I TYPE NOW on the backs of old paper. That's how bad things are. I didn't mind Giant Food's kleenex, but now it's scratchy toilet paper, too. My three cats eat up about $1.50 a day. Their recent bout with cystitis cost $22 and requires better brands of cat food. Supper for me last night was Safeway's macroni and cheese, at 23 cents. The cats now eat better than I do.
I have to move my car from the south side of C Street in the morning. The District government does not think efficiently. It tickets cars. It doesn't sweep the streets, but it collects $10 every time I forget what day it's supposed to.
Only two ads in the Sunday Post sound at all suitable. I send out resumes. It's usually like dropping a note in a bottle into the ocean. And it's impossible to follow up ads that just give box numbers. I count my remaining stamps and long envelopes.
I try to read George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty," which took two months to get from the Northeast branch library. The branch will probably close soon, anyway. Tuesday
I'm deeply depressed after reading Dorothy Gilliam's column about the woman with a PhD who's one step away from being a bag lady. How can I become a bag lady in this city, where it's 98 degrees in summer and cold and snowy in the winter?
In the afternoon I set out, feeling smug about my success in getting an interview. Following the advice in books about changing careers, I have decided that I enjoy showing tourists around Washington. Many people I know refuse to set foot in the Washington Monument. I love it, and the Lincoln Memorial after midnight -- even for the 14th time -- and I always find something new at the museums and art galleries.
Last month my cousins came from Illinois. I was driving their big blue van through Dupont Circle during rush hour, giving my historical spiel, when I sideswiped Rep. Henry Waxman of California. I assumed that Waxman, wearing a tux and driving a Mustang, was a waiter in an Italian restaurant. He still hasn't called me about the damage to his car, but I'm prepared to suggest that I work it off writing press releases for him.
Austin Kenny at the Convention and Visitors Association listens to my new enthusiasm for tourism with restraint. "I don't know why I agree to see people like you," he says sadly. He asks my advice on how to avoid such time-consuming encounters in the future. Mindful of the man who told me he got his job when his predecessor was run over by a pickup truck, I leave Kenny a resume. He wishes me well. Wednesday
People are lined up already outside the D.C. unemployment office at 7:30 a.m. I am here to appeal California's conclusion, in English and in Spanish, that I "did not make any effort to seek work or find employment" the week of June 7-13.
My last job, with a successful but ungrateful congressional candidate in San Diego, ended Jan. 23. I filed for benefits there before returning home to sell my house. If I had waited to file here, I would get $196 a week, instead of $120 from California. There is certainly no incentive to work for the minimum wage, $134 a week gross. I would need pantyhose and subway fare.
I had always assumed I would do something honorable -- scrub floors, empty bedpans -- rather than accept unearned money. Friends told me I was stupid. They said I had paid into the fund during 20 years' continual employment a a reporter and writer. (That's not quite true.) I also hadn't reckoned with employers' reluctance to hire "overqualified" candidates. Why don't they just accept overqualifications and consider themselves lucky?
The doors of the ugly, dirty building are opened at 8:30 a.m. The outside line stampedes in and re-forms inside. I see I've lost ground to latecomers. Is this symbolic?
A burly man who says he ran his own construction company interprets for us. "They sent about 40 of us home yesterday at 1," he says. "There were 100 people in line in the morning. They interview about three an hour, and they've got three interviewers."
I've heard from other people in this city, where politics is the only industry and people update their resumes when the first poll results come out, how unpleasant the unemployment process is. It is worse than anything I heard. It's Kafkaesque. Everything is done by hand, and done in slow motion. The system seems deliverately designed to discourage participation. It took seven trips -- gasoline and parking each time -- merely to continue my California claim.
While I wait two hours to be processed, I talk to others -- an architect, an engineer and an accountant. I know how few good jobs there are for writers, but I'm shocked they can't find anything either. I observe that I can see no visible difference in this group of people, scrunched in tiny chairs, and a group of employed people outside, in the real world.
