Another Kind of Rat Race



Varick St & W Houston St, New York, NY 10014

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

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Recently, I was laid off from my job as a magazine editor. I cleared out my desk, carefully stashing pens and binder clips into a box. Anticipating having to write countless cover letters, I also took a ream of paper. I felt guilty about this and confided in a co-worker.

"It’s okay, honey," she said, patting my shoulder. "When they let Lily go I let her have my label maker." I went back to the copy room and grabbed another ream.

As I packed my belongings it hit me that I would get only one more paycheck. Until I found steady work I would have to live solely off what I could make freelance writing and cartooning. That night when I got home, I sent e-mails to everyone I knew who might be able to help me find work. I tried to sound very Casual Friday about the whole thing: “I know we haven’t talked in two years, but I just wanted to say hi, and oh yeah, if you hear of any jobs please let me know. PLEASE.”

After two weeks and one cartoon assignment, I was paid the grand total of $25. I had made in fourteen days what I had been making in one hour as an editor. I started to panic.

"You have to go on unemployment," a friend told me.

“What? No way." I wasn’t unemployed. I was a freelancer.

"You paid into it every week," he said. "Just look at your pay stubs. They owe it to you. Your situation is exactly what unemployment is for."

"But it’s so, I don’t know, embarrassing."

"You have nothing to feel embarrassed about. Call them," he said.

Soon I fell into a rhythm. On Fridays, I was able to forget about job hunting for the next 48 hours. Sundays brought the Help Wanted section and the return of a vibrating anxiety. On weekdays, I fluctuated between mild embarrassment and feelings of angst.

Occasionally I passed the time calling my unemployed friends. There were many. One, an actress, had been starring in a soap opera. When she went the Department of Labor to apply for unemployment, an astonished cluster of office workers gathered to ask why she was there. She signed a few autographs and explained that she had been let go -- her character had been written out.»

Finally, another one of my friends called to tell me about a job. It was 10:20 a.m.

"Hey!" she said, then, "Oh, sorry. Did I wake you?"

"No," I snapped. "I still get up at seven." This was true, but sometimes I went back to sleep for an hour. What was the rush? I had all day to worry about finding work.

"Listen, I heard about a job," she said.

And so, a week later, on a cool, sunny Wednesday morning, I took the subway downtown for my interview. It felt good to get dressed up; I had been wearing the same T-shirt for almost a week.

The position was for a writer at an advertising agency and the interview consisted of watching a sitcom, then writing trivia questions for the company’s web site. At some point, while watching Ted Danson crack a one-liner, I became depressed. It didn't matter that I was feverishly scanning the screen for product placement. I was still watching television in the middle of the day.

I looked around at the other candidates. One of them hadn’t shaved, and his faded gray shirt gathered in a wrinkled heap around his belly. He might as well have been wearing slippers, too. Everyone in the room watched the TV monitors intently. It occurred to me that in a few hours, we'd all be doing basically this same thing, only in a new location. We’d be at home, staring at our computer screens, e-mailing, surfing the Net, scanning the job postings. I wondered if these people felt as scared as I did.

Eventually, I went on unemployment. I called to thank my friend who gave me the idea. When I mentioned that I still felt a little embarrassed, he told me not to be ashamed, that is was okay until something better came along.

"They owe you that money," he said again.

Later, I found out from his girlfriend that he'd been collecting unemployment for three months.

"But don't tell him I told you," she said. "You're not supposed to know."

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