The air-conditioned room where Carol’s support group for displaced workers met, felt good. It was a welcome relief from the outside heat for Carol, a former home loan officer, who had been unemployed for nearly three months. She couldn’t turn the air on in her apartment, she had to economize; watch every nickel. She was reluctant at first to dip into her savings, but had no choice. The dipping quickly became a siphoning off and the money was beginning to dry up. Her parents paid for her groceries once in the days while she awaited the decision from the unemployment office about her application for benefits. They also gave her the money to get the brakes pads replaced on her car, but it all came with a reminder of how they’d warned her that the housing market was doomed.
Her father bullied her, “I told you, every night on the news for months there was talk about a housing bubble. Well, what do you think happens to a bubble? It’s got to burst! Sooner or later, it’s got to burst!” Her father’s face grew red from his high blood pressure and became swollen like a red bubble about to burst. When Carol tried to calm him down, he threw his hands up in the air and turned about in a circle as if he’d been struck by the holy spirit, “You got all the answers, don’t you, girl? Your mother and I told you to get the hell out of that line of work, but you wouldn’t listen, would you? Do you hear me? It’s time you started paying attention to what we tell you or don’t expect us to bail you out.” Carol started to remind him that he’d favored the government bailout of the banks, but by some miracle managed to stop herself. But, miracles like everything else of late in Carol’s life were in short supply.
“Your father is absolutely right, Carol. We live on a fixed income. We gave you every opportunity to go to school and you dropped out before you got your degree.”
“Yes, mother, and just think of all the money you saved on tuition and books.” Carol answered and immediately sensed she had stirred up the two-headed beast. Both her parents attacked her and brought up all Carol’s shortcomings back to the time she had quit tap dance lessons in the second grade. She had been a change of life baby and her mother was of the generation which believed, along with the menopausal magical effects of a changed life, that Shirley Temple needed a successor; no matter that Carol’s hair, though permed and forced into ringlets, was straight as a stick, she had no dimples, and she couldn’t ball, shuffle or tap worth a damn. She was the only one in the class to be made up like a poor imitation of a child star of the 1930s. Carol demanded to quit because the teacher, hack that she was, called her out in front of the others and said “You look like a mess of scrambled eggs.” She had to kick, scream, hold her breath and turn purple to convince her parents that she was through with it and left her poor mother with yet another one of life’s shattered dreams.
Carol started putting the groceries away. Her head hurt, she wanted them to leave. She remembered that parking tickets were being handed out to cars parked in the wrong direction on her narrow one-way street and went over to look out her window. Her apartment was on the corner so it was an easy and more convenient matter to come up the side street and make an illegal left to park. The street provided one of the benefits of unemployment Carol appreciated which was the number of parking spaces available on a weekday between seven in the morning and five or six in the evening. She told her father he was parked the wrong way and would get a ticket. But, instead of of her parents leaving, her father went to turn the car around and her mother stayed behind and began to study Carol’s shoes. Her father came back in and her mother asked, “Carol, are those new shoes?” Carol told her they weren’t, but she sniffed, “Really? I’ve never seen you wear them before.” Carol’s father glared at Carol.
When they did finally leave to take advantage of the early bird special at their favorite restaurant, Carol made herself a cup of tea from the new box of teabags her parents had bought for her. They were the store brand and not her favorite Red Rose, but “beggars can’t be choosers, Carol,” she said to herself out loud in her mother’s voice. She went downstairs to get her mail and saw a letter addressed to her from the labor department. She restrained herself from opening it in the hall but ran back upstairs, shut and locked the door behind her, tossed the junk mail and bills onto the dinette table and tore open the envelope. Her heart pounded in her ears as she read that her claim had been denied because it was determined she was an independent contractor. Carol shook, her thoughts churned, boiled over, spilled onto the page and spread out like quicksilver. With no cohesion of thought, she read the letter over again then again trying to decipher its complete impact on her life. You have the right to appeal…the right to appeal…the right to appeal…
The moderator of the group was Paul, a grad student in psychology. He liked the individual participants, but it disturbed him that there was stagnancy within the group dynamic. His wife, Angela, didn’t like the negativity Paul brought home afterward and he got into the habit of picking up a pint of her favorite ice cream on the way home. It was a bit of a ritual for them. She’d pounce on the ice cream with excitement, “Oh, honey, you remembered to get my ice cream. I love you! I love you! I love you!” She’d purr as she ate and say something like, “Hmmm, yum-m-m-m, this is so good, baby.” Paul would throw is briefcase down on the couch, slump into a side chair and stare. Angela would walk over to where he sat and stand over him and ask,”What’s wrong with my Paulie poo? Bad night?” He’d sigh and say something about how monotonous everything was; how tired he was of the same old drag, day in and day out. Angela would jab the spoon in the air to emphasize her words , “We have a good life, Paul and I resent you implying that it’s boring. What you are really saying is that you are bored with me.” She’d flop down on the couch, frown and stab the ice cream repeatedly.
