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I think if someone fires you, they should have the decency to do it in person. My boss, lower than vermin on the food chain, was too chicken to actually tell me. Instead, I found out via email.
It's not like I would have wanted a show of tears and prostrated apologies (although these would have been nice). I just wanted a minimum level of decency. Personally, I'd prefer a twenty-one-gun salute, but that's just me. My dad always says I have an over-inflated sense of my place in the world.
Three days ago, on the day after Valentine's Day, I was part of a massive layoff of 1,000 employees from my company (an office supplier that manufactures pink slips). The irony here is not lost on me. Technically, we print office supplies your blue phone-message pads, your Post-it notes. I worked in design and development on such riveting projects as redesigning "While You Were Out" notes and writing instructions for the backs of correction fluid jars.
On my last day of work, my boss (is it wrong that I wake up and hope daily he's reincarnated one day as toe fungus?), a bald, corpulent, smelly man with a shiny, greasy-streaked ring of hair around his ears and down the back of his neck, blinked his black, beady eyes at me and said, "Your severance package would be greater, but you've used up all your sick days."
I suppose I should have been glad. Some people got laid off via voicemail. And others got the news scrolling across the screens on their Blackberry pagers.
The worst thing about being laid off is that it completely nixes your dream of storming into your boss's office, telling him what he can do with his status reports, and quitting to internal audience applause.
"Does Mike know about this?" I asked my boss. Mike Orephus was the vice president of the Midwest Division, and just happened to be the same man I'd been dating for seven months.
"He knows," my boss said. "He's the one who signed your pink slip."
The pink slip wasn't actually pink at all. It wasn't even a slip. It was just a regular piece of paper, white, with large even margins and a form filled out in Helvetica font, point size 12.
"Listen, we both know this isn't working out," Mike said, when I went into his office that same day. He couldn't look me in the eye. He fixed his gaze on the framed picture of his chocolate Lab, Buddy, sitting on his desk. I didn't know whether he meant my job performance or our relationship or both.
"You're firing me and breaking up with me?" I squeaked. I thought he'd show me a little pity. I didn't take him for the type who'd run me down with his car, and then throw it into reverse for good measure.
"Jane, come on, you know that the layoffs are not my decision. They come from above me." He sighed. "And, you had to see that our little fling was over. I mean, I didn't call you for almost a week. You had to see this coming."
I'd believed it when he told me he couldn't talk, that he was swamped at work.
"I thought you were just busy," I said.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said. He used that annoyed snappish tone. The one that all men use when they're breaking up with you and feel bad about doing it, so they try to make it somehow all your fault.
"But, I thought..." Now would not be a good time to tell him I'd been thinking we were headed somewhere. That I'd been secretly flipping through Martha Stewart Weddings magazines on the newsstands not because I expected us to get married, but when you reach seven months, anything could happen. "I thought you loved me," I finished.
Mike just shook his head at me, looking annoyed.
"Are you going to cry?" he asked me, squinting.
I didn't cry. I'm not a crier. I've never cried in a movie theater, not even when I saw the Joy Luck Club. My ex-boyfriend Ron says I've got a heart of granite, but he was a geology major, so who knows what he really meant. There are events that make me teary plucking my eyebrows and looking at my MasterCard bill are two that come to mind. I'm just not overly sentimental. I worked for two years designing Post-its and while-you-were-out notes. It's hardly the sort of work that encourages romantic dreams.
Besides, I've lost better jobs and boyfriends. At least, I think I have.
I've been laid off three times now, and I'm only twenty-eight. My dad always tells me that I should be sure to make a niche for myself in the market. "You see a need, you fill it," is what he would say.
I've made a career out of being disposable. I'm always the first one to go.
When I told my mother about the layoff, she told me, "Well, dear, look on the bright side. This will give you more time to date."
I'm skinny, but don't hate me. You try going through grade school being called a skeleton. It's not at all fun. Sure, now I'm reaping the benefits, now that I'm an adult and still sometimes dream of a bully named Sheila who would body-slam me into the jungle gym bars and call me Toothpick. As far as I'm concerned, I deserve to be able to fit into boy jeans.
