Falling down

We were both professionals. Now I'm sweeping up popcorn, my husband is selling motorcycles, and our house is on the block. There are a lot of us these days.

Published September 26, 2003 10:32PM (EDT)

Several months ago, my husband and I received two rebate checks simply for having children, all part of the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, an economy-stimulating incentive. Congress approved this quickie tax cut so we'd all go out and buy Pottery Barn lamps and Gap boot-cut trousers and then presumably the economy, and we, would be saved. Instead, I cashed the checks, paid off some bills, and then tucked my dignity under my arm and went to file for food stamps.

The Department of Transitional Assistance is maybe a mile from my house. It's in the basement of a nondescript brick building in a college neighborhood, seated next to an independent movie theater and a funky coffee shop. It's a well-trafficked area for the people of my demographic, the post-hip Suburban parent. I kept my head bowed low walking in and hustled down the flight of stairs. I didn't want any of my neighbors to see me.

To apply for food stamps, one needs to fill out a form and show four consecutive pay stubs, mortgage or rental payments, utility bills, home insurance costs, phone bills -- the flotsam of daily life. I brought my paperwork neatly filed in a manila envelope, shoved at the bottom of a backpack, next to my cellphone and a wallet full of maxed-out credit cards. I wrote my name down on a slip of paper and sat on a plastic chair next to a 60-something woman wearing glittery, plastic high heels, a frayed knitted skirt and an unfortunate tube top. Nearby an agitated woman in her mid-40s stood clutching a rolling luggage cart with both hands, muttered about filing a complaint with the governor for not being comped a bus pass to medical school. I wondered if I had turned off my cellphone. Was it immoral to even own a cellphone and still be applying for food stamps? Such is the current dichotomy of our lives.

In my 8-year-old daughter's backpack last night was a notice from the school's volunteer committee asking parents to help teach art this year. The committee is new, formed to bridge the gap left by the extreme budget cuts made by our town this spring. Included in the cuts were art education, both enrichment and remedial instruction, and all counseling services, as well as drastically reduced time spent in the gymnasium, at the computers, and in the library. The principal is asking us, the parents, to step in as much as possible. I'm signing up to be a lunch lady at the cafeteria on the days my 3-year-old is in preschool and eyeing the "wish list" request for supplies from her teachers. I've been told they need pencils.

According to numbers released by the Federal Reserve in August, there are approximately 9 million people currently unemployed in the United States. My husband and I are lucky to not be among them. InvestorWords.com, which calls itself a leading Web-based glossary for financial terms of art, defines our condition as underemployment, "a situation in which a worker is employed, but not in the desired capacity, whether in terms of compensation, hours, or level of skill and experience. While not technically unemployed, the underemployed are often competing for available jobs." My husband, Andrew, and I, motorcycle salesperson and movie-house concession bitch, respectively, embody all the features of the definition.

Before his current inability to be employed in his "desired capability," Andrew worked at a software start-up. Prior to my scraping gum off the bottoms of chairs and reheating popcorn, I was a Web writer for a multimedia dot-com corporation. It's been like this for 16 months, the two of us struggling to make ends meet, to emotionally and financially support ourselves and our two young children while battling self-pity and overwhelming panic.

For me, being "underemployed" has been a wake-up call of enormous proportions. I have a college degree, I've been in the corporate world, I don't frighten people away with hideous personal hygiene or dubious philosophical rants, but it seems my work skills are just outdated enough to put me at the end of every interviewing queue. In the early '90s, I paid my way through college by temping for consulting companies, generating experience in what was quaintly referred to as "desktop publishing." This was back when knowing computer applications was considered being highly skilled, before everyone and his mother could produce prefab presentation/newsletter/annual-report templates with each new installation of MS Office software. I stopped temping after college, had my children, and during their naptimes wrote articles for a media Web site, employing then-hip "Buffy" references as roguish punctuation. It wasn't a huge career, but it was writing and it let me be home with the babies while still contributing to our household finances. Then there was a merger and 90 percent of the media conglomerate's Web sites were folded up, and I suddenly found myself without a job. Andrew was an executive making a six-figure income. It wasn't how we planned it; when we met during our college years, he was going to run a theater company or a progressive newspaper and I was going to write arch screenplays, but hey, being financially comfortable worked, too. We bought a house in a Boston suburb and while we lived with cat-damaged couches and 10-year-old cars, we also bought mochaccinos and Indian takeout whenever we damn well wanted.

