On Dec. 6, 1990, I was laid off. After nearly two months of optimistically assuming it would be easy to find a new job (read: blind ignorance), I sought unemployment compensation.

Day 1, Feb. 4, 1991:

10:50 a.m. -- The Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, Wheaton. Finally.

During the past week, I had asked several people, "Where's the unemployment office?" and was told, "Wheaton Plaza." I entered the plaza and scanned the information board. Under the heading "Services" were listed several instantly recognizable names and one cryptic one: "D.E.E.D." That's it. I headed to the information booth.

"Down the hall, downstairs, out the door. It's the old phone building," I was told.

Of course. The old phone building.

Once outside, I saw nothing but more storefronts. In desperation, I went to the Social Security office. A neatly lettered sign on that office's door read, "Unemployment office is in the high-rise behind Circuit City."

Once there, I encountered a line of about 20 people spilling out the double doorway into the high-rise's outer lobby.

11:15 a.m. -- I had moved up about five spaces.

11:25 a.m. -- I had just entered the inner lobby. The border between the two lobbies was clearly marked by the butting of two types of flooring: the Black Slate of the Corridors of Power Outer Lobby yielded to the white kitchen tile of the Here's Where We Roll Up Our Sleeves and Do the Real Work Inner Lobby. There were, between applicants and workers, about 100 people in the inner lobby, a room about 30 feet by 60 feet. It was about 80 degrees inside, and no windows were open.

To the right, people sat at wood-and-Formica school desks, filling out applications or just sitting and staring. Young, administrative-assistant looking women; older, construction-looking men; power men and women in corporate trappings; entire families where it was unclear who was applying.

On a wall above them was a sign that read, "Please, no food or beverage allowed in waiting area."

I began to get hungry.

The line I was in cut right up the gut of the inner lobby, going through the double doorway, over the tile boundary and to the far wall. Ahead, I could see where the line ended, but not what went on there.

To my left, behind gray, shoulder-high partitions, were the workers.

In a darkened room farther to the left, I could hear a recorded voice.

"You must meet several requirements ... " the friendly, helpful voice intoned, rising and falling in appropriate spots.

" ... claims certification ... "

" ... no fault of your own ... "

After edging up a bit, I could see a television playing a videotape. Pictured on the screen was one of the forms I assumed I would get and inset in a smaller screen was a hand with a pen, filling out a specific line on the form.

" ... must be actively seeking work ... "

" ... two employers every week ... "

" ... don't make any stray marks ... "

Noon -- When one of the workers asked people to not stand next to a wall that had signs reading, "No standing here," one middle-aged woman with large hair and glasses refused.

"If I go out there," she said, motioning toward the outer lobby, "I won't hear my name. Why don't you open a window? I've been waiting here three hours and I'm not going to wait a minute longer than I have to."

People stared, fidgeted and pretended to look away. Alarms sounded in their brains: Conflict!

"Are you refusing to cooperate?" the worker asked. The Bureaucratic Flow Chart was activated in her mind: "Ask client to move. If client refuses to cooperate, call supervisor."

Another worker emerged. She carried an air of weary authority. And it was only noon!

"You do have to move," she said to the overheated, intransigent woman. Then, to the worker, "Make sure you go out into the lobby and announce names if no one in here responds."

The woman retreated to the lobby. Unfortunately, no windows were opened. I was really hungry.

12:10 p.m. -- I was at the head of the line. I was the most important person in the office for that instant. I was King of the Hill.


"Hi," said the woman seated behind the counter. "Please, do not lean on the counter," a sign to her right read.

"What do I need to do?"

"What are you here for?"

"Unemployment compensation."

"Social Security number?"

The gray-haired worker punched it into her computer.

"Last employed by the Times Journal Company?"

(I was on their computer! How many computers was I on? Man, was I hungry.)


She handed me a Manila folder filled with forms and told me which ones to fill out. No problem, I thought.

"And then wait for my name to be called?" I asked. I was getting so good at this.

