Hardly workin'

Nothing says unemployable like being unemployed in a boom economy.

Published February 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

During a period that has been described by financial analysts, politicians and my smug next-door neighbor as the best economy since the dawn of time, I am unemployed.

That's right, I'm one of the meager percentage of Americans who isn't punching the clock, filling out the time schedule or doing whatever it is people with jobs do. And while nearly everyone, it seems, is prospering from the current boom economy -- buying armored SUVs or vacationing in the Caribbean -- I feel conspicuously left out. My only source of disposable income is the sofa. (Sometimes I find change between the cushions.)

When I cavalierly remarked once that I wanted a life lived out of step, this is hardly what I had in mind. Rather, my plan was to waltz through my 20s keeping to the fringes of the workaday world until my writing career took off, earning me wealth, status and the chance to avoid the monotony of the 9-to-5 lifestyle altogether.

Others weren't sure this was a very good plan.

"Your plan is to what?" my father asked in horror when first I sprung the idea on him.

"All great visionaries work outside the system," I boldly replied. And to my credit, since graduating from college two years ago, that's exactly what I've done. I have worked in a series of part-time jobs including, but not limited to, cleaning sewers, shelving books, mowing grass, proofreading, patching potholes, hauling furniture and reviewing bars and dance halls for a night life guide at $20 a pop. I sought out jobs that were low on expectation and employers that were lax on commitment. Most important, I wrote "on the side" while successfully avoiding the 9-to-5 grind, not to mention wealth and status.

But I was happy. Moreover, I was a proselytizer for the life I'd chosen. As college friends entered the work force I consoled them with the kind of tenderness and understanding that you'd give a marathon runner who craps out in the first mile.

"You fools," I cried, "you've traded your freedom for two weeks of vacation and a wad of dough." It was this last part, however, that started echoing in my brain late at night.

In a nasty little moment of self-reflection, I realized that while I was busy doing mind-numbing work for a pittance, the rest of the country, old college cronies included, were getting rich off the hyped-up economy. One friend, in fact, was sitting on a pile of cash big enough to make a third world dictator envious. My inner capitalist pig awoke, and as never before I wanted in on the take.

In short, I wanted what my present lifestyle couldn't provide: money.

Lots of it, in fact, with enough left over to crumple up and stuff down my shorts should the mood strike me. Call me quick, but I also knew that I wasn't going to get it by stuffing envelopes, working the night watch at a warehouse or performing any of the other dead-end jobs I once coveted. Something had to change. Something radical and ingenious -- like getting a job. Blatantly disregarding my life's plan, I decided to look for a full-time position in the magazine industry.

Some six months later I'm still looking.

I grew up in an industrial town in central Pennsylvania that was crippled by the effects of Reaganomics. So why did unemployment feel so shocking? When the Piper airplane factory that once kept the people of Renovo, Pa., in work pulled up its stakes and planted them southward in the early '80s, an entire population -- still recovering from the massive railroad and coal mine shutdowns of the '60s -- found itself once again economically castrated.

As a kid, I was used to seeing grown men standing on street corners, whittling away their time until the next fly-by-night manufacturer moved into the abandoned railroad shops at the northern end of town. Yet amid all the defeated faces and dashed hopes, there was almost a dignity, if not at least an understanding, in being unemployed during those recession-plagued years. After all, it was the government's fault, not theirs, or so they could claim.

But in a period when the unemployment rate is at a 30-year low and acne-ridden teenagers routinely spearhead multimillion-dollar IPOs (if magazines are to be believed), being jobless is like being the sweet-toothed girl home alone on prom night -- you can't help feeling partly responsible.

And I do. My job search has gone on for so long that it can no longer be dismissed as a period of transition or a bump in the road. Instead, after six months of rejection letters and silent telephones, it has slowly become a part of my identity.

When you enter these sorts of dark tunnels in life -- a streak of bad luck, say, or a dry spell with relationships -- the initial response is to think it will end shortly. But in my case the phrase "when I get a job" has turned from a positive affirmation to a punch line, for over the past six months I've gone to so many interviews that, teeth gleaming and shoes shining, I have elevated the process to performance art.

With a stint at my college newspaper and an internship at a national magazine behind me, and contributing-writer status at a respected Web site thrown in for its cutting-edge cachet, the problem is not, I think, with my credentials. Instead, I believe it is my not-so-distant past as an anti-9-to-5 activist that is conspiring to keep me from gaining access to the lifestyle I once avoided like the black plague.

To put it in street terms, I just can't get past the human-resources folks, you dig?

Gruff, humorless and exhibiting many of the same qualities that would make for a stellar concentration camp warden, they eye me suspiciously during interviews with looks generally reserved for the last car left in the used-car lot. They sense that beneath my sharp suit and eager-to-please smile beats the heart of a subversive; not a Charles Manson-like subversive, mind you, more a Walter Mitty-like one, but a subversive just the same.

