Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Yesterday began like any other; I woke up late, fed Oblio, Mignonne and Mama Kitty, showered, picked out something to wear, ate a bowl of cereal, drank some coffee, and checked the online bus tracker for the #82 Kimball-Homan. On the blue line, a man sitting behind me argued on his cell phone in what sounded like a lover’s spat. He kept repeating:
“Because I’m more of a man than that. Because I’m more of a man than that. Because I’m more of a man than that. Because I’m more of a man than that.”
When I got above ground there was a text message on my phone from A: FYI, just found out there will be a security guard here today, it’s protocol. I texted back: thanks for the heads up. Today, after two agonizing weeks of waiting, we were finally going to find out whether we’d remain employed. Representatives from management and HR had flown in from headquarters, and we all had to meet with them individually, along with our direct supervisor. I was fixing myself a cup of coffee when the management rep found me in the kitchen.
“Oh hi,” she said, “whenever you’re ready come on in.”
“OK,” I said, and in that moment time slowed. I’d already poured hot water over the coffee grounds in my one-cup coffee press, I slowly opened the cupboard for my bag of turbinado sugar marked with my initials, and the fridge where I keep a similarly marked soy milk container. I fitted the plunger onto the press pot and pushed the handle down, poured the dark, fragrant brew into a mug, added soy milk,sugar, and stirred. I went back to my office to get a pad of paper and pen (I didn’t end up taking any notes), got my coffee from the kitchen, and walked into the room where the HR and management reps were waiting. It was 9:08 am. My supervisor was on the phone from headquarters, and in the space of three minutes I was let go from my job at a humanitarian aid organization where I've worked for three years. I’d been preparing for this moment, but tears came. As my supervisor read from a script (everyone was read to from a script, regardless) an open box of tissues was passed across the conference room table and set in front of me.
“I’m sorry,” my supervisor said at the end.
“I’m sorry too,” I said.
I went back to my office and called my husband, and in the next hour a steady stream of colleagues came in and out of my door; some who’d been let go, others who weren’t, all of them in tears. In the end, three of eleven had been let go in our office, and organization-wide the number was somewhere close to 70.
After I’d made some phone calls and sent some emails, all but one of us went across the street to Elephant and Castle for drinks. The La's There She Goes was playing on the sound system. Q went to the bar and returned to our table with two shots of whiskey. I’m not a whiskey drinker, but I lifted the diminutive glass to my lips, and took a sip.
“You can’t drink it like that,” K, who was sitting across the table from me, said, “You have to toss it back”. I picked it up again and tossed it back, the liquid ran over my tongue and down my throat, leaving a warm trail. Over the next few hours we sat, we talked, we drank, and we laughed. At one point K’s finger was bleeding and I told her that she shouldn’t take staff cuts so literally. By the time I left it was almost eight o’clock. I went back to the office to get things out of the fridge and check my email before heading home. On my way out, Flora the night guard asked what we’d been doing across the street for so long – we’d passed her on the sidewalk on our way over. I told her there’d been layoffs.
“Oh,” she said, “who all got let go?”
“G,” I started.
“I saw her, I knew she didn’t look right.”
“S,” I continued, “and me.”
Flora is nothing if not talkative, and she launched into a story about a bank she’d worked in once where the entire third shift security team was let go, herself included, and how her supervisor, “a real mean girl named Angie,” had made life difficult during that time. She told me about other companies in the building who’d had layoffs, employees who’d stepped off the elevator in the lobby carrying boxes of personal effects and weeping. I was tired, but I listened. On the days that I bike to work, Flora hands me the key to the bike closet on the loading dock, and we’ve developed a rapport over the years. Finally I told her I was going home. She hugged me, told me she knew everything was going to be all right, and walked outside with me, where she hugged me again. A man carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag approached us, asking:
“Can I have a hug? Can I get in on a group hug?” Flora released me from her embrace and said:
“No, no you cannot,” and chuckled softly. “All right,” she said to me, “I’ll see you tomorrow, right? Don’t leave without saying goodbye to me.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow Flora.”
I descended the stairs to the red line and sat on the train with my eyes closed, listening to the rustle of people around me, and the recorded voice announcing what stop we were approaching. At Belmont, I got off the red line and stood on the platform to transfer to the brown. The evening air was warm, and it felt good on my face. I rode the brown line to Kedzie where a fellow commuter, a man in wire-rimmed glasses, held the exit door open for me.