Besides, the downside of being skinny is that I have no boobs. I should invest in Miracle Bras, but I think that would just be false advertising. There are men who have more cleavage than I do.
I've got honey blond hair, but not naturally so, which I usually keep up at the nape of my neck in a messy knot. When I'm lounging around the house, I wear glasses, which are thick and boxy and I think they make me look like Lisa Loeb, but my friend Steph says I look more like Elvis Costello.
I am not normally what you'd call a go-getter. But, I did try hard at Maximum Office. More than tried, really put forth an effort, my best work. I wanted to impress Mike, naturally. Mike, the youngest VP in the company at age thirty-five. Mike who looked thirty, who would listen to my ideas in department meetings and congratulate me on them, like a doting professor. I worked fifty hours a week almost every week. Now, I see that as time wasted. Hours I could've spent happily watching The E! True Hollywood Story.
Here's my life in a nutshell:
I'm unemployed. I am currently living in a gigantic, two-bedroom apartment that I can't afford. And instead of saving three months' salary, like every fiscally responsible person should in these uncertain economic times of two weeks' severance pay, I blow three months' salary repeatedly and often and carry roughly that and then some spread out over three credit cards. You could say I'm financially dyslexic.
My mother wishes I'd date more.
My dad feels like I should get married and have babies and stop trying to prove I can handle a career.
I made the colossal mistake of sleeping with an executive who dumped me and was kind enough to spare me the awkward run-ins at the water cooler by firing me.
There. You now have the vital statistics. My life isn't so bad, really. The one perk about being unemployed is that you have the perfect reason to lie around in your flannel pajamas and sulk. It's nice to have a real reason to mope. It's nice to be able to frown at family gatherings and have people whisper: "The job market is getting to her, poor thing," instead of "She's twenty-eight and single, poor thing." At a cousin's couples shower yesterday, my aunt and uncle stuck a couple of $100 bills in my purse. Personally, I'm not above pity as long as it takes the form of cash.
"Tell me what Star Jones is wearing," says my good friend Steph, calling as she does every day around ten. Steph works at Maximum Office and was spared during the last round of layoffs. This does not make her happy, as she's never been laid off, and she feels like she's missing out. Not to mention, now that she's a layoff survivor, she has to do the work of the five other people they let go in the public relations department.
"Let me just say that probably fifty polyester stuffed leopards had to die for her outfit," I answer.
"Has she started shouting yet?" Steph asks me.
"Not yet," I say. I have an irrational dislike of Star Jones and everyone on The View. When I had a job, I liked The View. It was a guilty pleasure to watch when I called in sick. Now that daytime television is my only intellectual stimulus and social outlet of the day, I find I have no patience.
I wonder why they have jobs and I don't. I could shout. And be opinionated on subjects I know nothing about. And badger celebrities with dumb questions. Watching daytime television always sinks my morale, but I simply can't help it. It's one of those self-destructive desires like craving cheese fries or nicotine.
"Be glad you aren't here," Steph breathes to me.
"What's happening? Has anyone quit?" I ask, hopeful. I like to imagine that after I was laid off, hundreds of other workers took to the parking lot with lighted torches, flipping executives' cars and demanding their fellow coworkers be reinstated.
"God, no," Steph says. "Everyone's scared shitless. Plus, there's no time to quit, not with the work we have to do. Did I tell you I have to write marketing proposals for eight new clients? And that's just what I'm supposed to do today. I haven't left the office before nine anytime this week."
"That does sound rotten," I say.
"Worse, Mike's been talking about having a weekend retreat," Steph says. "As if we aren't giving enough blood to the company, they want our Saturdays and Sundays, too."
"Well, it could be worse. You could be held captive in front of The View like I am," I say.
"Considering I have a stack of work on my desk taller than the Sears Tower, that doesn't sound so bad," Steph says. "Shit, here comes the boss. I think he's going to tell me I have to stay late again tonight. Let me call you back later."
Two minutes after I put the phone down, it rings again. It's my brother Todd.