You can't spend a lifetime dissing the 9-to-5 world and not expect the attitude to show on some level. The standard "Tell me about yourself" sends me into the kind of panic attacks a former stripper might feel when meeting her in-laws for the first time. I'm afraid I'll blurt out something that will betray my past -- and blow my attempt at reformation.

As I try to dupe the wise, I wonder just how long this whole thing will drag out or, more important, how much more I can stand before I say screw it, revert to my old ways and apply for a night manager position at 7-Eleven.

Knowing I am weak and bordering on recidivism, my father often calls to offer moral support and check on my progress. He's a generally caring man but, unfortunately, his phone manner has all the subtlety of a gunshot. Our conversations go something like this:



"What's new?"

"Nothing, really."

"Did you get a job yet?"


"Oh. Here's your mother."

Despite the general view that the unemployed are shiftless louts, I've found that being out of work is as tiring and demanding as working at a job, but without the paycheck, the security or the cute girl in accounting. Crushed by the remarks of friends who call me a cheapskate and the irritated look of store owners when I fish my pockets for change, the reality is that basic survival -- never mind luxury -- is expensive. Couple that with the earning power of the ungainfully unemployed and you've got problems.

My decisions have become utilitarian in nature. I have stripped my life to the bare necessities. No socializing -- costs money. No vices -- drinking, smoking and sex all cost money. I spend money only on the promise of making money and, invariably, it's money ill-spent. The endless stream of faxes, cover letters and risumis sent have nearly bankrupted me. Each time I enter Mail Boxes Etc., the Brooklyn store that has become for all intents and purposes my office, the Jamaican manager greets me with a look of compassion mixed with steely-eyed capitalism. Though I'm sure he wishes me well, at $1 per color copy, $2 per fax and $12 per hour of computer time he is slowly getting rich off of my marathon job search.

Not every waking moment is dedicated to the hunt, though. In the bipolar world of the unemployed it's all or nothing, and when I say nothing, I mean it. When not temping, applying or interviewing, I spend my hours in a dizzying haze of banal activities and daytime TV. Time is marked by the shows that become my daily obsessions. In the fall it was "Law & Order" reruns at 1 p.m. and "Northern Exposure" at 2 p.m. I have since moved on (that is, seen all the episodes). Lately I've been riding high on the wave of courtroom shows, such as "Judge Mills Lane" ("he's fair and he's firm"). I dig that righteous old tart "Judge Judy" too. I snack on pretzels and offer my own version of justice to the feckless litigants, losing myself in pure silly abandon until a wave of nauseating guilt over wasted time hits me like a punch in the gut.

Another fascinating, if ironic, byproduct of my unemployed state is that I've become a horribly materialistic person. Like the most cartoonish of scoundrels, I see people only in terms of their finances. At parties or on the street I sneer and make comments like "Did you see that man's shoes? They're scuffed!"

My fine-tuned eye for money has its drawbacks. When I moved to New York a year ago (to further my writing career), I was under the impression that the city was still the bombed-out urban jungle depicted in '80s movies. I had no idea I was landing at ground zero of the economic boom, no clue I'd be living in a virtual showroom for America's revitalized buying power.

Every day Midtown bustles with tourists from Middle America spending newly minted dollars with gloating smiles. My own home isn't even safe as each week my roommates, smitten with their newfound disposable income, parade a slew of luxury items (stereo systems, cell phones, Italian shoes, DVD players) past my bedroom door. Even my grandfather, a man who has used the past 20 years' worth of family gatherings as his pulpit to lecture on the inevitability of a catastrophic stock market collapse, is pouring money into tech stocks. The sights and sounds of the economic machine on full throttle are inescapable -- and I am cracking.

Last week on Madison Avenue an Armani-clad ad exec turned into a walking mutual fund right before my eyes. I had the sudden urge to grab him, call his broker and cash out before he could squirm away. It was a full-on Wall Street acid trip. Barring an interview or temp assignment, I've stopped going into Manhattan altogether, preferring to stay near my Brooklyn home, where the prosperity is less obvious. At least there I only hallucinate 401Ks and gold teeth.

In what seems (in my fragile state) like fate's attempt at a knockout punch, my most recent temp assignment has landed me in the payroll department of a prestigious nonprofit organization. Yes, readers, it is the time of year for raises, and yours truly has been brought in to help administer the upgrades. Calling out the new salaries yesterday, I felt such a yearning for money and the luxury it can buy, it created a physical ache in my bones. Weak-kneed, it was all I could do to stand and plainly recite the numbers to my unfazed superior.

After work I went home, made dinner and picked up yesterday's Sunday Times from its resting place on the floor. Scanning the litany of numbers and addresses, I grew weary. Tomorrow I will do it all over again: the faxing, the calling, the mailing, the hoping, the hustling, the elaborate and exhausting interview dance.

For some the working week is a tiresome, self-questioning experience. In typically backward fashion, for me just getting there is proving to be the same.

By Steve Kurutz

Steve Kurutz is a writer in New York.

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New York City Unemployment