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Authors: Barbara Garson

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BOOK: Down the Up Escalator
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Then a witch with a good voice sang:

Won’t somebody buy me a Mercedes-Benz

My friends all have Jaguars, I must make amends

Our individual communications with the goddess were private, of course. But toward the end of the ceremony everyone was given a chance to say what he would do with the wealth that Fortuna was going to bestow.

One woman said she’d build an animal shelter with a special section for small horses. Feldman was going to build a kung fu studio with an attached garage large enough to store all the motorcycles he’d buy. Gerri said she would bring her aunt from South Carolina to live in New York. Kevin told us that the Whitney Museum was planning to build an annex downtown. “Yes, right in our neighborhood,” he said, nodding to me. “Well, there’s going to be a Kevin M. Graham Room in that building.” I wish I’d heard Elaine’s prosperity plan, but she celebrated the equinox with another congregation.

And On It Goes

I like a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But between the spring and the fall rituals that should book-end this tale, the four members of the Pink Slip Club had morphed into “the long-term unemployed.” They didn’t retire, and they didn’t find jobs. Their stories just dragged on.

I waited a decent couple of weeks after the ceremony to phone Gerri about her job interview with the liquidator. “The people
in the office seemed to relate to each other in a good way,” she reported. “Having nice people to work with is very important.”

“So, um, what happened? Did they …?”

“It took them four months to get to me,” she said. “Maybe they’ll get back to me.”

I visited Feldman soon after his new girlfriend left town. She’d filled his freezer with casseroles so he knew where his next meal was coming from. As for work, “I had two weeks of employment since this began—around March last year. One week I made $600, the other week something less. It was like $50 more than my unemployment, that’s after taxes.”

His most immediate source of insecurity was his unemployment insurance.

“The pressure is high right now because in five weeks I’m going to become a 99er.” That was the term for people who had used up their full ninety-nine weeks of extended unemployment benefits. Actually, it was ninety-three weeks in New York at that point because the state had a lower rate of unemployment than other parts of the country. Though this had started as a financial crisis, the rapid recovery on Wall Street brought the state’s employment rate up. The unemployment extension was in the news because the 2010 congressional elections were coming up and there was a lot of acrimonious debate about stimuli like unemployment benefits versus deficit cutting through austerity.

“Right now there’s a Democratic majority, and they’re not doing anything about extending benefits,” Feldman said. “In November there could be a Republican majority. That’s just when the 99ers
will be coming on in full swing because that’s when people started getting laid off—November of two years ago.

“If this country doesn’t get it together, they’re going to storm the White House,” Feldman predicted. “It will probably turn into anarchy, and then it will turn into martial law, and the government will be forced to, you know, use their own military against their own people. That would be sad because they have much better weapons than the people.”

“It’s funny, but I don’t hear any rumblings of things like that,” I said.

“Maybe they turn down the publicity on them. I don’t even watch the news anymore. Most of the news is propaganda.”

I felt certain that I would detect hints of a movement to storm the White House for unemployment benefits. The only thing then scheduled for D.C. was a march for moderation organized by two comedians. Admittedly, a group of loosely organized 99ers had demonstrated in front of the unemployment office on Varick Street in Manhattan in November 2010. They handed out a leaflet calling for unemployment benefits extensions and for a federal jobs program like those the Roosevelt administration created in the 1930s. As part of planned civil disobedience, they briefly blocked traffic. Four of about twenty demonstrators were arrested, handcuffed, and held about ninety minutes before being released. Their spokesmen urged other 99ers to take up the protest with or without civil disobedience. It got minimal media coverage, but eventually veterans of this and other barely noticed protests would heed an online call and come together at a square in downtown Manhattan to become the Occupy Wall Street movement. So maybe Feldman had a better sense of the national mood than I did.

“That Obama is not really as behind the people as he sounded
like,” Feldman said. “As far as I can tell, he’s just another puppet in office.”

