Unemployment, 3/15/2010

Once upon a time, I was laid off and since there isn’t really much to do the day you’re laid off except mope and fill in forms I decided to clean the house.

Because I was feeling crazy I decided to clean the way my mother used to clean: with a bucket and a rag. I remember her adding vinegar to water then dragging the bucket along as she scrubbed, on her hands and knees. I thought maybe I’d feel some deeper connection to her, like my mother, who was always jobless, could transmute peace upon me now that I was jobless.

The problem was I didn’t want to ruin a nice towel. Worse than that, I didn’t have a bucket. In my laid off insanity I uncorked a gallon jug of vinegar and slopped it directly on the floor then I sopped it up with a paper towel and maneuvered the towel in a circular motion about the floor.

After five paper towels I was committed. However ridiculous this exercise was, however pathetic I could seem to anyone who knew no longer mattered. I was a woman at work. Honest work. Work that needs no explanation (outside of my lack of tools). My work made the floor gleam. It made the cat sneeze and sit by the opened back door. For a split second, one long gliding wipe, I felt in control of my life. Even with deferment forms and resumes awaiting issuance, I felt right with the world.

Unemployed, one looks for activity. I took to morning walks; 8 or 7 am, whenever the guilt set in after my partner shuffled to the MAX and yawned through the doors of one of Portland’s tallest downtown buildings. He didn’t pay my bills; that was Unemployment Insurance’s job.

One morning I thought I had everything sorted – I had a plan for my life and with unemployment checks coming through I had time to make my plan a reality. My morning rite of walking, brunch, Craigslist job hunt and email sorting felt like it would lead to something.

Per my ritual, I asked the dog if he’d like to go for a walk. He stood on all fours, dropped the ball from his mouth and tilted his head. Like everyday up until then, it wasn’t until I waggled his leash and opened the gate that he believed me.

I remember the reason I began walking the dog so early. I noticed the geese. From 7 to 9 they roll out as street gangs of the sky. Grouped in sevens or fifteens or twenty sevens, they cruised SW and NE. V-formations but scrappy and confused. I had an incredible urge to see them, a realization that I might never have the opportunity again to be outside in the daytime if I caught a job. My first dog walks focused on the geese. Some flew ahead, others lagged behind; groups divided and formed subgroups which flew beside the original formation. Always moving at half hour intervals, announcing themselves by beeps and honks, holding their shit as the daily traffic copters traced overhead. If I were on acid, I mused, I would have had to sit it out – gape at the sky all morning and imitate their cries. But I was clean. I had to get a job. And who did acid anymore, anyway? LSD was a drug of my parent’s generation.

On those walks, the air smelled of Swisher Sweets. It was that time of year: allergies kick in. Early blooms of Daphne, Daffodils and Dandelions were all tingling and skookum in the ambient air.

We walked, dog and I, and while the dog sniffed, I spied.

I was amazed at how many neighbors didn’t seem to keep their yards shaped. It was early spring, though, not yet Groundhog approved. Hard to know if neighbors neglected; they may have blubs yet to bloom, the shrubs and twigs may fluff into dynamic colors, neighbors may dedicate hundreds of dollars to annual flowers. Still, flora wouldn’t hide the broken cars: a BMW with two flat tires and mold around its waistline, a truck with tarped-over windows, the crunched front-end of a minivan. Some neighbors tried to hide these cars, others left them matter-of-fact where they died.

As the dog pissed on ivy, I heard a car start. I had grown accustomed to neighbor’s departure times. I saw their routines. House 3478 started a blue Nissan then returned inside for a final swig of coffee. House 3574 started his car then stood beside it to pull off his jacket, knowing the day would warm by the time he got to work. House 8605, over on the corner, nipped and pruned her front yard before starting her car, a tidy plastic bag in hand to dispose of the debris. 3134 sat, warming her four door sedan, while reading a vampire novel. 2048 kept his foot on the fuel, revving the engine as though the car may die.

Guilty, I avoided returning home as long as possible. I knew what was there: applications, interviews, form rejections, duty, obligation. I’d be compelled to clean the house (again). I’d feel required to fix dinner for my gainfully employed partner (again). I’d fall into lethargy and watch a horrible movie while eating chips and chocolate (again). So I followed new streets, took the unpaved curve to Chautauqua, released the dog at Trenton Park then leashed him up to look over Columbia Avenue and the industrial wasteland. New Columbia behind me, I walked through the neighborhood my partner insisted on calling Columbia Heights. Some days I could see it: lower-middle class dump. I saw how debt and desire drove everyone to work. We are, after all, indentured servants, perhaps more so now than before, so long as we have student loans, home mortgages, auto financing, or a need for new and cool. Other days I didn’t see it. The neighborhood was middle-middle class and I assumed those commuters were headed to jobs they enjoyed. No way to know without asking and I wasn’t about to ask.

