of those four digits, I have sealed the door behind me and joined the ranks of the unemployed.Able Seaman
Welcome to my unemployment. In the age of slippery reality TV, this article is a glimpse into the first six weeks of joblessness, from the initial elation of freedom and the camaraderie of your fellow "letgoees" to the nighttime sweats that come with the threat of bankruptcy and loss of health care. I'm a big believer in the idea that nothing happens until it happens to you. Lately, I've been cutting out notices of nationwide layoffs as if they're obituaries. The numbers are startling -- tens of thousands in the auto industry, up to 200,000 in commercial banking. ATA Airlines bankrupt and "virtually all the employees" told their jobs are gone.
And they all have families. I can feel their pain. My wife, Chris, works for a small company with lousy benefits. My debt -- too many ski trips -- far outweighs my savings. My two children are grown, but my son is still in college and extremely needy, as in, "Dad, I need $168 for this macroeconomics book." He's about to get the economics lesson of his life. He's oblivious. And in this weird twilight, even I can't quite feel it. Not yet.
The big company sets you free with enough severance to cover short-term debts, entree to a high-priced career planner and mental health counseling to ward off "the blues," but where does it end? How do you make the transition or reinvent yourself when jobs are few, image is everything and competition is fierce? Being thrust into the job market after 20 years is akin to suddenly having to take your driver's license road test all over again. You thought you were good for life, and now he's back, this bespectacled guy in a skinny tie, shaking his head and checking off all the wrong boxes. You just know you are going to fail.
A former associate whose position was eliminated a few months ago recently notified me that, at age 42, she has moved back in with her mom. It's a trend I'm sure you're already reading about.
So I better relate this story while I can still see the humor in it. Something tells me that, a year from now, you're not going to want to hear from me. None of you will be returning my calls. And even if you do, my mom will probably be picking up.
Upon hearing the news of my termination, Laura, the office manager, told me quite simply, "I'm worried. Jana is beautiful and younger, and Bob is Bob, but you, you I worry about. You need someplace to go."
I go to the unemployment Web site.
Signing up for unemployment benefits puts it all into perspective: I'm screwed. My particular brand of expertise is evaporating more quickly than boiling hot dog water.
I was planning to turn the first few days of this mess into a mini-vacation, spurred on by Jana's report on her first official day of unemployment: "I slept till 10:30 and watched two hours of 'Will & Grace' on Lifetime. Ate Doritos for lunch!"
Trying to relax, I sit outside on the porch, reading Blender magazine.
But it doesn't take.
Eat some blueberry pancakes.
Put "Mermaid Avenue" on the iPod.
One second, I'm elated about going on to other things in life, and the next I want to puke. I can't seem to get into that vacation mode, and that's when I decide to fill out the unemployment forms online. I'm shocked by the math: Even the maximum amount allotted is barely milk money. And the thought of having to report where I applied for a job "each week" does nothing to ease my nausea.
People have already started asking me: "So, what are you going to do? How are you going to make money?"
Truth is, if money weren't a major issue, I'd be content to just work in a store, stocking shelves, filling the holes on sale day. Doesn't everyone grasp the appeal of a job you leave behind at the end of the shift, a job that takes your attention but not your soul? And I read that Starbucks and Whole Foods have good benefits. "Oh, I could definitely see you stocking shelves at Whole Foods," one friend said.
And the scary thing is, so can I.
The one saving grace of the unemployment form is that at the very end you have to pick the occupation that most resembles yours from a list. It is in alphabetical order, so the first one is "Able Seaman."
The job title stops me cold, and the description sends me: "Stand watch at bow or on wing of bridge to look for obstructions in path of vessel. Turn wheel on bridge as directed by first mate."
Further details, which describe rig overhaul and running gear, make me a little nervous, but, because I'd have the first mate supervising, maybe that wouldn't be a deal-breaker. Mulling over the position really gives me an enchanting sense of possibility. I log on to other job sites. Instantly, I can see the future: I'm Alexander Supertramp driving a grain machine in Oregon or, more realistically, since I am -- uh, used to be -- a journalist, I'm writing for Yellowstone publications, whose offices are just outside the north side of the park. I can see it like a vision: I'm making $7,300 a year, wearing geyser boots and roughing it up an embankment to report on themed RVs. I meet a nice couple who have their Winnebago all tricked out as a tribute to Robert Goulet. "The Impossible Dream" is airbrushed on the back wheel cover, and the wife leads me inside to a shower stall that is "all Camelotted out."
