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Authors: Barbara Garson

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BOOK: Down the Up Escalator
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If there were no steady jobs, what about one-night stands? I wondered. Even temp work was hard to find, Feldman said. Besides, he had to be careful about that. If he worked more than two days, he’d lose all his unemployment money for that week, yet he couldn’t expect to receive his freelance pay for at least forty-five days. “That’s one and a half months. Who can survive?”

“So you’re living on unemployment?”

“Yes. The regular unemployment is twenty-six weeks, but now, because of the economy, they’ve added thirty-three weeks, so it’s like over a year.”

“And you plan to go on collecting for the full year?”

“Not if I have anything to say about it. I’m looking for work
every day. On what unemployment pays, I come out a couple of hundred bucks a month short. And I’ve only got $1,600 of the severance left.”

“And when that’s gone?” I asked.

He couldn’t stop eating or paying the landlord. The only significant expense Feldman could think of cutting was the insurance on his motorcycle. Even as we spoke, the Suzuki 1250 was waiting faithfully downstairs. The idea of putting it in storage was almost unbearable. He just had to find a job.

“I looked yesterday but not this morning. I use twenty, thirty Web sites. Most I found on my own. When you go to unemployment, they actually have a list of Web sites they give you. Some are really crappy, but some are decent.”

“And some are better for certain types of jobs than others,” Kevin explained to me.

“I use three key words,” Feldman said. “I’ll do ‘production artist,’ ‘Quark,’ and ‘art and design’ because those are the primary things that will bring me work.”

“Have you tried
?” Kevin asked.

“Yeah, I go there. I pretty much have all the bases covered. My problem is the companies out there are combining jobs. They say, ’Oh, well, since this is such an economic crisis, we can get the cream of the crop. So let’s not just hire production artists; let’s hire somebody who has a design degree, is a production artist, and does HTML, CSS, Java … They want designer and production in one. Not just production.”

Gerri showed me the church’s fund-raising calendar that Feldman designs, lays out, and does everything else on. It was good-looking. His friends even thought he might try making it a commercial venture. He seemed to have a variety of graphics skills.

“I have the technical skills, but they want somebody who also has a four-year degree in design, which I don’t have.”

“Have you thought about enrolling toward a degree while you’re unemployed?” I asked.

“I don’t know how I could afford it. For a four-year degree, who’d cover me financially?”

Kevin offered encouragement. “It wouldn’t take you four years, because you already have a background. Also, there might be some kind of certificate.”

“But are they going to hire someone with a certificate compared to someone with a degree?” Feldman said, defending his unmarketability.

“But you have experience that an entry-level person does not and …”

Not to be consoled, Feldman told us about a friend who had both a degree and design awards but still couldn’t find a job.

“How old is he?” Kevin asked. “Mid- to late forties? Older people face different challenges.” Kevin said that companies wanted to hire recent grads rather than people in their fifties.

“I don’t think they’re looking to hire somebody fresh out of school,” Feldman contradicted Kevin. “I just think they’re looking for people who have more skills.”

Neither of the two seemed willing to grant the other the comfort of believing that his situation was hopeless.

“So what will you do if your severance money runs out before you find a job?” I asked.

“I would probably ask a friend to borrow money. But it probably won’t come to that. And it will be friends with jobs,” he assured the others.

Feldman got to his bottom line. “I have a motorcycle I have to
protect and insure. So it’s either get employed or get a wife real fast.”

“A working wife,” Gerri tossed in.

“She doesn’t have to have a job,” Feldman replied. “Two unemployments would cover things.”

Just how desperate are these folks? Feldman had mentioned that his mother pays for his health insurance and that he had recently earned some money painting her apartment while she was wintering in Florida. I also know that he doesn’t get along with his stepfather, who has the money in the family. From all of that I surmise that, horrible as it would feel, Feldman could count on some kind of contribution from his family if he were about to lose his apartment.

Elaine has an inheritance from an aunt. It came up when she complained about a snafu at the unemployment office because her investment manager labeled some investment income in a way that triggered alarm bells. From her telling of the story, she seems to have handled the unemployment office bureaucrats with the same caustic control she’d used on the flunkies who fired her. She’d straightened the matter out, and her benefits were restored.