“No, that’s not it all, sweetheart, we do have a good life-a great life.”
And Angela would pout, then grow angry and usually denigrate the support group, “It’s those malcontents you work with, Paul. It’s the same thing every Tuesday night when you come home.”
“They aren’t malcontents.-at least, I don’t think so. I mean, I never see anyone who isn’t going through a hard time, how do I know what they’re like when things are good? There just isn’t any real progress. I guess I should be grateful they’re still coming.” But, Angela was right and so was he. The group did influence his mood and things had become too predictable at home.
Carol had just given the group the sorry rundown of her interminable job search. She came armed with all the latest unemployment statistics and the numerous economic war stories she’d heard on the news. Somewhere, someone had it worse off she hoped to show. And as long as the numbers weren’t in her favor, she could quash the sense that she was somehow responsible for her present circumstance. Impotent, corrupt government oversight married to the shameless abuses of Wall Street powered by greed were so removed from her small life, that it could never trickle down so far, could it? Maybe Carol would concede to being caught in the fallout of frozen credit, but not even that would ease her feelings of failure. She had begun to internalize it all and the facts were irrelevant. Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown, particularly if it is made of thorns: But, if blame were needed, why persecute herself? Carol’s voice trailed off in the middle of a recap of an analysis made by a chief economic correspondent for CBS news, then she said, more to herself than to the group. “I feel like I have no life.”
“Oh, you have a life, it’s just a difficult one-at least for now,” said Lenora, a former bookkeeper for a logging firm. She was downsized for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with her age, so help us God, she was told. A large conglomerate bought out the company and immediately took action to cut away the dead wood. For the most part that meant anyone about to reach retirement. Lenora was severed without pension or benefits. She was lucky, however, in that her second husband had planned their finances and carried enough insurance so that upon his death, a few months after Lenora lost her job, she would be able to live out her days reasonably well. But tonight, Lenora was especially angry. The woman who delivered her newspaper had left the flap to the mailbox open in the rain and water dripped down onto the paper. Rain was bad enough to deal with in the morning, but a soggy newspaper was intolerable. She couldn’t lay it flat on the table or it would ruin the wood finish, or hold it up in front of her as it would no longer fold out properly, the pages stuck together at the bottom. The whole day she felt as if the world were indifferent and everyone she encountered during her errands showed an incredible lack of respect for her. People looked grim and offered no civility. No one she transacted business with did their job well or with any sense of pride. The cashier where she bought her coffee tried to short change her. The clerk behind the counter at the pharmacy was rude.
Lenora participated in the group because it was her right, she’d earned it. She liked working. She didn’t like that corporate thugs manhandled her. It was painful to her identity. It was an unjust act and its legitimacy was sanctioned by loopholes in the law delivered with sleight of hand by high powered corporate attorneys: What age discrimination? Such a law should be scrapped and done right, she thought, if the legislature wasn’t so damn incompetent and under the thumb of lobbyists and other special interest groups-so much for the power of the people. Lenora knew she would go to her grave with a wrong perpetrated against her that would not, could not, be made right and it weighed heavily on her soul. Life, she had long ago surmised, is a ditz that through carelessness and indifference, destroys good and rewards evil. And as for the world at large, it was a whirling dervish of opposites and seasons of certainty sprinkled with fairy dust or smeared with excrement. Still, she lived with a certain expectancy, that grew out of her own decency, that a measure of fairness should be afforded even the least of humankind.
The youngest of the group was Alan, who was seated next to Lenora and asked Carol, “Is it the life you had once, or is it the one you hoped for that’s left you life-less? Because you see, I think sometimes we would think the same regardless of the situation. I don’t have a job, my life sucks. I have a job I hate, my life sucks. I have no friends, my life sucks. I have friends who don’t respect me, my life sucks. Well, I’ll tell you about my day-which is pretty much everyday except when I run down a job lead and find fifty other guys in line to apply. Today, I got up in the afternoon, had a cup of instant coffee and watched reruns on television. I couldn’t tell you about any of the shows. It’s like I need static around me, while I sit there and run things over and over in my mind. And besides, I’ve moved back in with my folks since the duplex I rented went into foreclosure. The television helps to drown out their endless, stupid questions. You know, if I were working and had a day like today to do nothing but sit around watching TV, I’d think it was a great day. But, I guess all play and no work makes Jack the same dull boy.” Lenora raised her eyebrows at Alan’s audacity to question Carol that way and project his obvious sense of alienation on the rest of them. But, Carol looked over at Lenore and thought to herself, You don’t even belong here. You don’t have to work.
To the right of Carol was Jason, a former occupier of an occupation like all the rest, No one in the group could exactly remember what Jason did in his former life. He never said anything. A couple of times, he even nodded off and nearly fell off his chair. Now, he seemed to want to say something. He leaned forward and glanced nervously around at the others and said, “I sometimes feel like that.”
“What’s that Jason?” asked Paul.
