Standing in the unemployment line in the early afternoon, as she has been standing all morning, is Mary Junroski, 24, small and blond and mad as a March wind. She's here with her aunt who just got laid off from her job at the fast-food stand in the shopping center. Junroski herself is working, two jobs as it turns out, full-time at a beauty parlor and part-time cleaning house. Her husband, an electrician, is working now too, after a four-month layoff from Amtrak. But Mary Junroski is still smarting from the sacrifices that the times have demanded of her, the ways in which they have corroded her dreams.
They had to sell their car. They had to sell some furniture. "I had all this money saved up," she says through gritted teeth. "For a house. We were going to buy a house. Now that money's gone. My husband wants children, but we can't afford children, and I'm up in the middle of the night thinking about it. What kind of life is that, when you can't make those kind of plans? People gotta speak out."
But the anger flashes only occasionally. Most of those in the line don't feel much like speaking out. Instead there is a dry-eyed determination, a harsh humor that translates the economic forecasts into a more realistic language. In the line, they don't need to be told that unemployment in Prince George's county went up from 5.7 percent in December to 6.6 percent in January. The predictions that the recession will soon be over, or the predictions that the recession will soon be worse, mean little when life begins to orbit around a four-hour shuffle for a two-minute transaction. That's all it takes to ask for and receive the card that didn't come in the mail, or to ask for and receive the reassurance that the check that hasn't come in the mail for the last five weeks will come tomorrow.
Life in the line is where you find out what being a statistic is all about, there in the big crowded room, where the pride leaks out slowly and the present seems to cancel both the future and the past.
Occasionally, standing in the line at the Prince George's County unemployment office, someone will say, "I put in more time here than I did each day on the job," and a few wry smiles will flicker. Or, "Twenty years of working, and for this little bit of money," and there will be a round of sympathetic nods.
But once the routine is down, there isn't much to talk about. Once the routine is down, all there is to do is wait. By 8 in the morning, the lines are already long, snaking back and forth and doubling back, moving so slowly they hardly seem to move at all. By 9, the air is already dry with cigarette smoke, and the arid hopes of a hundred lives on hold.
All day long there is only the low murmur of the clerks' indifferent monotones as they listen to the unending litany of the last disaster-- the lost job, if it's a first-timer, the lost check, if it's a veteran wading through the bureaucracy that stands between him and $140 a week, the maximum benefit allotted.
Most of the people who pass through the maze of lines and forms, who shift their weight on the patterned green carpet, have not earned their money at a desk; not too many suits here. There are blue jeans, the soft tread of sneakers, a rainbow of T-shirts. Most of the men's faces are creased by sun and wind and rain. Most of the women know how to stay on their feet all day, know how to stare a customer down, run a cash register, get the kids to school on time. Working-class lives that have always rested on something of a gamble, making their money by the hour, making their plans accordingly, taking life on the cuff.
"I've been a floater all my life," said Butch Winn as he waited to find out why his last several checks hadn't arrived. "A desk job wouldn't have been for me. I never read much in books, but I learned a lot from the people I met. I'm a survivor. I'll get by. How, I don't know, but I will."
The office mails out 6,000 checks a week, according to manager Sarah Browne, despite the fact that Prince George's was one of only two counties in Maryland where unemployment was below 10 percent. Last week, 624 people walked into the office and filed a new claim, 168 more than had walked in the week before. Each night, Browne drives the claims to Baltimore where they're processed. If you trust them to the mails, she says, it takes three days, and people can't wait that long; besides, it's on her way home.
In the good times, Browne says, "in a normal year, when the economy is up," the employment services division of the office can place 50 to 60 percent of the claimants in a new job. In the bad times, which is to say, in these times, it's difficult to say, particularly because the office is having some hard times of its own. Last September, five members of the staff were themselves laid off, and morale, not to mention productivity in the employment services division, declined greatly. "It was," Browne said, "what you would have to call an ironic budget cut."
With some, it's the eyes that call attention, like the blue eyes of Calvin Lawhorn, which stare ahead as if he were looking at nothing, as if there were nothing in the room to see, as if the only places he could see were the places he'd already been. A wiry man with a reddened face, a shy manner and a mustache that is poised somewhat tentatively above his mouth, he's been a heavy construction worker for the last 20 years. He ran the big cranes, the hoists, the compressors, the pumps, "just about all your heavy equipment." He liked the crane best, liked what it could do, the way it could lift anything from 100 pounds to 50 tons. "It was dangerous work at times, it was exciting work." He made good money, too, $14 an hour.