A month later the Obama administration negotiated to continue extended unemployment benefits. It was done not in response to protests but as part of a legislative compromise that extended the Bush tax cuts. But the deal wouldn’t mean any more money for Feldman. Earning the title 99er means you’ve graduated from the unemployment system. Feldman could only collect further benefits if he found a job, worked for the required period, lost the job, and qualified like any newly laid off worker. The tax-cut-for-benefits trade involved allocating money so that new people coming into the unemployment system could also get extensions beyond the normal twenty-six weeks if they qualified.

By the fall of 2010 there were fourteen million officially unemployed Americans—40 percent of them classified as the long-term unemployed. An additional ten million were working part-time but said they wanted full-time jobs. Fifteen million more had dropped out of the labor force since this recession began.

But bright, educated, unemployed people will surely drift into some kind of work eventually—won’t they? Maybe Gerri will pick up freelance event-planning gigs through contacts at organizations where she’s volunteered. Maybe Elaine will walk into a smart women’s clothing store where she’s shopped and ask for a job.

At the rate at which full-time staff jobs are being phased out, the older long-term unemployed of this recession probably have less than a fifty-fifty chance of finding permanent, full-time jobs.

But that’s statistics. All any individual needs is

Our Pink Slip Club protagonists are college graduates. They prepared themselves for the “symbolic manipulation” that was supposed
to replace industrial work in our new knowledge economy, and they kept up their skills.

None of the four friends are world-beaters who start in the mail room and end up in the CEO’s office. (How many of those do we need?) They were content to remain in their mid-level positions giving a little more than a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Beyond that fair day’s pay, the reward they most cherished was appreciation for helping to make work go smoothly for the people around them. Aren’t these the workers companies need by the tens of millions?

I guess the reason I can’t quite end this story is that for all my intellectual grasp of the downward trends for American workers, I just can’t believe that these four generous/selfish, mellow/excitable, unique/ordinary, and highly employable individuals will simply remain the long-term unemployed. Even though they might.

Chapter Two

Cash for Clunkers and XM Radio

In the second year of the Great Recession, the U.S. government granted a $4,200 rebate to anyone who bought a fuel-efficient new car and offered up an old one for sacrifice. My husband, Frank, and I brought in our twenty-year-old Lincoln Town Car and drove out with a brand-new Hyundai Elantra. It cost us $13,382, tax included.

Economically, it makes more sense to subsidize an embryonic industry than a mature industry, and public transit makes more environmental sense than private autos. Personally, I hoped for a weatherization/green jobs program to replace the leaky windows in the old industrial building where I live. But you take what you can get.

In our case Cash for Clunkers worked the way it was supposed to. It got a gas-guzzler off the road, and there’s no other way we would have bought a new car. The program brought me a personal bonus besides. My new car introduced me to a father and son in Indiana who had been adjusting to the downturn for a generation before it hit the Pink Slip Club in New York. Here’s how I met them.


Our new car came with a free trial subscription to XM Radio. Before it expired, several salesmen called offering low-rate deals to continue the service. My husband, Frank, said no to all of them. Then one day he said, “Okay, give me that.” He was won over by a young man who said he knew how to make the discount subscription end automatically so we wouldn’t find ourselves paying the full price when we forgot to cancel it in time.

“I got his number for you,” Frank said when he got off the phone. “I figured anyone selling XM Radio from a call center had to be doing something better before the recession. He says he’d be happy to talk to you.”

“I can’t interview every underemployed American,” I answered ungratefully. Still, I made a call.

“How long will we need?” Michael Kenny asked when I reached him at home on a weekend morning.

“I don’t know,” I said, dithering. “I don’t usually interview on the phone.”

“Why don’t we go ahead and start discussing?” Michael said, amiably taking charge. “If we need to, we can continue on another day.”

“Were you this good on the phone before you started doing it for a living?” I asked.

“Honestly, no, ma’am. Before my last two jobs I was very timid on the phone. I didn’t even like to call and order pizza.”