What are you going to do?
I notice some references on the Web to emu ranching. For some reason, raising emus is an easy prospect to romanticize, even though it involves butchering freakishly large birds.
What are you going to do?
I've always been fascinated by that rural myth about the Burger King in the Dakotas that pays $33 an hour because the chain can't get anyone to live and work in the Badlands.
What are you going to do?
They say all the jobs are in health care, but the only position I think I could handle is surgical tech. I hear it's just like prepping a salad bar, only you get to wear scrubs.
Or maybe I'll go back to shellfish harvesting, return to the Great South Bay of my youth on Long Island. I wonder what the market price for littlenecks is this time of year.
Suddenly, the thrill of considering job possibilities on the Internet is not so thrilling.
Eat Doritos for dinner.
I want to cry. I almost think I have to. I'm okay during the day, but I wake up at first light with such a sense of doom that my face scrunches up as if I'm going to bawl like a baby and then -- nothing.
I think it's because I do all my crying during each episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." The arch of emotion is overwhelming. I do so much weeping during the heartbreaking stories and eventual revelation of new appliances that I have nothing left for the basic tragedies of my own life. It does not seem fair.
I pick up the phone to call the free mental health counseling service the company provided with my walking papers, not because of the crying problem but because of a glitch with its online depression screening. To gauge your stability during the past week, it has statements such as "I did not feel like eating, my appetite was poor" and "I could not 'get going.' " And then you pick from the multiple-choice answers, which include the easy-to-grasp extremes of "rarely" and "most of the time." My problem is with the other two alternatives: "sometimes" and "occasionally." I just don't know the difference. Am I sad "sometimes" or "occasionally"? I'm stumped. And I'll get a grade on this, so I don't want to just guess.
"I need to know which is better," I tell a phone counselor named Elizabeth. "?'Occasionally' or 'sometimes?'?"
"Well, it would depend on the question," Elizabeth says.
"I hate my life 'occasionally' or 'sometimes?'?" I say, trying to simplify the situation for her.
She starts giving me some gobbledy-gook. Apparently it's extremely scientific and perhaps beyond my level of comprehension.
Now I'm all confused, and I think she's either messing with me, or, like a sex-talk operator, she gets paid by the minute. There's some goateed supervisor over her shoulder prodding her on to meet her quota: "Lizzy, if you got him hooked on 'sometimes,' run with it. Keep him on the line. Throw some metaphysics at him."
To stop her, I ask if she watches "Extreme Makeover."
"Oh, yes," she says, as if I've suddenly brightened her day. "It's fantastic, what they do for people."
"I've been wanting to cry, but I think I use up my allotted crying during that show," I confess.
"It is sad, but it's also uplifting," she says.
"Maybe if I thought of my own problems during the show, I could piggyback . . ."
"Piggyback. Piggyback my own emotions onto those the family on the show is experiencing."
"No," Elizabeth says. "You need to release your emotions during your own personal time. Or you can share it with others close to you."
I explain the unemployment situation I'm in. I mean, I could get all kinds of counseling, but there is really only one cure for this -- getting a job. Otherwise I'm just fooling myself. I can Zen out with a "whatever happens happens for a reason" attitude, but the reality is that the things that are happening involve loss of income, health care and self-worth.
"Only you know the magnitude of your situation, and it sounds as if you have good reason to be frustrated," Elizabeth says. "But you can't let it overwhelm you. You don't want to unravel."
"But until I get a job, I should be a wreck, right?"
"You need to address these feelings," Elizabeth says. "Would you be more comfortable meeting with a counselor in your area?"
No, but it sounds as though she might be more comfortable if I did.The Secret
"How many people here own their life?" Grace, the career counselor, asks our group.
I don't even know if I'd want to own my own life. When people preach about shredding all your personal papers so you're not a victim of identity theft, I immediately think: "My identity? Take it. Let somebody else have a shot with it. I'm not really doing anything with it."
Anyway, no one raises a hand, and I guess that's Grace's point. The company is paying for this transition service to help us former employees prepare for the job market, and Grace is our designated life coach, career coach . . . "CEO of fun," she says.
Although I was going to blow off this job coaching, I've never written a r¿sum¿ in my life, so I figure I can at least get them to do that for me.
"What we're not going to do is write a r¿sum¿ for you," Grace begins.
