"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Valerie Chau, 46, earned $70,000 a year as a Java programmer before she was laid off in November 2001. Since then, she’s been unable to find a new coding job, and her unemployment ran out at the end of 2003.
“I am one of the many middle-aged people who has just been thrown out. No one will hire you,” says the mother of three boys, ages 9, 13 and 15.
The 5-foot-3, small-boned woman is now working as a courier, slinging packages that weigh as much as 65 pounds.
“I’m not a gym person with muscles, so I have to use my back,” says Chau, who delivers packages in the San Diego area in a Subaru with 95,000 miles on the odometer, bald tires and shot brakes.
“I don’t have a pension. I don’t have medical care, and I’m not as young as I used to be,” she says. “But my brain is very functional. I’m a software engineer, a book reader, a nerd. I’m a sit-down type of person. I’m not a lifting type of person. But I will do anything.”
Chau isn’t the only one.
Chad Pratt, 42, a software engineer who just a few years ago made $89,000 a year, moved back in with his mother in Syracuse, N.Y., when his last programming job ended in October 2002. While he continues to send out his résumé, he’s taken a part-time gig washing dishes at a pizza joint for $5.15 an hour. “I may get to deliver pizzas,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That would be a big step up.”
He recently received a paycheck for $126. “You gotta believe I’m not just sitting here washing dishes,” he says on his cellphone. “I’m trying to think of some way I can sell Web-enabled services to their pizza place.”
As the jobless recovery putters on, the jobs that are being created aren’t the kind that match the résumés of these professional software programmers. A recent study by researchers at the Economic Policy Institute found that two years after the recession officially ended in November 2001, what little job growth there has been has primarily been in low-paying jobs.
“We’re not really having good job growth, and where growth is occurring it’s not in good jobs,” says Jeff Chapman, co-author of the study. Data compiled by the researchers shows that in 48 out of 50 states, low-paying “McJobs” are where the opportunities are, instead of jobs that come with an ergonomic office chair, health benefits and a 401K.
“We’ve really spent a pretty considerable period of time with a very slack labor market,” says Lori Kletzer, an economist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “So far, the economy has been recovering on the output measure, but there’s not a parallel sense of recovery on the employment side. I think the next six months are important because this is the critical time to see if the recovery is strong enough to generate jobs.”
In the meantime, the ranks of the long-term unemployed in the U.S. are growing, and their benefits are running out. In January of 2004, an estimated 375,000 unemployed workers in the U.S. reached the end of their regular state unemployment benefits, without qualifying for any further temporary federal assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
As unemployment assistance goes away that means dishwashing and pizza delivery for the likes of Pratt and Chau, while they wait and wait and wait for the better-paid work to come back.
Mark and Jannie Brewer, a couple of 39-year-old out-of-work programmers from near Phoenix, can’t wait around anymore. The couple have given up their three-bedroom house with a swimming pool on a golf course and their two Mercedes, filed for personal bankruptcy and moved to Hawaii to live the downshifted life of a couple of minimum-wage beach dwellers.
“We were planning to retire on Maui but figured since we were losing our house and everything else we might as well move here now,” writes Mark in an e-mail. “At least we could live on the beach and not freeze.”
Mark, who made between $47 and $55 an hour as a contract programmer back in Arizona, applied for between 300 and 400 jobs after his last contract expired in April 2001. He got just four interviews, and in the last one his interviewer was a foreign worker in the United States on an H1-B visa. He didn’t get the job.
“When you go from making about $200,000 a year to about $8 an hour, it makes it tough,” says Mark, who now sells art retail in a store in Lahina, Maui. “I used to buy a lot of artwork when I came here,” he says. The couple visited Maui on vacation in 1999 and 2001. “I thought, Well, if I could buy it, maybe I could sell.”