"Jane, you promised you'd look for jobs today," he says. He's older and put together and doesn't like the idea of his tax dollars supporting my extended hiatus. He can't stand the idea of anyone not being a slave to the same institutions he is. He can't bear the thought of someone else living a free life outside the box.
"I am looking," I lie. The classifieds are open and they're sitting on the other end of the couch. If I stretch my neck to the right and squint hard enough I could probably make out one or two of them.
"If you were really looking, you'd be online, and the phone line would be busy. Have you at least made a plan?"
Todd feels planning is essential. Like showering. His idea of spontaneity is to use free hand calculations instead of an Excel spreadsheet.
"I was thinking of checking out the profession of dereliction," I say. "I'm more than qualified for it."
"Jane. Be serious."
"I am serious. I'm not a picky eater. I could eat out of trash cans."
"I hardly think that counts as a valuable skill," he says.
"Maybe I could test out new Nabisco products," I say.
"Have you sent out your resume?" Todd is nothing if not relentless. I know that this is just his way of showing he cares.
"I've sent out twenty resumes, and I got one call-back from a man who informed me the fax number I was dialing was out of service," I say.
"Well, maybe we should update your resume," Todd says.
"Todd don't you have tax returns to do?"
"Look, I don't mean to be an asshole, I'm just saying, you should think about what you're going to do next," he says. "You should take this time to re-evaluate your life goals."
It's hard to re-evaluate your life goals when you've just lost a job you didn't even much like. It's hard to plan for your future when you are beginning to suspect that everything you touch turns to crap. I don't exactly have the confidence at the moment to engineer my next brilliant career move, since my Fall-in-Love-With-an-Executive plan didn't work out.
Todd is still talking.
"You should take this opportunity to really ask yourself: What do I want to be?"
"Todd, have you been reading Who Moved My Cheese again?"
When I was in college, I had dreams of becoming the next Andy Warhol, except that after three art classes I discovered that my talent landed somewhere between Walt Disney and Sherman Williams. Not to mention, when you graduate as an art major, you don't, as popularly believed, get a gallery showing handed to you along with a big fat check from the National Endowment for the Arts.
"Have you at least gone down to the unemployment office?" Todd asks me.
"I thought you didn't believe in government handouts," I say.
"Well, you've more than paid for it in taxes. If you don't go apply, then you're letting Uncle Sam steal more of what's rightfully yours."
"I'll go, Todd," I say.
"Today, all right?"
"That's my girl," he says and hangs up. Todd and I have your typical older brother/younger sister sibling relationship: He tells me what to do and I largely ignore him.
Because I'd rather do almost anything than change out of my pajamas, I sit down at my computer and scroll through job listings for awhile. There are no new creative or graphic design positions posted. They are the same five that have been listed for the last week. Three of these are from now-defunct dot-coms (having tried emailing them, I know) and two are at companies currently going through a hiring freeze (it is cheaper to leave a posting online than to take it down).
Since there are no jobs posted that I'm qualified for, I apply for a few I'm not, including Zoo Assistant. I make up a wild story in my cover letter about my fictitious exploits in India, where I grew up and learned how to train elephants by watching Biki, our family's servant, care for the animals.
I like to think that somewhere, there is a human resources employee with a sense of humor. I have faith that one must exist. Like life on other planets.
While I am already in a foul mood, I decide now is as good a time as any to go to the unemployment office. I have been putting off this activity for too long. I do not want to admit to the state that I have, indeed, lost another job. It feels like admitting to your friends that the boyfriend you told them was planning to propose has run off with your downstairs neighbor. Dumped. Again.
The unemployment office is a dingy horrible place with army posters on the walls and horrifically artificial fluorescent lighting. All state buildings, I think, are required to have very unflattering lighting. It's part of an elaborate plot to make state employees look even more disheveled and bored.
When I arrive, around two in the afternoon, there is already a line of degenerates behind a coiled rope, much like a ride at Disney World, except there's no sunshine and no overpriced soda stands. I am tempted, however, to raise up my arms and shout, as if I am sitting in the front car of a roller coaster. Ahead of me, there's a woman in a business suit who looks like she only just got fired today (she's clinging desperately to a potted plant). Ahead of her is a man with a full beard who has drawn swastikas on his shirt. At the very front, I can hear two unemployment office employees arguing.