Grace is all about hard realities. These days, you're only going to have a job for five or six years tops, so get over it, is her creed. "You have to become 'Me, Inc.,'?" she says, and talks about how the goal is to not be dependent on income and to earn your first million. What kind of company fires you and then sets you up with a guru to talk about having $1 million?
I don't belong here.
There are about a dozen unemployees from various professions in attendance at this introductory seminar, and several look at one another as if to say: "My goal isn't really to become a millionaire. My goal is to find a decent job that I enjoy and maybe do some good in this world."
They don't belong here.
"How many of you are aware of the secret?" Grace asks.
This time, several people raise their hands. "Good," she says, and that's that. She moves on. And what have I become that I don't stop the process and shout, "Hey, I want to know the secret, too!"
Grace insists we all introduce ourselves, and when it's my turn she asks about my education, if I have a degree?
I don't have any education to speak of, and she says, "Oh, so you're gifted."
Yes, that's what I plan to put on my r¿sum¿ under "education": gifted.
"No, that's good. You're talented," she says. "You don't even have an AA?"
Not even an AA.
I wish she would just write my r¿sum¿.
I disdain taking part in organized things like this, so I've set up a little reward system for myself. Today, I brought jelly beans in my pocket -- the good kind. I've been here for 45 minutes now.
Eat peach jelly bean.
"Who are your customers? Ask yourself, what makes me unique?" Grace continues. "Your r¿sum¿ should be a brochure to advertise yourself." I envision mine as similar to a college campus brochure, with a picture of me at a picnic table surrounded by happy faces from every ethnic group.
When I get home, I go through the tools and online classes Grace's company provides to guide you in r¿sum¿-building, but I get stuck on the part about accomplishments.
Sure, I have plenty of accomplishments, but I always find the things I didn't accomplish much more indicative of who I really am. The program details how to use the "SOAR" method to list notable achievements, but I decide to apply it to my biggest failure:
S -- Situation: The weather had been ideal all week, so I organized a staff picnic on the roof of our building.
O -- Obstacles: Of course, with liability and all, the company didn't want the employees climbing onto the roof for an afternoon party, but I had scoped out a way to scale up the side of the one-story building by using a maintenance railing. All we'd need to do was bring a small ladder in order to reach it, and then we'd be planting a beach umbrella into an air duct quicker than you could say "parkour."
A -- Accomplishment: I got everyone to show up in their summer clothes, with coolers and beach chairs and bubbles to blow into the sky. We had Barenaked Ladies on the boombox, and I'd even brought pastel-colored flexi-straws for everybody because I have this thing about how multicolored, bendable straws have the uncanny ability to elevate any situation.
R -- Results: The kitchen stepladder we'd brought wasn't high enough to reach the railing. The result was people having a picnic on the ground, of all places. It was the most depressing thing I've ever seen, bubbles barely trickling a few feet before popping in the brush. I never even broke out the flexi-straws.
And everybody hated me for two days.
Eat mango jelly bean.Aiming
The "hello" has become excruciating.
Some people will say there is no longer a stigma attached to being unemployed because it's "just the times; business is bad." But I will tell you straight-out: 20 minutes into unemployment, everything changes. The taint rolls over you in waves of pity, from the way people look at you in the street to the subjectless e-mails that need no explanation: "Sorry to hear it, man."
All your insecurities and eccentricities are magnified when unemployed is added to the mix. For instance, consider the bicycle I'm riding these days. About a month ago, the spokes started to pop. The rims began caving in slightly, but I thought it was funny. When the spokes snapped, they made a plink-plinking sound that made me feel as if I were commandeering a rolling music box. But now, add "unemployed" to that scenario, and people see nothing but a pitiful man with a dilapidated bike. The bike while I was employed: big goof. Unemployed: the saddest goddamned thing you've ever seen in your life.
I inspire pity. Three times this week I have gotten boisterous "top o' the morning" greetings as I've cruised the roads on this thing. I'm not even counting the nods or car-horn toots, the friendly kind. You know how hard it is to tap the horn just so in order to release a friendly "tweep"? Well, people have mastered it at the sight of me. They can smell my desperation, and the effervescent "howdy do" is their version of putting money in my cup on a street corner.
Temperament-wise, I'm in that stage where I've started throwing things but not really fixating on targets. I think the next stage is aiming. You know, not just random hurls of objects across the room but direct throws toward people's heads.