"No. We're not taking any more claims today. Come in tomorrow at 7:30, put your completed forms in that orange tray," she said, pointing, "and wait for your name to be called."

I left the head of the line, having been unceremoniously replaced by the next Most Important Person in the Office. I found the orange tray so I wouldn't have to waste time (like I had anything else to do) looking for it the next day.

I did, however, learn two important lessons during my first day at the unemployment office: 1) Dress appropriately. 2) Take a snack.

Day 2, Feb. 5, 1991

8:30 a.m. -- All right, so I didn't make it in by 7:30. But I would have if I hadn't had to sit up late the night before filling out forms labeled "NEW/T.O. CLAIM (A02)" and "Eligibility Review and Reemployment Assistance Questionnaire."

I placed my folder in the orange tray, noticing there were about six others under it. I would keep my eye on the tray -- when it was emptied, I assumed, it wouldn't be long before my name would be called. The line from the outer lobby into the inner lobby was as long as it was the day before and the school desks in the inner lobby nearly all were taken. I saw three people I recognized from the day before. I sat down, eyed the orange tray and waited.

8:47 a.m. -- Sneaky! I was instructed to go to the video room. They emptied the orange tray while I wasn't looking.

The video room is about 15 feet by 15 feet with one doorway and no windows. There were 19 chestnut vinyl-and-chrome chairs arranged in rows of five or six. Brown, short, loop-pile carpet was underfoot.

In one corner stood a three-tier, 5-foot-high black metal-and-chrome TV stand with a color TV on top and a VCR underneath.

In walked the worker who had summoned us. A middle-aged man with glasses and a sea foam-colored cardigan sweater, he had a trace of an accent. He would have to initial our folders to show we had seen the videotape, he said. He told us what to do with our folders.

"Do not put it in the little orange box. You're already past that stage."

With that, the video rolled and the 10 of us watched it.

For 20 minutes it explained in painstaking detail how to fill out the claim-certification form I would get in the mail every two weeks. On it, I must show if I had looked for work, how I had looked for work, if I had received any income, the names and phone numbers of the employers I had contacted and so forth. Music was playing, about five basic tracks: reggae, a slap-bass funk beat and about three versions of straight-ahead, 4/4 rock 'n' roll, all very danceable. The man on the tape kept talking.

"... determinating of monetary eligibility ... "

"... any stray marks, such as stains from coffee, chocolate ... "

"Both parents cannot claim the same child as a dependent at the same time."

We learned we could get checks for 26 weeks, or until we got a new job.

9:18 a.m. -- We were told to go back out to the school desks in the inner lobby and wait to be called.

9:37 a.m. -- My name was called. I went behind the shoulder-high gray partitions and was told to sit down near a desk with a computer and a worker. (My worker!) I was the third of three that had been called by my worker.

She worked quickly.

"Mr. Ahrens?" (This was it!)

She worked through my forms quickly. I asked her why all the workers had a doorbell switch mounted next to their desks. To call security if an applicant got rowdy?

"Oh, no. They're for that," she said, and pointed to a number counter mounted on the wall. A previous administrator had the idea to give applicants numbers and have the worker hit the switch, advancing the numbers on the counter when they were ready for a new applicant, she said.

The idea was dropped, she said, when it was discovered applicants were "bartering with each other for better numbers" and even "intimidating" others with lower numbers. "You can't take the human factor out of it," she said. She was in a mood to talk now.

"I've worked through two recessions, and I did a reality check recently. Nothing has ever been this bad," she said. "It started ... let's see ... eight months ago."

9:53 a.m. -- I left the building, having spent a little more than five minutes with my worker. All told, I had spent 2 hours, 48 minutes in the Department of Economic and Employment Development and an hour at home filling out forms and rummaging through old records to get names and addresses of previous employers. Of that, only about half an hour (including 20 minutes for the video) was needed to do the things I had to do to get my check.

Still, I had one consolation: I wasn't in line long enough the second day to eat my snack.

Frank Ahrens lives in Bethesda.