“Well, I think, that person over there has it all and I got nothing. Why is life so easy for some? They have contentment, they have purpose, don’t they all see the futility of life? I mean, really, what is the point of it all? I don’t want to make decisions or choices because so far nothing I’ve done has added up to much. Look at all those people on TV. It must be nice to have a great career, make lots of money, have a lot of friends-important friends. And it’s not even work, if you ask me. How did they get such a life? Lots of talented people go unnoticed, never get the big break, hopelessly continue on because we’re told to never give up on our dreams. So what are we to take from this? That life is a big dream factory? That nightmares don’t exist? They seem real enough. I’ll tell you, there are days, I don’t know what to do with myself. I tell myself, one foot in front of the other. I look around and see there is so much to do, but I can’t do anything. I mean I ought to be doing something, I’ve about given up on finding a job like that’s an option. My wife goes to do her volunteer work. She tries to get me to go with her, but I won’t. She gets mad and tells me how worthless I am. I start yelling how I already get paid to do nothing, why should I work to get paid nothing. But, my unemployment payments are about to run out, so who knows?
“Well, actually, volunteer work is a good way to network,” said Paul, but Jason ignored him and the group supported Jason by no attempt to expound on or even validate the point.
“I ought to stay busy doing things around the house,” Jason continued. “But it’s like I’m trapped inside my own body, my own head. It sure as hell ain’t no vacation, I’ll tell you. One foot in front of the other, that’s been my mantra day after day, week after week, until I finally realized I’ve just been going around in circles. Yeah, the economy is awful, but plenty of people still have jobs. Why not me? Why can’t I get a job? Because I didn’t dream big enough? Or is it that my dream was too big, too much for me to handle and I killed it. Or maybe now the doors are locked, the windows bolted shut, any opportunities gone for good. And the weird thing about it? I’m beginning to think it’s what I deserve. Even so after months of making me eat crap, you’d think the universe would give it a rest, but it keeps right on doling it out to me. I mean, can you believe it? Some people I know are broke, don’t pay their bills, but they fly off to Europe on a whim. And others I know, young, healthy, vital people who life hasn’t kicked in the ass yet, think nothing of living off the goodness of others, especially their parents. These kids ain’t gotta a job and they don’t wanna job. Great, eh, Alan? Remember that next time you stand in line with fifty applicants ’cause if these kids ever get off their butts to look for jobs, the line will be a helluva lot longer.” Alan folded his arms and smirked. He was enjoying the white noise bath of Jason’s words.
Jason continued, “I dunno, maybe kids nowadays aspire to be an overnight YouTube sensation or video game champion. Maybe it just looks like they’re doing nothing. Maybe they got it figured out better than I ever could. All I know is that I always made my own way, I mean my folks gave me nothing. I was helping to support my younger brother and sister before I was out of high school. I sure as hell wish someone for once in my life loved me enough to overlook my selfishness and let me take advantage of them. But, I don’t have enough guile in me and in this world guile is a pretty useful tool. I sometimes think people view me as someone who feels superior in my suffering. They don’t think I deserve any help, much less a bit of luck. It’s some sort of sick payback for what they perceive as my haughtiness. Yeah, that’s it. Do I prefer to feel disenfranchised? God, there’s a word I never thought I’d use to describe myself. Seriously, do I want to wallow in a mire of my own making?”
“How is it your fault, Jason?” asked Paul.
“You can blame it on the economic downturn if you want, but everybody I know will point it back to me, you can be sure of it. And if I say, I’m depressed as hell, that things can’t get any bleaker, they say, ‘You don’t want to be happy.’ Or the more positive spin, ‘You want to be miserable.’ A regular bunch of Job’s comforters.”
Jason stopped talking. After a few minutes of silence, some in the group fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats, not sure what to with the broken ice fragments from Jason. Paul asked if anyone else had anything they wanted to share, but no one spoke up. “Well, then, I think this was definitely a good session. I think some of you here tonight are getting to the point where you are willing to risk your vulnerability and not hold onto that sense of isolation we can all feel when we experience a life-changing event. That’s good. That’s very good. Not only does that help the individual, but others as well- in this group or within our families or among our true friends. Many times people may not understand what you are going through, while other times they may be unable to express their concerns to you because they feel powerless and overwhelmed in the face of your adversity. Sometimes our deepest concerns get displaced by feelings of anger. It isn’t about talking or even doing or even feeling. It’s about our relation to who we are regardless of the situation we’re in…” Paul looked directly at Alan, then scanned over the rest of group. They looked embarrassed and he quickly realized they were embarrassed for him. They looked like fatigued combat soldiers forced to listen to a speech by a well-manicured politician dispatched to raise morale. Paul knew that if he said too much or the wrong thing, they might remember that it was all well and good for him to say when he has a job. “So then-thanks for coming and I hope I’ll see you all next week. Good-night, everyone.” He looked at his watch; the session had run overtime and the ice cream parlor that carried Angela’s favorite ice cream was closed. It was going to be okay.