Thinking positively, Chris says, "At least I know you're not too proud to take any kind of job." But the last thing I want to be is someone who makes the best of things. I've always hated that cliche of someone dying and a family member recalling: "Oh, his spirits were high. He was flirting with the nurses, joking right up till the end."
Not me. The joking stops now. I don't want any of you SOBs saying: "Oh, I ran into Shine at an art fair, and he was laughing and spouting one-liners. Making the best of things." No -- I looked miserable. I hit you up for 20 bucks. That's the story you take back to your cronies.The Window Unit
I see Bob hustling across the street in the near distance, and Jana is on her way. We're meeting at this downtown restaurant to compare notes. As far as seeking alternative income, Bob got off to the fastest start of all of us. Thirty minutes after being terminated, he showed up at another branch of our company to see if he could still freelance and was cornered by security.
"Captain Mike got me," Bob says.
But his determination has paid off. Last night he reviewed a Pat Metheny concert, and today he's writing about a surgical robot for a company that does medical news releases. It's true: All the jobs are in the health field, even the ones for freelance writers.
"I sent the press release over," Bob says. "I hope they like it."
Jana arrives and has already made the leap into volunteer work -- which she hopes will lead to a new career. She has her goal narrowed down to "historic site management" and is putting in half-days at the local historical society.
"Terry, you'll like this," she says. "There's one exhibit that can't be touched by the bare hand, so they have these white gloves I'll have to put on."
I don't have much to offer up in the way of job prospects and feel stagnant between these two. One former associate asked me yesterday to let him know if I needed any help with a reference or anything, and I immediately responded that I had applied for a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism and may need a letter of recommendation. "Absolutely," he said.
It's kind of a long shot. I must admit my main reason for applying is that you put something like that out there and it takes flight, spurring brief exchanges at Waffle Houses that hopefully go something like this: "Hey, you know what Shine's been up to?""Last I heard, he'd applied for a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship."
Even if I'm six months in, working the slower side of a Checkers, there will still be a faction of society getting fed the RC Fellowship bit.
Bob recalls how, when he got the job at the company more than a decade ago, he was relieved to be able to buy a condo with air-conditioning. "Before that, all I ever had was the window unit," he says. "I don't ever want to go back to the window unit."
The three of us agree: No one wants to go back to the window unit. There is nothing worse than reverse when it comes to income.
One former co-worker asked me excitedly, "Did you get enough severance to pay off your mortgage or, like, just enough for two Jet Skis and a double trailer?" I'd have to say the latter, if you throw in a teeth-whitening at the WOW Smile kiosk in the mall.
My severance came in a lump sum, but we were offered several options on how to receive our final pay. Jana says she's still contemplating an option that will entitle her to $10 a week for the rest of her life, the thinking being that she will stay in fantastic shape, living on grapefruit and acai berries on that island off the coast of Korea where people survive to 147, just so those corporate stiffs will have to keep paying her for all eternity.
On the actual day of my firing, I noticed that Chris went online and made a series of last-ditch purchases. Nothing crazy: Shoe Carnival, $69.19; Total Wine, $36.15; Barnie's Coffee, $38.42.
"I have to have my Cool Cafe Blues coffee," she said.
Not anymore, baby.
Most of us don't live that high, so when we set out to prune our list of meager luxuries, the only indulgence we have to sacrifice always comes down to: HBO.
Beyond that there are only necessities to carve up: Do we really need hair conditioner? How often do we actually use Band-Aids?
One day last week, I decided to treat myself to Dunkin' Donuts. When I ordered a half-dozen, the clerk said, "Oh, for another dollar you can get a dozen."
"No, thanks. I can't eat that many doughnuts," I said.
"I could eat them," the woman next to me at the counter said.
She'd already completed her order. "But I'll give you a dollar and take the other half-dozen," she explained, as if she'd done this 50 times before.
So, as I paid for a dozen split into two boxes, the woman left a dollar on the counter, took her half and was gone with a whoosh. I hustled out in time to see her chugging off in a minivan. Not a soccer mom minivan, more like a ratty, throwing-archaic-newspapers-onto-lawns-at-the-break-of-dawn kind of minivan -- the minivan of a survivor.Staying Alive
After we were "exterminated," as we like to put it, Bob had some questions for Annie, the HR woman who had terminated us. She was very helpful, and during the call, she said she could really identify with his situation, because the company had notified her that she'd also be laid off within 60 days.
"Can you believe that?" Bob asks.