When Andrew's company went bankrupt, it quickly hit us that I had to get a bona fide job. At first I applied only to temp agencies, sure that Andrew would quickly land on his feet. But out of the dozen or more agencies I contacted, I was called in for one interview. After the typing and spreadsheet tests, I was told my computer proficiency was only passable and I should think about updating my skills.

I created five versions of my résumé, each weighted with a set of skills that I hoped would help eclipse the empty years since I had been in a "real" office setting. I applied for anything that I could conceivably do, despite my lack of recent experience and relevant expertise.

My second interview was for a position as an e-book proofreader at a large publishing company. Though the work appeared to involve air traffic controller-like information management, it offered glorious full-time hours for a finite three months, at which point, I naively believed, I would be needed back home. I left the interview sure I had cinched it and sent a glowing thank-you note. I never heard from them. I was told by a mutual contact, months later, that they had instead hired a brilliant 25-year-old who left after one month to follow her boyfriend's band.

The third interview was the one that got away: consumer care specialist for a toy company. What could surpass answering customer e-mails from home in my sweats at 11 a.m. as well as getting to try out boutique board games? I practically crawled into the interviewer's lap like a retriever puppy; I was so desperate and eager, I was sure that no one was going to hire me. There were Aunt Bea-like candidates coming out of the woodwork for this job; sturdy, dependable, smartly ironed women who could take customers by the virtual hand and project studied warmth while all I wanted was to get back to my old, vain, lazy life -- and it emanated from me like a cloud.

My fourth interview was at the local second-run movie house. It was the only place in town with a Help Wanted sign in the window, and I had been responding to newspaper and online ads for four fruitless months. I was given an application to fill out, which I attempted to do in the lobby while a profusely sweating woman, apparently not an employee, repeatedly muttered at me, "You fucking little motherfucker," as she tried to pry the movie posters from their cases. The interview consisted of my writing down the same reference numbers twice, then fumbling through an apology. I was hired on the spot.

The theater is a landlocked version of the Island of Misfit Toys, a waiting room for those who don't have anywhere else they'd rather be. The employees are either psychically damaged or determinedly apathetic in some way, which keeps them from being in a workplace where more is asked of their intellect, their creativity. Sure, some of the 16-year-olds work there because it's after school, a simple first job. But then there are the lifers: 32-year-old Rowan, the post-goth girl who was training to be a ballerina before she burned out at 19, or 24-year-old Lynn, a fanzine writer who regularly bursts into tearful mini-rages when patrons want more soda or ask for directions to the bathroom. Cheryl, the Tufts grad, maybe wants to go into medicine and maybe wants to be a painter, unable for years now to choose and move forward.

For a while I was different from them, trapped, I was sure, only by my peculiar circumstances rather than by some choice or inability on my part, but now I know better. No one is interviewing my husband for a desk job. The country has gone through two wars, with more international hideousness looming. We watch the manic-depressive fluctuation of the financial data and markets, but there's no solid economic upswing in sight. I keep applying for other jobs, but no one is hiring me, either, so I'm also peripheral, a worker with faded expertise, whose business acumen ends with the first Bush presidency. It seems we're all "underemployed"; we're all scrambling to do a lot more, be a lot more, than anyone is asking of us.

One Saturday night I was on "post," which means ripping tickets in half, handing back the stub and pointing patrons to the correct theater, restroom, napkin dispenser -- not such a demanding task even if one is hung over or seething with barely contained hostility. A much older gentleman stopped, looked at me and said, "Young lady, did you go to college?" I smiled and said yes and handed him his stub. He shook his head and walked away. I was, to him, not just another slacker, but one with graying hair. I wanted to run after him and recite my C.V., list my accomplishments, and then push him down the stairs. I wanted to scream at him as he walked into a show, "It's not me, it's the economy!" and then shove him, hard, in the back.