"That's not my job, Lucinda," one of them is shouting. "Why don't you stop being so damn lazy."
"Mmm-hmmm, I know you didn't just talk to me like that, biatch."
"Who are you calling a bitch?"
"Well, you's the only one here, so I guess I be talking to you. Biatch."
"You want to go right now? Let's go."
"Oh, I'm ready to. Anytime you wanna go. I'm ready."
Somewhere, at the head of the line, a few of the lower dregs of society start cheering.
"Ironic, isn't it?" says the woman in front of me with the potted plant.
"That they have jobs and we don't?" I say.
"Exactly," she says and sighs.
A tall, sloped-shouldered man in a white short-sleeved collared shirt and a tie, the uniform of a lower midlevel supervisor, pulls the two workers apart. He tells them to "Take five" just like my middle-school gym coach.
"Wind knocked out of you, eh, McGregor? Take five. Put your arms over your head and breathe deep."
I hated gym. Every time we played a sport involving a ball, I always got hit in the stomach with it. It was like there was a tracking device inside. Ooof. Every time. It's no wonder then that my Pavlovian Response to physical exertion is acute stomach pain and difficulty breathing.
"Come on people, let's move," the reedy man up front is saying. He has quite an overbite. "Everyone that's just been laid off, go to the right. Everyone who's been fired, left."
I go to the right. The low-level manager with the buck teeth eyes me suspiciously. Perhaps I look like I've been fired. Maybe I look guilty.
I fill out more forms than are necessary to donate a kidney.
I am jostled from window to window, like a nerdy party guest no one wants to talk to. The clerks have stickers instead of stamps, and fingernails longer than mechanical pencils. They smack gum irreverently as they glare at the back of their supervisor.
I look at the floor and try not to make eye contact.
"You need the blue form," says the grandmotherly woman behind counter number two.
"I have the blue form," I say.
"Not that blue form. This blue form," she says holding up a form that looks exactly the same.
"But isn't that the same?"
"Look, miss, would you hurry it up?" says a man who smells like onions standing behind me.
"Step out of line," commands the woman behind the glass partition.
Just like that, I am bumped out of line, and back to the table with the forms at the back.
It is almost five before I am finally, officially, registered for unemployment. They say it may be two weeks before I get my first check. I ask the woman behind the glass if this includes pay for the three hours I've stood in line. She doesn't think this is funny and frowns at me.
When I was fourteen, my mom thought I should audition for Saturday Night Live. She'd said so when I was younger and I'd make her laugh by sticking Pixie Stix up my nose and pretending to be a walrus. She thought I was a natural comedian. Then I went out into the real world and found that lots of people have mothers who think they should be on Saturday Night Live.
It was the same feeling going into the working world. Discovering that you are not special, even if your mother thinks you are. You are expendable. Your worth is calculated by hourly rates and vacation time. You are not a person. You are no more than a series of numbers. A cell in a spreadsheet. A glint in a beancounter's eye. Your whole existence fits into a neat series of ones and zeros.
As I'm leaving the unemployment office, I nearly bump into a girl coming in. She's wearing entirely black, with silver eye shadow and a ring through her nose. Her hair is tied in two blond knots on either side of her head, and her T-shirt has a face, not a smiley and not a frown, either indifference, and so I peg her as a techie. There's something about her that looks vaguely familiar, and then it hits me: She used to work at Maximum Office.
"Maximum Office, right?" I ask her.
The girl nods. "Yeah, I worked there," she says. "I was the system administrator before the cocksuckers laid me off last week." She studies me, then extends her hand. "I'm Missy."
"And I'm Jane," I say.
"You're the one who was sleeping with the Midwest Division VP," Missy blurts.
I turn bright red. I think everyone in the office knew. It's why I couldn't pass a water cooler without hearing hushed whispers and giggling.
"Look, I'd better get going," I say.
"Hey, don't take offense," Missy adds quickly, putting up her hands. "I didn't mean anything by it."