The dog and I cut down Hunt Street to Peninsular to Columbia and onward. There the abandoned wool factory, the now-dry plum trees from which I made jam, the miles of old highway that lead to my favorite park where in July and August the cottonwood trees shag and shed and cover miles with the thickest, hottest snow. The warehouses on Columbia keep Portland in business: CAT tractors, Humane Society, marine suppliers, lumber, steel, gas, fabrication, transportation, even, yes, lubrication. All this business, millions of transactions, hundreds of thousands of Portlanders were already at work by the time I decided to turn back toward home; hundreds of thousands already or about to get off work from swing/late shifts. What was everybody doing? Why did they work? What was I doing not applying for every job listed, qualified or not?

When I got home I made the dog sit, unleashed him, told him to get his ball. I threw it for him a couple times. He lay in the grass and watched me: now what, he seemed to say, now what are you going to do to fill the time?

That day I was full of plans. I had forms to fill in. Volunteering was going to be my new vocation. Whatever skills I lacked on my resume, I would fire up by volunteering. Teaching, gardening, assisting with job hunts, paddling a kayak, even learning CPR; it was all there to be had for free – with the dedication of time. I heard the mailman drop off our mail and went out to retrieve it. Junk, junk, letter from unemployment. I opened the letter. A reminder, perhaps a threat, that I needed to find work. I felt transparent. Who was I to volunteer when I needed a job? But the jobs I had applied to nominated me as runner-up, or sometimes were jobs I didn’t want at all. If I were going to be honest, I’d have to say it had been a week since I’d looked at listings. I was tired of Silver Metal placement, or, worse, bronze level occupations with pewter level wages. I wanted gold. GOLD!

Fearful that I’d lose benefits, I logged on to the unemployment website and used the “iMatch” feature. iMatch is a job hunting tool. One enters his or her employment history which generates a list of skills that automatically matches those skills to requirements of job openings posted to the system. I was matched to approximately ten knuckle-head jobs and one glamorous dream-job. I applied for the dream-job and ignored the rest.

But I was riddled with guilt. I was confused. I wanted to volunteer but was afraid to commit when unemployment could cut me off at any time. If I wasn’t dutiful in applying to jobs, whether I liked the jobs or not, I would be in serious financial trouble. Also, I wanted the dream-job. Could I volunteer and take the dream-job at the same time?

The anxiety of waiting drove me mad. I posted on Facebook about my status. I logged into the jobsite’s automated application and tweaked information, hoping that would bump me up the queue. Then I watched movies, ate chips and chocolate, and felt sorry for myself. I left the volunteer applications unopened on my desktop.

I had seen a trivia answer just before I was laid off. I used to receive emails from investopedia.com, thinking I might suddenly come into enough money that I’d need to know what to do with it. An email came in with the subject line: Discouraged Worker. At the time I’d laughed. Yeah, right, I thought. Everyone was a discouraged worker, in my eyes. It had never occurred to me that a person would desperately want a job. Then I was unemployed, pressured to locate something, anything, that would pay my bills – my mortgage, my student loans, my car insurance. I realized I was a Discouraged Worker. Theoretically I could get a job but once months had passed I felt like I’d never have a job again.

My partner shuffled through our back door and I realized I had nothing to show for my day.

“I walked the dog,” I said.

He was glad for it but I managed to continue hating myself. I couldn’t help thinking of my grandmother, how she put herself through college during the Great Depression, how she wore a gold nugget necklace, laughed over roast dinners and bourbon snifters, hid full sets of silverware in a teak Danish Modern buffet. She would never have spent one day, let alone several days, watching harebrained movies with the debris of junk food surrounding her and a mildly disappointed dog watching on. She would have had a job, kept it, and prepared food for her husband and their children. All I had was the dog and this man telling me of his busy day at work, asking me what I did with my day. I told him about the dream-job and he said, “You’d be perfect for that.” I knew it. But would HR know it?

**house numbers changed to protect the innocent.


Current Occupation: Editor, WORK Literary Magazine. Assorted odd jobs.

Former Occupations: Janitor, Bartender, Legal Assistant, Assistant Manager, Assistant Director, Editor, Book Reviewer, Movie Projectionist, Pizza Maker, Prep Cook, Dishwasher, Server, Grad Student, Professor, Transcriptionist, Resume Writer, Life Guard, Camp Counselor, etc.

Contact Information: Julie Mae Madsen organizes and emcees First Wednesday Readings, is Founder and Editor for WORK Literary Magazine, teaches language arts, freelance edits a community paper, volunteers her socks off, and makes employers happy in exchange for solvency. juliemaemadsen.sort of dot com

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