I walk in the door as my husband walks out. Sixteen months ago he was a senior executive and now he's selling motorcycles, only no one's buying. He isn't trained to be a salesman and doesn't own a motorcycle himself, but this was the single job he's been offered in over a year. He's not alone -- none of his former co-workers are back in the corporate grind. It seems we're part of a new demographic cohort: the Foreclosure Generation.

What does our financial future hold, when we've lost not only our 401Ks and our children's college funds, but also our credit and soon our home and certainly our emergency savings? My parents have invited us, repeatedly, to move in with them, to weather the financial storm in their rent-free harbor. We've talked about it, moving the children and the dog and the effluvia of our lives across the country and into two rooms with bunk beds and a well-stocked fridge, but we're hovering, indecisive, waiting for that last-minute rescue call. We're faced with a host of questions brutal in their simplicity, ridiculous in their repetition: Do we sell our home, take the equity left after debts are paid, and jam in with family? Do we sell and move somewhere cheaper, so that our low-wage jobs will help ends meet until a healthier economy rolls around again? Will the economy be better by the time our money runs out, and what do we do if it isn't, when we have nothing left to sell? What sort of training can we start immediately that will help pay the bills, if not tomorrow, soon after tomorrow?

We're on either edge of 40, my husband and I. How can we concede, retreat, at what point do we label ourselves the defeated in this battle and then grimly hope to someday start anew? If 20-somethings who can't find work and return home after college are called "re-nesters," what do you call 40-something professionals who can't feed their kids on fast-food wages? Besides losers?

My neighbors in the middle-class town where I live all know our plight; several of them have confessed they are headed down the same path or are watching family members slide into bankruptcy and ruin. I wait to pick up my daughter outside her elementary school playground with the other parents; we mill on the blacktop. Folks I barely consider nodding acquaintances sidle up to tell me about food banks, lunch vouchers, clothing exchanges. It seems there is this great open secret, how broke so many of us are, and how frightened we are of where it will end.

Andrew and I work to stay upbeat around our children in between the long shifts and our late-night, last-minute financial schematics. We take pains to make sure they don't feel our stress, or just the little that leaks out when we drop our vigil, but our daughter, 8, has recently stopped her weekly wheedling for extra allowance, or any allowance at all. She has started carrying around a small wallet crammed with her few crumpled bills, "just in case I need something," she says. She offers to eat the leftover triangles of sandwiches discarded by her finicky 3-year-old brother, although it's readily apparent she doesn't actually want them. She has, suddenly, that wide-eyed worried look little kids get when they know something big is afoot, an expression I recognize from my own childhood. I was raised by a hard-working single mother and we made ends meet for a while on government assistance. Now I'm unable to replace the malfunctioning stereo system, the groaning dishwasher, the broken porcelain dental caps, the rattling exhaust system; and as the trappings of our middle-class life fall to the wayside, I see it all come full circle.

In between our gigs, we continue our search for anything better, the elusive job that will surely save us. I scan the papers and job Web sites and send out new résumés with the euphemism "customer service skills." Every evening after the children are in bed, Andrew starts his second job -- looking for work. It makes sense that I would have trouble finding gainful labor in a down economy when I was in direct competition with folks much better suited to the positions available, where being a stay-at-home mother had kept me out of the marketplace. But that doesn't apply to my husband. He was in the midst of a well-connected, cutting-edge world, in the eye of the technology maelstrom and then suddenly he wasn't. It's like watching someone try to get back on a wave when the sea has gone eerily calm, horrifyingly silent.

Roughly 25 million Americans with children will be getting one of the $400 checks we received.

I wonder how they'll spend the money.

By Barbara Card Atkinson

Barbara Card Atkinson is a writer based in the Boston area. Her work has most recently appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and the magazine Brain, Child.

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