“Thank you,” I said quietly, and he nodded. We walked on opposite sides of the street, both heading south for several blocks until he turned and headed west at Montrose; I continued on. The light from the sky made the colors on my street pop, the bright yellow green of recently fallen buds lighting up the sidewalk like emergency lights on the floor of a darkened airplane. As I walked up my front steps Oblio stared through the window at me from his perch on the loveseat, and watched me as I turned my key in the front lock. Once inside, my husband embraced me, and the tears came again.
“You and G and S should open your own international humanitarian aid organization down the street and steal donors, like they did on ‘The Office’” he said, and I laughed.
I ate a banana and fell asleep on the couch watching a documentary about the Crips and the Bloods.
The next morning I slept in, and got to the office at around 11:30. The day security guard, James, greeted me as I came in. He said he’d miss me with my bike this summer. James used to help me put my bike up in the storage closet back when I rode a Schwinn Cruiser that was too heavy for me to lift. In the first months that I biked to work, every morning he’d hoist the front end of it onto a hook while I held up the back wheel, and every day he’d say: “Oh J, I sure hope your husband buys you a new bike for Christmas.” When I upgraded to a Marin Belvedere that winter I was able to put the bike up myself, and every day James would say: “Your husband should buy you a scooter for Christmas.”
When I got upstairs I met with a job loss counselor who looked remarkably like Al Delvecchio, circa his stint as spokesman for En-Cor Salisbury Steaks. He wore a tan corduroy jacket over a blue button down shirt, and sat directly in front of an oversized wall photo of a Guatemalan woman holding a baby, his head obscuring the baby in such a way that it appeared as though he was wearing the blue knit cap pictured on the infant’s head.
“So, what can I do for you in the short time that we have together?” he asked. I told him I wanted to know about the logistics of applying for unemployment. “It’s very complicated,” he explained, leaning back in his chair and intertwining the fingers of his hands, “if you earn any money while you’re unemployed, you have to deduct that from what they give you. I did it once for about two weeks and then stopped because it was too much of a hassle.” Then he started talking about other companies who'd hired him for his job loss counseling services. “I was out in Rockford the other day, talking to single mothers who’d just lost their jobs. They sat right where you are now, in tears, asking me what they should do. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ they asked me, ‘work as a waitress in a diner?’” He paused for effect. “Do you think you’ll become depressed?” he asked, as casually as if he were asking if I take milk with my coffee, “are you the kind of person who becomes depressed in situations like this?”
Tomorrow M and I will come downtown with the car for my personal effects:
• A 1924 Underwood typewriter, with a matching print advertisement from Popular Mechanics that reads: Own a Typewriter! A bargain You Can’t Ignore! Try it Free, and See! $3;
• Four mold injected dinosaurs from the Museum of Science and Industry;
• Two empty glass jars of Sanford’s washable fountain pen ink;
• An empty Codo Super-fiber typewriter ribbon case;
• A box of antique gummed labels;
• An old wood block used for advertising typist jobs in newspapers that shows the profile of two women sitting in front of typewriters, their hands raised in mid key strike;
• A reproduction vintage poster for Spa-Citron;
• Miniature Barbapapa dolls;
• A wall hanging from Benin;
• A toy camel from India;
• A Moroccan scarf;
• Carved wooden cows from Switzerland;
• Photos of Cape Cod;
• A wedding photo of me and M;
• A tin Chicago Tribune front page cover showing Obama on November 5th, 2008 with the headline: “Obama, Our next president”;
• A Swiss flag wall lamp;
• A miniature Swiss flag;
• An antique brass doorknob with the words: “PUBLIC SCHOOL CITY OF NEW YORK” imprinted on it;
• An iPod docking station;
• Antique NYC subway operator badges;
• Pictures of my nieces and nephews;
• A Peters projection world map;
• A printout of my ticket to Grant Park on election night;
• A Shepard Fairey “Yes We Did” poster; and
• A Nikki McClure “Vote” poster, to name a few.
I’ve taken a couple empty banker’s boxes out of the storage room across from my office; hopefully everything will fit.