"It's roulette, man," shrugs the engineer.
I'm curious about the friends I've made in long lines. Whatever happened to the nice young man laid off as a counselor to deaf students at Gallaudet College? What will he do with his gift for sign language? And the man from Rhode Island, still waiting for his first check after nine weeks? And where is the pregnant New Jersey woman, who comes so far on the bus?
After filling out some papers, I leave in search of breakfast. I recall a friend's unemployement story in the Post Style section last year. He said you should never do "weekend" things during the week, when you are unemployed and out of sync with the world. Never make love in the morning or eat pancakes, he wrote. Suddenly I decide I want pancakes. The DeliSun, which advertised in the window pancakes and eggs for 99 cents, is a disappointment. Sholls, where I can have eggs, bacon, hash browns, blueberry muffin and coffee for $1.74, is still the best buy. Thursday
I commiserate on the phone with a friend who has lost a better job than I ever had, with the Carter administration. It's hard to remain cheerful when no one will return your phone calls, she says. I have a tough time taking rejection. I'd rather not ask than be turned down; I tell her how my neighbor once asked, "Are you waiting for someone to come up to you in the supermarket and offer you a job?"
At first, I thought of this period as my sabbatical -- unpaid, but welcome, a chance to lie on the beach and read the new books. A good job would come along, like the others had.
Then worry began to creep in. Everyone seemed younger, better educated and more ambitious. The young assistant district attorneys I used to cover have all gone on to become judges. I began to resent people with jobs.
Now, facing an end to unemployment benefits in a few weeks, worry is beginning to give way to panic. The lyrics of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" run through my mind in the bathtub. I used to be a real person, too.
Would the money machine at Riggs Bank give me cash out of my account if it knew I didn't have a job? Will I be arrested if they ask me for a work phone number, and I don't have one? I can imagine the headline, had I killed Waxman that day: "California Congressman Killed by Unemployed Woman."
"Tell people you're in investments," my friend Dru says.
We both laugh, knowing the trauma my Capitol Hill house has caused me. It's become a monster, eating money I don't have. I can't sell it, and I can't afford to live in it.
My son Steve is embarrassed. He tells his New York friends I'm working on a book. It's true. But I'm reading one, not writing one.
Alyce, another unemployed friend, reminds me, "They can't shoot us." She gave herself an honorary degree on her resume. Unfortunately, she claimed a BA from a two-year institution. She's going to try a master's degree next. I fear that Janet Cooke has ruined that for all of us in Washington. I try to think of a school that burned down in the '50s.
This evening, treat myself to a rare luxury and have dinner out, with an old friend from Tennessee. We choose Afghan food, cheap and filling. Friday
There's plenty of work for volunteers. Fewer women are at home these days, able to be exploited in behalf of worthy causes. I agree to help an old friend, Flora Crater, who is running for the Virginia legislature. Flora has fought for the ERA for years. It is one of the things I would give my next-to-last dollar for.
Typing on her IBM is a pleasure. Offices, I realize, are full of useful things like Xerox machines and typing paper. Later I discover I have left my 89-cent Pilot razor point pen at Flora's. I never knew what a ballpoint pen cost until this year.
After dropping off her press releases, I'm too late for my three-times-a-week workout at the gym. I'm trusting that vitamins and exercise will keep me healthy in the absence of medical insurance. Saturday
A good day for making sun tea. Six tea bags in a gallon glass jar, and the sun does the work without boiling water. Some friends stop by to try to encourage me to sell Amway. It's good soap, but will it pay my house note? Sunday
Change the litter boxes, wash the car and make a meatloaf is the morning program. Ann invites me out to her pool and gives me a lovely dinner. She's a journalism teacher at Maryland, and she promises to research the question of how many people find jobs in the want ads.
At night I begin the process over, poring over the tiny print. If only I had gone into computers, or become a nurse! What happens, I wonder, when I run out of stamps, or can't afford to ransom my good job-interview suit from the dry cleaners. Is there life after macaroni and cheese?