Friday, April 30, 2010

The Scavenger to Capitalism

My supervisor at the children's museum asked me if I wanted to end the assignment a week early so I could have time off before my full-time job started. I said I'd had plenty of time off, and we decided to take my last week (which is only Monday-Wednesday) on a day-by-day basis and see how much work was left to be done.

Over the weekend I attended CPR training at my new job, and was so taken by the fact that I'll be able to walk to work - in a part of Chicago that's so pretty it doesn't even look like itself, that I was loathe to get out of bed Monday morning to make the shlep down to Navy Pier. I told myself Monday would be my last day, but there was enough work left to bring me back Tuesday, and Wednesday too. I could have just punked out, but they'd been so nice to me there (they even gave me two trays of miniature cupcakes on Administrative Professionals day, can you believe it?), and it's always good to network with people who might be able to help you out down the road, so I came in for the full three days.

Wednesday morning I dragged myself out to Navy Pier one last time, savoring the view from the #82 Kimball-Homan bus as it coughed and farted its way south. This time of year the buds on the trees lining the avenue burst forth in a bright chartreuse, and I felt nostalgic knowing that this would probably be the last time I'd see them from the height of the #82. Just below Addison, the bus driver got into a yelling match with a car that was trying to make a right turn into the parking lot of Home Depot in front of her. Finally she let him go, saying "well, go on, before you tear somethin' up!"

I descended the bus onto the uneven and potholed intersection of Kimball and Belmont, and ventured underground to catch the blue line train. At the Grand Avenue stop I exited the accordion-doored subway car and ascended the stairs to the turnstiles, where a blue uniformed CTA employee stood, as he did every morning, greeting commuters with a wave, a smile and a genuine "good morning". Aboveground again, I waited for the #65 Grand Avenue bus, and rode it one last time as it wound its way east on Grand, then onto Illinois, underneath Michigan Avenue, and finally docked itself at the end of the line at Navy Pier. I wound my way through the maze of the children's museum, using my key card three times to gain access to both service entrance doors, and the door to the office suites above the third floor of the museum. At my desk I set to work on moving some electronic files onto a new server. The computer I was working on was unbelievably slow, I had to restart it several times because it kept freezing up, and I finally went to the food court to get some coffee while it rebooted.

I got in line at Starbucks (the only place to get coffee at Navy Pier, unless you count McDonalds) behind a group of students who looked like they were in the 8th or 9th grade. The kid in front of me, a doughy boy whose head bore an asterisk of hair circling the spot where his head had, until recently, been resting on his pillow, ordered an iced venti machiato. This struck me as the most ridiculous thing a 13 year-old had ever ordered - an opinion I firmly held onto until the kid behind me ordered a double chocolate mochachino. "I am not going to miss the atmosphere of Navy Pier" I thought, and mumbled something to that effect out loud as I added cream and two packets of turbinado sugar to my perfectly sensible 12 oz. coffee while the young machiato addict waited for his confection.

It was a gorgeous day, my computer kept freezing, and by noon I could restrain the urge to goof off no longer. I got my timesheet signed, faxed it over to the temp agency, and headed to Michigan Avenue to do some shopping.

After a year of self-restraint, I anticipated a full-blown shopping spree, but my habit of not spending turned out to be one that I couldn't shake. I browsed the shoes at Nordstrom, but just couldn't bring myself to spend $70 on something I could probably get online for half the price. I tried on a pair of dark-wash blue jeans, but couldn't justify the expense. In the end I bought things for M, since he hasn't gotten many gifts from me over the past year, and if anyone should be shopping on Michigan Avenue on a Wednesday afternoon jut for the hell of it, it's him. I bought him some fancy shaving products and some very expensive chocolate, and then, longing for a familiar anchor keep me from floating away in a vast sea of consumption, I headed to the Chicago Cultural Center.

A calmness came over me as I walked through the familiar doors of the mighty edifice, which was once the original home of the Chicago Public Library, and features - among other things, the world's largest stained glass Tiffany dome. The building has served as a resting point for me when appointments and interviews draw me downtown, and I'm so familiar with it at this point that I know where the best bathrooms are (2nd floor), I have a favorite table in the reading room (against the western wall, next to the display of Chicago Publisher's Gallery books), and I know the view of Millennium Park from the second floor gallery windows by heart.