I couldn’t ask Elaine exactly how much money she had inherited, but she probably wasn’t about to be pushed onto the street either. And Kevin had volunteered that he could survive till he started collecting Social Security.

Of the four, Gerri’s finances seemed the most finite, dependent on her own earnings, that is.

She’d complained that the maintenance fees on her condominium had gone up by 30 percent since she bought the place. The obvious financial recourse for someone with such a desirable apartment was to take a roommate. But Gerri had already resorted to
that after an earlier life crisis. “I love this apartment, and I wanted to keep it after I was divorced.” So she already had a roommate for the past few years. (That explained the man who padded silently up the hallway, opened the refrigerator, and slipped back down the hallway a couple of times during our get-together.)

I know that Gerri’s mother was a legal secretary who hadn’t worked in twenty years and lives in special-care housing of some kind. Gerri hadn’t told her mother about the divorce for almost three years. “She’s bipolar, and she’d blow everything out of proportion. I tell my mother things on a need-to-know basis.” Gerri had eventually mentioned her divorce to her mother as a way to explain why she didn’t have money to give to her sister who was pursuing an acting career.

“But I had to tell her about the job right away because she used to call me at work every day. If I didn’t say something, I’d come home and find ten phone calls.”

I deduce, then, that Gerri can’t expect financial help from her immediate family nor inheritances from her extended family in Mexico. As a first-generation American, a first-generation college graduate, and the levelheaded one in the family, she’d be expected to give, not receive, the help.

Though she didn’t have a middle-class family behind her, Gerri surely had more savings than Feldman. Through its 401(k) plan, her employer of twenty-one years had matched any investment she made up to 5 percent of her salary. “For my first two years there I had a real pension [a traditional, defined-benefit plan]. Then they switched to a 401(k). Mine was down $30,000 when I lost my job.” On the advice of a friend in finance, she rolled over the 401(k) and bought an annuity after her layoff. “I felt at least I’ll have
thing that’s guaranteed.”

How large, then, are Gerri’s savings? At the height of the financial crisis, the kinds of prudent, diversified portfolios that employer-selected brokerages offered investors like Gerri went down between 25 and 40 percent. Gerri had lost $30,000 at that point. So she probably had somewhere between $75,000 and $120,000 of pretax savings to invest in that annuity.

When I asked directly how she’s holding up, she told me, “Maintenance [on the condo] is up to fourteen hundred something, and then there’s the mortgage. When you need $2,000 a month just to pay for housing, $400 [her weekly unemployment benefit] doesn’t go that far. I better get into find-a-job mode.”

When it came to lifestyle changes, “I never made that much, and I don’t spend that much. I wear sweatshirts and jeans in the winter, T-shirts and jeans in the summer. But I can get dressed up if I have to,” she assured me. “I went to a show once or twice a year; I’ll cut that. I always wanted to try facials, and I finally bought six of them, prepaid, right before. So I’ll use them up.”

“It’s all relative,” Gerri philosophized. “If you’re used to going to Per Se [a bizarrely expensive Manhattan restaurant] once a week and spending four, five hundred dollars for dinner, having to go across the street to Josephina and only spending $200 is the same thing as me not being able to go to a concert.”

The Pink Slippers certainly worried about their finances and compared notes on practical matters. Elaine, for instance, was taking all the medical tests she could—“mammogram, bone density”—while she still had free time and the company health coverage. “But
you can only do a couple of tests a week. I had a colonoscopy last Friday and a CAT scan the Friday before.”

We all had something to say about that disgusting colonoscopy prep. But no one knew how to evaluate a more serious argument against taking all the medical tests you can. What if they find something? Would that mean you had put a preexisting condition on your medical chart just as the company coverage expired and you had to find a policy on your own?

Feldman reminded us that “under some part of the stimulus, the government covers part of your COBRA payments. That’s only for nine months; I have six left.”