I can. I can picture the memo: "Fire everybody, then fire yourself, and your work is done here."
We all like Annie now. When HR people become one of us, you know it's a sign of the apocalypse. I make a mental note to call Annie's office number in six weeks to see if it's really true. If she picks up, I'll complain.
Right now, it's a beautiful day, no room at the table for whining and complaining. Jana's carefree tone melts away only when discussing health care. With our severance, we all have a limited time before all our medical benefits are cut off. I go days blocking it out, but then I wake up in the middle of the night, running through a mad checklist -- "Okay, before the benefits disappear, I have to see the dermatologist, get a cavity filled, blood work, EKG, full physical . . . colonoscopy!"
I contemplate having procedures that may not quite be due yet. Dad had a pacemaker put in at age 77. Could we just slice me open and slip that in while I'm covered, even if we don't actually turn it on for 30 years? Is that possible?
The inevitable disaster of having no health care even overwhelms the smell of fish tacos, and the conversation abruptly turns away.
"Terry, you'll like this," Jana says. "Some of the volunteers at the historical society get to dress up in Victorian costumes."
I do like that.
"Do you think I have to report my jury duty wages to unemployment?" Bob asks.Working the Room
There's a job fair at a nearby convention center this afternoon, and it really caught my interest because the railroad company is hiring. I am well aware that plenty of occupations are totally out of my realm, but with proper training and accreditation, why couldn't I be a conductor for the local commuter train?
"I could see you being a railroad conductor," Chris says. "Punching those tickets."
"No, no, I mean the guy steering the train and hanging his arm out the front window."
"You mean the engineer -- the guy at the helm."
"Yes, at the helm," I insist. "That's me."
I arrive early, because the fair starts with a seminar titled "Working the Room." Susan, the host of the motivational talk, charges into the conference room.
"Who here is absolutely fabulous?" she shouts.
No hands rise.
"Did you ever notice that all the fabulous people get the fabulous jobs?" she asks. But she's losing us here. Except for a few rare exceptions, I think she's way off on this one. Most of us would agree it's the backstabbers, the phonies and the jerks that get the fabulous jobs.
I may not be fabulous, and I know it's sad I have to say this about myself, but at this point who else will? Here goes: I'm not only talented, but I'm a nice guy and a hard worker, too. So what is wrong with me and the attitude of corporate America that I currently don't have a job?
"Have you looked at your shoes?" Susan asks.
Damn, I was going to go buy new Skechers over the weekend.
"People do judge us by how we're dressed," Susan says. She also urges us to carry a "classy pen" in hand, not an "unemployed pen."
My pen is a Bic Ultra Round Stic Grip. "Came in a box of 44," I say. "So I don't think it's classy."
New shoes, new pen. Check. I'm ready to work the room.
The job fair is set up like your typical convention, with rows of employer tables and draped interview booths. Applicants snicker when they pass the Dollar General booth, but I wonder how many days away each of us is from regretting that laughter. I have a one-track mind: Where is the railroad line's booth?
Unlike Dollar General, the train booth has a bit of a backup, so I linger and notice from the posters that the company is trying to fill mostly administrative positions. No mention of engineers.
A dark-haired gentleman with taxidermy eyes turns his attention toward me for a second, and I immediately say, "Hi, I mean, hello."
I quickly explain that I know his company doesn't currently have such openings but I wondered how to apply for driving one of the trains.
"Driving?" he repeats.
"You know, at the helm."
He looks me up and down, lingering a little too long on my questionable shoes, and then says, "No."
I wait for a "but" or a curt explanation, but nothing. Just, "No."
That pretty much sums things up.Thinking Inside the Box
It's 6:30 in the morning, still dark, when I pull into the parking lot of a Krispy Kreme that went out of business months ago.
"The signs have already been stripped away, but the green awnings are unmistakable," I told Laura, our office manager, yesterday.
For the past few days, Laura had been e-mailing me that she has a box full of "all my stuff."
Since I wasn't allowed to return to my desk for any possessions after being terminated, she gathered those I had missed in the frantic desk sweeping and has been keeping them in the trunk of her car.
Because the abandoned Krispy Kreme is directly off the interstate on her way to work, I thought it would be a good place to rendezvous, but now, in the pitch black, the location seems a bit seedy.
"Well, this is kind of nasty," Laura says as she gets out of her Suzuki. "People are going to think I'm a prostitute."
Police report: Unemployed man solicits prostitute at abandoned Krispy Kreme.