You really can't beat the Chicago Cultural Center; they have free film screenings, free wifi, free art exhibits, and the only bust of a city planner I've ever seen - that of Ira J. Bach, 1906-1985, with the inscription "In developing a general plan, we must look at the city as if it were going to be entirely rebuilt, because a healthy city naturally rebuilds itself in the long run." You'd be hard pressed to find a more sensible, down-to-earth inscription on a bust. Mr. Bach's pinched face and stern molded haircut is not one that will ever be recognized by school children, or appear in profile on treasury-issued coins, but it makes me happy to know that his years of service (noted as 1940-1985) will forever be on display in this enclave, this quiet space on a sprawling avenue in the middle of America's 3rd most populous city.

I walked through the reading room, noting the admonishing word "Silence" that hangs on a wood panel one wall, and the anagram "License" that hangs on a wood panel directly across from it. I had some time to kill before meeting some former colleagues, so I walked up the double staircase to the second floor to see the current art exhibit: Christine Tarkowski's Last Things Will Be First and First Things Will Be Last. Her work included a dome inspired by Buckminster Fuller, and a room covered in broadsides made to look as though they had been printed long ago in obsolete fonts. "Thirsty woman," one began, "If you drink this water you'll never be thirsty again!" "Magic bullet faith cafeteria style 'service' I wanna eat from your buffet," decried another. "Praise the scavenger to capitalism bio/wind/hydro/solar the garbage man is the rational hero," said a third.

My mind settled on the message of the scavenger broadside - was this what I had become? Over the past year I've learned to make do with less, and have developed money saving habits: I get my hair cut for $16 by students at the Aveda Institute; I go bowling on Mondays, when it costs $1 per game at Diversey Rock 'n Bowl; and I'm a card carrying member of the Kerasotes five buck movie club. Shopping on Michigan Avenue made me anxious, it's basically against my religion at this point. I'd found my way back to a space where the only things for sale are a few trinkets in the gift shop, and the goods in the cafe on the first floor. In the corner of the room a 45rpm record spun on a turntable playing the same song over and over, a recording of people singing the words to the thirsty woman broadside. I stayed in the room for a few minutes reading posters, listening to music, and thinking about my near future.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The post that took almost a year to be able to write

I got a job. A real job. Not a temp job - although I've been doing that for about a month now and it's going well, and not as an enumerator for the U.S. Census, although I was contacted by them recently for work, but an honest-to-goodness nine to five with benefits. I start May 1st for training. In actual calendar time, I've been unemployed since June 1, 2009, although I was notified on May 12 and only came back into the office a couple times after that. Any way you slice it, its been about a year since I've been gainfully employed. I've probably written this list up before, but I'm willing to repeat myself - since May 12th 2009, here's what I've done:

  • Participated in a mini-triathlon;
  • Worked odd jobs as a babysitter, housecleaner, marketing study participant (I got paid $100 to talk about lotion for 90 minutes), and French language test-taker;
  • Served in a volunteer capacity as: a librarian for the Alliance Fran├žaise de Chicago; info desk staffer for Chicago's Green City Market; concert usher for the Old Town School of Folk Music; tutor for 826 Chicago; and construction worker for Habitat for Humanity;
  • Traveled to France, Spain, Portugal and Senegal;
  • Traveled to Boston four times, three times to Michigan, twice to New York City, once to Vermont, and once to Cape Cod;
  • Became a staff writer at Gapers Block; and
  • Interviewed for 11 jobs, 1 internship, and 1 informational interview.

Being unemployed has been so central to my identity over the past year that I almost don't know what to do with myself now that it's coming to an end. Although I'll be taking a pay cut from my last position, my new job is walking distance from my house, something I've always dreamed of, the people seem really nice, and the benefits are great. Since I'd already secured my dates for traveling to the U.P. next month, my boss is letting me take the time off, as well as a short trip to Austin in June that M and I recently planned.

Here comes the mushy part where I thank my wonderful husband for all the support he's given me over the past year - unemployment is generally considered one of the biggest stressors that can happen to a marriage, but over the past 11 months my husband has done nothing but encourage me to pursue all the crazy dreams that I suddenly had the time to follow. While he stayed home and worked, I spent most of my severance pay traveling to distant corners of the world, developed my writing technique, and connected with my community in meaningful ways through volunteering. Aside from one or two poorly timed cracks about not pulling my weight financially, he never made me feel bad about my employment status, or complained about having to cut back in areas like home improvement (which we desperately need) or postponing major purchases like a new car (which we need just as badly as a renovation of our basement). He's really pretty great, that husband of mine. I hope he never loses his job, but if he does I'll think back to my year of unemployment and all the experiences I gained from being able to take advantage of the time off, and I'll remember that none of it would have been possible without his support.