Missy is very small. She is literally half my size. Her feet look like children's feet.
"So, where do you live?" Missy asks me, deliberately ignoring my "this conversation is over" vibe. She's also blocking my way out the door.
"Lakeview," I say, trying to avoid giving an actual street address.
"Me too," Missy says. "Where?"
"Uh, near Sheffield's," I say, being deliberately vague.
"Me too!" she says. "What street?"
It's impossible now to avoid it. "Kenmore," I say.
"Cool," she says.
Missy is eyeing the Tiffany charm bracelet on my left arm (a college graduation gift from my maternal grandparents) with interest. I tuck it into my sleeve.
"One bedroom or...? " she trails off.
"Two bedrooms," I say.
"Got your own washer/dryer?"
Missy is beginning to sound like a real estate agent.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do," I say.
"Hardwood floors? Exposed brick?"
"Look, I'm renting the apartment, I'm not selling it," I say.
"Touchy," Missy says, holding up her hands.
I think for sure this conversation is over. But because Missy, like so many techies, is unfazed by deliberate rudeness, she continues. "I'm just asking because I'm looking for a place to live. I'm house-sitting but that gig is up in a couple of weeks."
"I'm not looking for a roommate," I spit, quickly. No use in giving her false hope.
"Oh," she says, shrugging. "Well, if you change your mind, here's where you can reach me."
She gives me one of her old Maximum Office business cards. Most of the information is scratched out, except for a handwritten number at the bottom. She's drawn devil horns on the o in "Office." I put it in my purse, as if I intend to keep it, when I plan to throw it out at the next available opportunity. Only a mentally deranged person would shop for a roommate at the unemployment office.
I arrive back in my apartment and immediately take a shower to wash off the stale smell of government work and the recirculated air of lowered expectations.
I change into a set of clean pajamas and feel like I never left home. I feel like there's something I ought to be doing, and when I realize that that something is paying the rent because it's due today, I sigh. I have next to no money in my checking account. I blame the financial advisors on CNN who claim that the only way to get out of credit card debt is to pay for everything with cash. I did that at the beginning of the month (including some extravagances like seven cab rides, a pair of Prada shoes that were on sale, and a pair of cashmere gloves). And now I have no cash to pay my rent. How does that make any sense?
I'd been spending like crazy (in part because I'm an art major and math and budgets are foreign concepts to me, and in part because I thought I was falling for Mike and wanted him to fall for me, too, and so I bought a new wardrobe of borderline professional, borderline sexy, kittenish outfits for work). Honestly, it never occurred to me that I would be laid off again. Something about third time being the charm, that while layoffs could happen twice, three times seemed a bit of a stretch, even for a person with my kind of persecution complex.
Plus, I had insurance: my relationship with Mike. Not that I consciously counted on that, as it was a consensual relationship, but I felt protected. Little did I know that Mike was plotting to discard me like Kleenex.
The next day, I get my last check from the Evil Pink Slip Company, and I deposit it into my bank account and, for a full afternoon, soak in the illusion of being rich. It is a double paycheck (the extent of my meager severance), and it feels like I've won the lottery. I go and buy five full bags of groceries with luxury items like olives and salad dressing and brand name cereal that comes in a box. I buy organic vegetables and double-ply toilet paper and quilted paper towels. I feel like skipping down the street and handing out fives.
Of course, this is willfully ignoring the fact that after paying off my minimum credit card balances for the month, and my utility bills (including my $480 gas bill for the record-breaking freeze in February), I will not quite have enough for the rent. Still, I allow myself to feel a little optimism. My mom always encouraged me to use my imagination. She never dreamed it would pave the way for my huge capacity for denial.
From: Headhunters Central
Date: March 4, 2002, 10:30 a.m.
Subject: RE: Your Resume
We have received multiple copies of your resume today via email and fax and feel compelled to tell you that changing your middle initial in no way disguises your resume.
We will contact you should we find anything suitable for your needs. And we do not appreciate you asking, even in jest, if we include escort services in our job placement list.
Please stop faxing us.
Copyright © 2004 by Cara Lockwood