I immediately go for the box so she can flee quickly, but I stop to ask her a question that's been gnawing at me.
"Hey," I say, "when you said Jana and Bob would be fine but you worried about me -- why?"
"The thing is . . . How should I put this?" she begins. "The thing is, you're your own special island."
The way she says it sounds like a school administrator labeling children she can't sum up as "special."
"I don't mean that," Laura says. "But you need to end up someplace different. It will be disappointing for us if you conform, if you get a normal job."
"Even if it's managing a Nine West?"
"Yes," she says immediately. "Or being a train conductor. Don't think I didn't hear about that. If you do it, it has to be at a theme park where you wear a big, puffy hat. Just don't conform," she says, getting in her car and driving off.
But I will conform. And I will grovel, and I will kiss butt. Because that's what we do, isn't it?
I will find someplace to go.
Back in the car, I flick on the dome light and start rummaging through the box. On top is an old Am¿lie postcard I stole from the movie reviewer's desk when her position was eliminated. Am¿lie's bright eyes are popping beside the words, "She will change your life."
There are notes for half-started stories, various trinkets and a stack of fresh, unused pocket notebooks I am immediately grateful for. (I miss having a stock closet full of free supplies.) Folded in half is a plain 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of white paper with "#63" written in blue marker.
When our office relocated from its previous building more than a year ago, I was designated #63 by the moving company, and the paper was tacked above my desk. I never took it down. I remember the big boss had visited our branch recently and said, "Hey, Terry, I think you can take that down now."
Of course, once he said that, I was never going to remove it, but beyond that, I just liked thinking of myself as #63. In a way, I wish it remained above my now-empty desk so future employees might inquire, "What's with the 63?"
"Oh, 63. I remember him fondly. He was a decent sort."
The sky is taking on the glow of a child's nightlight as I drive around the back of the Krispy lot. Man, I remember when its stock was climbing and the Wall Street Journal was reporting on the decadent return of the mighty doughnut. I spot a dumpster the construction workers are still using to gut the place. I spill the unused notebooks onto my front seat, neatly fold #63 into my pocket, and hurl the box and the remainder of its contents into the trash bin.From Stu to Shyam
I knew him as Stu, but when I finally track him down -- on a tropical island -- he quickly notifies me that he now has a spiritual name, Shyam.
The last time I talked to Stu was more than a decade ago. After being terminated from a high-paying job, he had left his wife, traded his car for a scooter and was sleeping on a cot in the warehouse district.
Typical guy stuff, but I'd heard bits and pieces about him over the years: a journey to India, a yoga studio, wild and unruly hair. He was on a quest, and that intrigued me now more than ever.
It was at the state employment office, of all places, that a facilitator said to me, "This is a horrible episode in your lifetime. You not only need to prepare yourself emotionally but spiritually."
Earlier in the week, I pulled over at a church near my house but lost my nerve at the last second. Mainly because the church is in a renovated International House of Pancakes, which does have the perfect peak roof for a place of worship. But I thought the pews might be sticky, and I might get upset if the organ was, like, where my favorite booth used to be. Plus, I didn't want thoughts of silver dollar pancakes sending me off course if I was about to have a desperately needed revelation.
By happenstance, yesterday I was throwing out an old gym mat. That made me think of yoga and Stu, and then my own journey. Maybe Stu could set me on the path, perhaps even enlighten me to . . . the secret.
I find he still has a yoga business in the city, a tiny place beside the railroad tracks, but when I check in, I am notified that he is on a teaching mission in Nassau, on Paradise Island, the place where Oprah and Star Jones like to spa on weekend getaways.
And he isn't teaching yoga to nail techs, UPS supervisors and semiprofessional soccer players. He is tutoring 61 people from 14 countries who aspire to become yogis. In other words, he has disciples. The man has transcended the confines of a sweaty, hard-floored studio on the wrong side of the tracks for an ashram resort.
After getting the details, I check it out online. Right at the edge of the crystal-blue waters, on 5 1/2 acres of tropical heaven, people are doing the garuda-asana (half-spinal twist) posture on pure, white sands. When I finally reach him, and he alerts me to his new name, I am proud of his choice, because the first swami I saw online went by Swami Swaroopananda, which sounds like a swami who would show up on "The Simpsons."
His name sounds like a gunfighter swami: "If you don't like the way things are being run in this town, you can take it up with Shyam."