Thanks also to my network of unemployed friends: TS, who introduced me to $1 bowling Mondays at Diversey Rock 'n Bowl, and despite himself gave some of the sagest advice on the subject of unemployment; AP, who came as my plus one to numerous events; GV, whose acerbic sense of humor could pierce through anything; AB, who told me it would be the best thing to happen to me; and CF, who connected me with countless babysitting jobs that helped fill my pockets.

Of course, my employed friends were there for me this past year too: MamaVee, who convinced me to participate in a mini-triathlon; AM, who went to some of the best and some of the worst theater I've ever seen with me, and helped me to think of ways to write about it; HD, who kept in touch the whole time, and never treated me like I should feel sorry for myself; NM, who mailed me a birthday gift she'd bought in Bangladesh which was waiting to be opened when I came home from two weeks in New York and Boston right after I lost my job; DW, who always made time for lunch; and my upstairs neighbors, who included me in countless family dinners when I could easily have eaten alone in front of the TV while M worked.

At the risk of making this sound like a tiresome Oscar speech where the award winner has gone on too long so the music swells, causing the award winner to start talking really fast, thanks also to all of you who've read my blog and followed my adventures over the past year. Its great knowing you're out there, and I hope to keep telling stories that you want to read.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Temp.... sigh.

A couple weeks ago I met with a woman at an agency that specializes in finding temp, temp-to-perm, and permanent job placement opportunities for nonprofit professionals. I had recently been rejected for the fourth time by the same prospective employer, and was running out of ideas. I haven't kept track of how many resumes I've sent out, and I'd have to stop and think about how many interviews I've been on - somewhere in the range of ten to twelve, but I keep not getting hired. Its staggering; twice I haven't been hired for jobs that I had really good networking connections to, with former colleagues submitting glowing recommendations on my behalf, and none of the other jobs I've interviewed for have been offered to me either. I even took the aptitude test to work for the U.S. Census, and haven't heard from them. Aside from a growing number of hours spent babysitting, I seem to be unable to secure employment on my own. Coincidentally, I just received a notice from the Illinois Department of Employment Security stating that my unemployment benefits are almost exhausted, although my case will be reviewed for an extension. If that weren't enough of a sign that its time to change my approach to employment, I've slowly become disinterested in all my volunteer gigs. What used to be fun diversions and a way to connect with the community has over time become inconvenient or boring.

The agency called me early last week to discuss a possible placement - 3 days a week in the development department at the Chicago Chidren's Museum, would I be interested? I said sure, send them my resume, secretly hoping that like all the other prospective employers I've come into contact with in the past year, they wouldn't want me. The museum is located on Navy Pier, which is possibly the biggest tourist trap in Chicago, and unless I drive it takes me two buses and a train to get there. My contact at the agency called me the next day as I was finishing a babysitting gig to say that the museum wanted me to start the next day.

I haven't temped in 12 years. The last time I worked as a temp I had very few marketable skills, and as a result got assignments at the very bottom rung of the temp ladder. Some placements were tolerable, but some were just awful. I wrote about the experience in a long-defunct zine called Temp Slave, and one of my stories made it into the book The Best of Temp Slave, which includes a blurb from the king of work stories himself, Studs Terkel, a fact that I will be eternally proud of:

"The temps, in their own words, let us know what it is all about. Let's not kid ourselves. Temp is a euphemism for day laborer. George and Lennie are no longer merely ranch hands. They work in law firms, banks, insurance companies and in your own workplace."
--Studs Terkel


I've always felt a special connection to Studs; we share the same birthday (different years, but still!), and like Studs I was born on the East Coast and then made my way west to the City of the Big Shoulders. As thrilling as it was to have my name included in a book that got a blurb from Chicago's most celebrated storyteller, temping is a world I was eager to leave and never planned on returning to.

I was glad that the job was only 3 days a week, at this point I'm virtually feral where office life is concerned and I wasn't sure if I could handle the transition. Given the right situation I could very well run and hide from my new office mates, spitting and hissing at them if I feel cornered, and scavenging the remains of their lunches when their backs are turned. As it turned out, it wasn't that bad. The offices are one floor above the museum floor in a kind of loft, and all day the sounds of kids running and playing fill the air. At one point on my first day some staff members descended the office stairs with instruments in hand and enticed the kids into participating in a karaoke session; I sorted correspondence into donor files to the sounds of chestnuts like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Happy Birthday. For temp work, its not bad: my supervisor is really nice, trusts me to do my work without looking over my shoulder, and nobody gets very dressed up for work. If it weren't for the commute and the tourist zone, it would be the ideal temp job.

Until next time,

JP