Before selling XM Radio, Michael, twenty-eight, had managed his fiancée’s uncle’s staffing agency. Most of its clients needed temporary loading crews for warehouses. Michael rounded up day laborers and sent them out at $7.50 an hour. But with the recession, business fell off for its clients (mostly low-end retailers), and the employment agency itself closed down.

The reason Michael might have to rush off the phone that morning was also recession related. He and his fiancée were looking at houses. The couple had been renting a house for the last five years, but the landlord stopped paying on the mortgage. “So we’re faced with a notice to vacate.”

“Oh no! First your job, then your home.”

Michael assured me that it wasn’t a tragedy. “We were already talking about having a child, and with house prices so low it’s a good time to buy.”

Michael’s fiancée, Caitlin, was employed at a franchise print shop formerly owned by another uncle. It too had gone bankrupt. Fortunately, a rival print shop scooped up the machinery, the customers, and the fiancée. So Caitlin had an unbroken employment record. The couple decided it would look good if Michael was also employed when they went to get a mortgage.

“That’s why I took the job at XM,” he told me. He’d originally thought to stay for about a year. But now: “I’ve been there for a month and a half. I don’t think I can take it for that long, honestly.”

“How long did you work at the employment agency?” I asked.

“Five months, I guess. I took care of everything from payroll, getting the temps to the jobs, drug testing [of job applicants], all that kind of good stuff, plus answering the phones, billing. The boss came in for an hour or two to help with the billing, but really to use it as headquarters for the restaurant he owned. That closed
too.” Was I phoning a ghost town, I wondered, or were the uncles just jinxed?

I was surprised when Michael said he’d been unemployed for a full year between the temp agency and the call center.

“I’m only talking to you on the phone, but you sound so … employable.”

“Well, I do need to tell you, ma’am, I have ten-year-old dreadlocks that hang down just to my waist. That does turn some employers off, especially here in the Midwest.”

“Are you a Rastafarian?” I asked. I was also wondering if he was black. That might affect his job prospects.

“No, I’m not a Rastafarian. I respect women more than that. It’s a spiritual thing with me. I’m actually a quarter Native American.” (That didn’t answer my hidden question. But he sounded like a white midwesterner.)

“It might be different if I was living in New York,” Michael continued, “but the only jobs that were available to me here that year were fast foods, sandwich shops, stuff like that. And I just wasn’t gonna go in reverse.”

“Well, a call center, isn’t that reverse? I mean, you were managing the employment agency.”

“It is a bit of a reverse,” he conceded. “But I am actually pulling in the same amount of money.” At the call center Michael was paid $7.50 an hour plus $2.00 per sale. He estimates that he averages five sales a day, which brought it to about $72.00 a day.

“But it
a reverse in that I’m … I’m sacrificing some …” For the first time in our conversation, Michael Kenny groped for a word. “At the temp agency I really got a bit of … 
[he found the word] because I was able to help someone find work.

“Like there was a single dad who was staying in a shelter with his two daughters. You could tell he was not someone who normally gets that close to the bottom. But his wife had passed away, and with the economy this time he fell all the way. So I gave him all the work I could … Mostly unloading trucks and moving boxes around. But that guy, he didn’t care what it was. He just wanted to get his daughters out of the shelter.

“When I was able to help someone like that, it was a sense of satisfaction. I don’t really get that out of XM Radio. I’ll be honest with you, eight out of ten people we call, maybe nine out of ten people, it’s kind of like we’re hassling them. I’m supposed to push it and push it. They listen in for that. But I don’t like hassling people. So it’s kind of tough on me. I’ll try to stay till we get a house.”

“Why don’t you buy the house you’re renting?” I asked.

“It’s not in the most beautiful neighborhood,” he answered, “and we want to start a family. But it’s not the ghetto, either.” (Why was I too embarrassed to simply ask if he was black or white? It matters in America; it’s an honest question.) “The identical house next door sold for $35,000,” Michael reported. “They covered the hardwood floors, painted over the gorgeous woodwork, and resold it for $45,000. You could come to Evansville, buy this house, and rent it out.”

BOOK: Down the Up Escalator
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