Shyam tells me he is not an official swami. His spiritual name simply refers to becoming "something higher and better than you were before." True swamis, he points out, renounce all attachments to the worldly life.
"Being a swami is something I'm not striving for," Shyam says. I understand. He's not quite ready to give up HBO, either.
Initially, I wanted to speak about finding peace and fulfillment, but now I want to know how the snorkeling is.
"Spectacular," Shyam says.
I can see him gliding across the turquoise waters atop a glistening black stingray while in the akarna dhanurasana (shooting bow) pose. Visualize that ride, my disciples.
I tell him how much I admire his journey, from unemployed to enlightened.
"I just knew that I wanted to go in a different direction, and I didn't want to be part of the corporate world anymore," he says. To set me on my path he advises, "Look within, and try to determine what resonates with you, and then have the courage to take the plunge."
Unless it's in a bathroom, I like the idea of "plunging." I want to plunge into peace and laughter and vats of chocolate. I want to plunge into the arms of loved ones and the tranquil waters of Paradise Island and deep piles of autumn leaves. I want to plunge into a job.
"Just knowing that you need a fresh start is a big step," Shyam says. "If it's done with the right intentions, then it will probably work out for you. If it doesn't, try something else. That's part of the curriculum here on planet Earth."
Wait, there's a curriculum?
Not knowing the curriculum isn't as disappointing as not knowing the secret. I can work with that.Up on the Roof
I sling the small cooler that holds a single Heineken over my shoulder and, hand over hand, quickly scale the side of the building. I scuff across the gravel of the roof, straight to the south edge overlooking the main parking lot. The sun has already set. The day is over. But when I drove up, the office was still brightly lit.
I check for familiar vehicles but don't see Alyson's Eclipse or Colleen's Saturn or Dan's Hyundai, so I'm not sure who is working late. All the industrial businesses have closed up shop, and the only action below involves accountants, general contractors, paramedics and school administrators -- who really want to be Ultimate Fighters -- cutting across the parking lot with their gym bags.
Taking to the roof wasn't supposed to be a solo act. Clutching my involuntary separation papers and being led to the door by a verbally constipated boss had left a worse taste in my mouth than a Bud and Clamato ever could, so I thought it would be fun to gather some of the employees on the roof after work: Everybody bring a drink, and we'll have a little toast to wash away the memory of that horribly grounded picnic. Bubbles optional.
Meeting me in the dark at an abandoned Krispy Kreme is one thing, but climbing on the roof at work turned out to be a leap no one was willing to take. Even my fellow "letgoees" are no-shows. Jana said she wasn't going up unless we had a DJ on the roof, and my pocket just can't afford that right now. Bob had family obligations.
My first thought was how a person becomes sort of a leper once his code is taken away. Still, I know this is an awkward endeavor, certainly a bit forced on my part. Pathetic, even.
But man, it feels good up here, like a climb I had to make. I stroll the length of the building, even count out steps to the point where I'm hovering over my old desk, a ghost of workdays past. Laura had told me that the remaining employees now keep their desks totally clean, ready to go at a moment's notice. The thought of everybody's cubicles starkly bare makes me grin but then frown at the disappearance of those crappy little personal items that made them all so special.
I hope they survive. I hope they thrive.
For a second, I wish Jana and Bob were up here at my side -- Bob sipping on a rum and Coke, Jana munching on Doritos while gracefully pointing out the Little Dipper with a white-gloved hand against a black sky. But as much as I adore their characters and company, I know we can't bond over unemployment. Unemployment is a lonely deal.
There isn't so much as a protruding air duct or utility box to sit on up on the roof, so I remain on my feet. The moon is a sliver, a weak reminder that its pull is barely holding things together down here. I take a sip of the Heineken through a pastel blue flexi-straw and propose a toast: To the many good people out there contemplatively standing in the dark in the same position as me. Yeah, probably not on the roof of their old office buildings, but in driveways, courtyards, back yards and on patios, piers and ninth-story balconies, trying to figure out what the future holds. Not a one searching for swami utopia, just a decent opportunity on the horizon.
I don't know what's to become of us. What do we do? We can't all be surgical techs . . . Can we?
As I stand on the edge of this building tonight and look out toward the highway and the manmade corporate lakes, I realize I may not have the skills but I definitely have the heart of an able seaman, my iridescent teeth a beacon to those who toss and turn in the night.
We've heard that T.M. Shine is applying for a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship. He blogs at tmshine.blogspot.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m..