YOU'RE HOME EARLY TONIGHT
Suzan's Rigatoni Disoccupati
[Pasta of the Unemployed]
1/2 lb. pasta
1 small jar prepared spaghetti sauce
Heat a large pot of water until boiling and add half a box of rigatoni or whatever pasta you have. Take lid off jar of sauce and microwave for a few minutes, stirring after each minute to check temperature. Test pasta frequently so it doesn't get overcooked because you're a little distracted. Drain. Put large, comforting amounts on plates. Top just-this-side-of-mushy pasta with nuclear-hot spaghetti sauce. Serve with Italian bread and an explanation of why you're home so early.
HUDSON COUNTY, NEW JERSEY
"I got laid off today," I tell Nathan.
"Oh," he says, looking to me for a sign of how he should react—How bad is this?
"It's fine," I say. "I'm fine. We're going to be fine."
After all, it's not as though I didn't see this coming. I've written for magazines for twenty-four years now, and there have been two recessions during that time. When the economy starts tanking, people cut back, and if they have to make a choice between food and a magazine, I go from being employed full-time to starting another stint as a freelance writer.
So, months before I got the call from Human Resources at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon (a meeting, I guessed on my way downstairs, that was probably not about a raise and a promotion; I was right), I had begun economizing. I kept a record of my expenses and was surprised to find that I was spending upward of ten dollars a day on lunch—nearly twenty if it was a bad day and I treated myself to sushi.
I stopped eating in the fancy company cafeteria and started brown-bagging it. My lunches were simple: tuna sandwiches, salads, last night's chicken. I asked Nathan what he spent on food in a week. The amount was so startling it led me not only to make his lunches but to bake muffins and put coffee in a thermos for him to take to work as well.
Every morning, once I got from New Jersey to New York, I skipped the subway and walked the remaining mile to the office, weaving through crowds of European tourists buying Levi's jeans and tickets to The Lion King. The summer went by quickly, and the walk became easier when the hordes in Times Square thinned out; as markets all over the world fell with ours, I heard fewer exotic accents.
The closer I got to the glass tower where I worked, the faster I walked, like a woman hurrying to an affair so good she knows it can't last. Oh, did I love that job, and everything that went with it. I loved saying good morning to the dignified security guards who wore not uniforms but suits and ties, and I got a thrill from going up the long escalator that was built into an indoor waterfall. I'd give myself a once-over in the mirrored elevator before stepping out onto my floor, wanting to look good when I walked past the fashion editors at their morning meeting in the conference room. I felt important as I settled down in my office—my own office, with my name on the door and a partial view: a chunk of Central Park and a sliver of East River. In between going to meetings with my bosses and editing features, I'd write about subjects that our readers, and I, found rich and meaningful. I'd always hoped to do this kind of work, and I was proud to be a part of this prestigious team. (Both staff and content were of such high caliber that a friend nicknamed the magazine "Harvard.") My job was so busy and exciting I'd almost forget about the plastic-wrapped sandwich in my bag, and why I'd felt the need to bring one instead of getting the chef's plat du jour in the cafeteria.
Between the two of us, Nathan and I saved about a hundred bucks a week, and I lost around five pounds with those mile sprints. I even wrote an article about my lunch savings for the magazine. (When it was published, the tuna sandwiches and leftover chicken I'd described were accompanied by recipes for Pan Bagnat and Brown Rice Salad with Salmon.) I baked on Sundays and ate a little less at night, the better to have enough for lunch the next day. At work, one of the company chiefs held a special meeting to assure us that there were no plans for salary freezes or layoffs. I kept baking.
Every little bit I did, every dollar I saved, helped me stay calm, as did rehearsing on the walk to work what I would and would not say the day the layoff came. And when it did, I was able to take the news gracefully, accept a hug from a boss relieved that I wasn't throwing a stapler at her, and pack my personal effects quickly.
Normally, eating two bowls of pasta would put me in a carb-induced coma. Tonight, after getting a six-figure pay cut, it's calmed me down enough so that I can begin to take stock.
My family's history of rainy days gave me more than enough incentive to put part of each paycheck into a savings account. It also made me frugal-to a fault, in my mother's eyes. "You need this coat," she said when we were in a department store one afternoon.
"But Mom, it costs six hundred dollars . . ."
"And it looks like it cost a thousand! Buy it, or I'm buying it for you!"
Her rationale betrayed our humble background: "In order to make money," she said as I reluctantly handed over my credit card, "you have to look like you already have it."
Fortunately, I wasn't wearing that coat when I negotiated a freelance contract with my now former company. The monthly stipend won't be enough to retire on, but between that and my unemployment benefits, I can put my bag lady nightmares aside for a while. Another relief is that I'm not doing this alone anymore—now I have a husband who says things like "Don't worry. I've got my job. Have another cookie and relax." Together, we have enough to pay our rent and bills and to buy groceries (less expensive ones, anyway; I may need persuasion to buy fine clothes, but not fine food).
All in all, I feel relatively safe, especially when Mom tells me about what Nana went through during her childhood and the Depression. By those standards, I'm nowhere near trouble.