“I really hope I’m not fooling around looking for a job by then,” Elaine said.

Though the four friends were thinking about some lifestyle adjustments, no one was scrimping on food or taking coffee with them in a thermos. As Gerri pointed out, “It’s all relative.”

Elaine summed up her mood by quoting John Lennon: “Time that you enjoy wasting is not wasted.”

Gerri quoted Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.”

Feldman said he was depressed despite many evening activities. But he had been mildly depressed before—“chronic dysthymia,” he called it. His immediate psychological need was to fill that “nine-to-five hole.”

Before we split up, the friends firmed up some plans. Elaine and Feldman arranged a time to rehearse a scene. “We’re taking an acting class. We have to learn to play off each other,” Feldman explained.

He also proposed a movie day.
“Terminator 4
is coming out in
a week.” He’d check with a friend who could sometimes get them invited to screenings. “She’s press,” he told me.

Finally, they went over their responsibilities for upcoming church events and invited me to a public ceremony on May 1.

“It’s called Beltane,” Kevin explained. “It’s to welcome the spring.”

“It’s all right to come just out of curiosity,” Gerri assured me.

“Bring fifteen feet of colored ribbon,” Feldman said.


“Maypole ribbon.”

“Wow, I never did a real maypole.”

Spring Ritual 2009

The Beltane ceremony was held in Central Park, and I didn’t need to bring my own maypole ribbon.

A member set up a traditional pole still displaying the ribbons that had been woven by dancers the preceding spring. Another member taught us—there were about seventy-five attendees—to dance around it with joy sufficiently tempered that we crossed over and under leaving more neatly woven ribbon on the pole. I also learned how to braid flower garlands that stay together. Elaine’s wreath fit with real flair and matched her flower-print skirt.

“Beltane” is Gaelic for the month of May and for this festival. The rite has to do with bringing the sheep back to pasture. The heart of the ceremony as practiced in Central Park consisted in calling up individual gods and goddesses of antiquity and the Middle Ages. As we faced outward in a circle, I wondered what the people next to me actually believed about the divinities they welcomed.
When I read
The Iliad
The Odyssey
, I take those talks with Athena literally. I also take the Nativity story literally when I attend midnight Mass.

Feldman, who led part of the ceremony as a bare-chested woodland spirit, said that his religion affords him a way to communicate with the male and female forces of the universe. Kevin, a Catholic, had found his way to paganism while he still lived in Chicago. He feels that he’s calling to the divine power or spirit that resides in everything in creation. I wondered if Gerri (in her usual sweatshirt, jeans, and baseball cap) was consulting Astarte about the run for chapter president.

It was a beautiful spring day, and that may have influenced everyone’s mood. All four of the Pink Slip Club members were still jobless, as were others among the participants I heard. But I don’t think anyone strolling past us would have detected any recessionary pall over the spring ceremony.

September 2010

Sixteen months after I first met the group, Gerri organized a second Pink Slip get-together for my benefit. By that time she had run for the New York chapter presidency and lost. Her roommate had moved in with his girlfriend. This visit a young woman slipped down the hallway and out the front door.

“She’s the only person I know of who quit a job,” Gerri said. “She couldn’t take her boss anymore.”

“It must have been pretty bad to quit in this environment,” Kevin remarked.

“Maybe her parents have money,” Gerri speculated.

“Anything else new?” I asked. “I really could use to hear something hopeful.” (By that time I’d been interviewing people outside New York where the recession hit harder and things had been worse to begin with.)

“I have my first job interview Wednesday,” Gerri said. “It’s with a New York liquidation bureau.” We all laughed. “I know it sounds ironic,” she acknowledged. “These people audit bankrupt insurance companies.”

“Is that the one your friend saw on their Web site?” Kevin asked.

“Yeah,” Gerri answered. A friend had spotted the quasi-public job listing while researching a mystery novel. “I applied four months ago. I was asleep when they called, and I said, ‘Liquidators? I don’t owe anybody any money.’ Then it clicked. It took them all that time to get back to me—well, it’s a government agency.”

BOOK: Down the Up Escalator
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