His wife, Janine, who grew up in Nebraska as one of 12 kids, left her home state when a technical college came to town to recruit students to learn the up-and-coming skills of the future: computers. “I’m a lot worse off now than when I started out, before I even went to college,” says Janine, who is now working as a hostess at the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant in Lahaina. “Because before I went to college, I didn’t have student loans.” She’d made $52 an hour as a programmer, before losing her last job in January 2003 when she says her company replaced her with an H1-B visa worker. She now makes $8 an hour as a hostess.
Between the two of them, the couple owe $75,000 in student loans from their years of technical training at DeVry University, which they now consider useless. To return to work in the technology sector, Mark says they’d need to update their skills yet again to the “latest and greatest,” which would mean $5,000 or $6,000 more for classes — money they don’t have. Besides, the couple now believe that, given the double whammy of the offshoring of U.S. technology jobs and the use of foreign workers visiting the U.S. on H1-B visas, they simply can’t compete.
Back in Arizona, after months with little response to their résumés, Janine went to bartender school, and Mark obtained a real estate license. She applied for jobs at restaurants like Macaroni Grill and TGI Friday’s, as well as Loews Theater and Costco. Finally, in a last-ditch effort, the couple packed up all their things in a truck, and moved to Florida for six weeks, in the hopes that listing a local address would improve their odds of getting those elusive tech interviews.
When that didn’t pan out, they filed for bankruptcy and moved to Hawaii. It wasn’t just the beach and the lifestyle that attracted them. By state law, even minimum-wage workers receive health insurance in Hawaii. “If we’re going to live poor, we may as well live in a place where we want to be,” says Janine. Now, they only drive their $1,000 car to Costco to buy food. “I hadn’t ridden a bike in about 20 years,” says Mark. “Now, I ride my bike to work every day.”
It’s easy to adopt the sneer of schadenfreude at once-successful programmers now forced to sell art in the same stores where they used to shop for it while on vacation in Maui. But for people like Chau, who is now working as a courier and part-time adjunct teacher at a local community college, the good times did not come easy. “When I was working to pay off my C++ training, I worked full-time all day, and taught classes at night,” she says.
After losing her programming job, she tried to retrain. She heard a radio ad seeking math teachers, and spent $13,000 getting a math teaching credential, since she holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Oregon. But it would cost money she now doesn’t have to complete her student teaching requirements, and California’s budget cuts mean that the demand for new teachers has evaporated. “There’s no jobs, and I can’t come up with $3,500 because I’ve maxed out my credit cards,” she says.
“Right now, I’m applying for a $12-an-hour job, bookkeeping part-time,” adds Chau, who also holds an MBA in finance from the University of Oregon. The first person in her family to graduate from high school, much less go to college and receive a graduate degree, she is the oldest of 11 children.
She’s tried attending government-sponsored retraining, but found that she’s much more educated than the counselors who are there to supposedly help her get a fresh start. “The retraining is only for the uneducated. I don’t want them to say, ‘You could go work at Wal-Mart, or you could be a help-desk clerk.’ I don’t need training for that.” She thinks engineers such as herself could be retrained to do hardware engineering. “I want the retraining to be commensurate with our skills and abilities.”
Pratt, the coder now washing dishes, thinks that what would really help him is an extension of temporary unemployment benefits: “I can take that unemployment, and turn that over into a small business loan,” he says. “Two months. That would make a huge difference in my life.”
Economists caution that it’s too soon to tell whether the growth of McJobs and the decline of higher-paying white- and blue-collar jobs portends a nation of burger flippers and Wal-Mart clerks flogging cheap stuff to each other ad infinitum. “I think that we need to see if what the Economic Policy Institute found continues, but I would be hesitant right now to call it the beginning of a trend,” says Kletzer.
But for those who have given up looking for better jobs in the tech sector, the trend is clear, and they are past the point of no return. The Brewers have been through too much on the downside to try to climb back up to the upper-middle-class lifestyle they enjoyed while writing code for upward of $50 an hour: “We look back on it now, and it’s so hilarious to see what we’ve been through,” says Janine. “We would never go back to technology.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)