He was laid off in December. Since then, he's had a couple of day jobs that the union found for him, but that's about it. He's looked for work, of course, but they see that $14 an hour, and they tell him he's overqualified for the minimum-wage jobs, or they see that's he's 42 and they tell him he's too old, or they look at his experience and they tell him that he has none. "You take someone my husband's age, he ain't no high school graduate and now you need a diploma to dig a ditch these days," says his wife, Marguerite. "They want someone younger, so they don't have to pay him as much or worry about disability."
At home, in Seat Pleasant, there are two sons, 10 and 14. "It's very nerve-racking," he says in his tired voice, "when the kids say, 'Will you buy me this,' and you have to say, 'I'm sorry, son, but I'm not working now.' " The boy scout dues are three months overdue, says Marguerite Lawhorn, "but I told the scoutmaster we just couldn't pay them right now."
Sometimes he takes his son down to the Patuxent to fish, but mostly he sits home and watches TV. "My wife and me, we fuss at each other a lot," he says with a shrug. "I guess I'm underfoot."
"I tell him, 'Why don't you take a walk to the shopping center and back; it'll do you good,' " says Marguerite Lawhorn. She comes from the country and she doesn't mind saying it has helped her to cope. "I'm not high and mighty, I can do without when I have to, I know how to make do. There's nothing wrong with pinto beans and hot bread, why, I can eat that seven days a week." Still, she says, it grates on her the way they look at her in the supermarket when she hands over the food stamps. "I know what they're thinking, they're thinking, 'That big strong healthy man, why ain't he working?' That's the way they look."
"You get depressed, you get aggravated, you think, 'The hell with it,' " says Calvin Lawhorn. "You figure you'll go out and get drunk and forget it. But you don't have the money to get drunk."
Rosemary Walsh waits in line nervously, unprotected by the mask of moxie or macho that many of the others seem to assume when they come through the door. She wears a tailored blazer and a tailored checked skirt with brown loafers, and under her arm is a fat accordion folder bulging with files and references. She is 26, a research assistant in plant pathology at the University of Maryland. At least that's what she was until her contract ended. Next fall she plans to be in graduate school, getting her doctorate, but she is staring at the sheaf of forms in her hand. PLEASE PRINT, one begins. PRESS HARD SO THAT ALL COPIES CAN BE READ. Rosemary Walsh looks as if she is pressing hard not to cry. "I just feel kind of useless," she says, a long nervous giggle trailing her words.
Edward Floyd, David Bynum and Carl Windsor sit in the back, big burly men who overflow the confines of the plastic chairs, the kind with the armrests that fill up high school classrooms, and wait for their names to be called. Until last year they all worked as packers in a local meat company until it went out of business. Floyd worked there for 19 years; Windsor for 15.
"It seems at first like the world is going to cave in," Windsor says. "But you can't panic. You go crazy if you do that." To save money, both he and Bynum have moved in with Windsor's parents, and at 31, "it's just like being a little kid again, you're back to the basics. You have to play by their rules. You have to sneak out just for a little privacy. But you get used to it, after awhile. I'm not crazy about the night lights these days anyway, I don't have the money and sometimes you go out and you don't remember to come home. I can't afford that these days."
They've been good friends for a long time, and they stick together, sharing the gossip, the possible job leads, the gallows humor over the jobs they were sure they had from the employers who never called back. "They say you're underqualified, they say you're overqualified, hell, we'd take anything we can get," Windsor says. But they're hopeful after a fashion, the weather is warming up and the construction jobs will soon be available. Windsor looks around at the figures wrapped in their own solitude, staring at the floor. "I'm not really depressed," he says. "Just as long as there's someone to talk to."
Tom. That's all he'll say his name is, Tom. He's a carpenter by trade--a big guy, wearing two flannel shirts, a stubbly gray beard sprouting on his face. He pushes a thick heavy hand through tousled brown hair. What's he thinking about? "What it used to be like," he says. "I used to make big money. You make big money, you spend it big, I guess. I had three kids, each of them had a car. We had a lot of stuff, I had a TV set in every room, you know what I mean?" The smile fades with the memories. Now the wife is gone, and so are the kids and the cars. He was going to buy a house trailer with the money he had saved, but the money for a rainy day that just kept getting rainier. "Spend it while you're young," he says. "It just doesn't last."