Meanwhile, back on the home front ...
A jobless SOS cuts to the heart
DALLAS — So much unsolicited paper ends up on my front porch that a week's accumulation is enough to open a small recycling plant. But the other day, amid the litter of our society's consumerism, there was something unique that stood out from the hot pink and blue circulars advertising new restaurants and astonishing products and grand-opening galas.
It might have been the bold single word "HELP!" at the top of the page that captured my attention. Whoever deposited it on my porch must surely be in distress, I thought. There was desperation and genuineness about the thick, black words, a plea that immediately struck me as something other than hype. Its simplicity was sincere: "I'm your neighbor."
Indeed it was an ad, but not like anything I'd ever seen. My "neighbor" was a man who "used to manage and direct an engineering/professional service group" for a major technological giant. He'll never know how much six brief sentences told me about the integrity it must have taken not just to advertise in such a personal way, but to leave it at the doors of unknown neighbors.
With the exception of "HELP" and one other word, he chose to use lowercase letters to give his situation credibility. (I don't trust all-capitalized messages.) His sense of urgent correctness must surely resonate with millions at this fork in an economic road: "I am searching for ANY type of honest employment!" His search, he straightforwardly wrote, was prompted by the technologies crash sweeping the nation.
That my neighbor would consider "ANY" job forced me to rack my brain for job openings I knew of. His six well-chosen sentences told me a multitude of things about the stranger I admire. He's resourceful, hard-working, and able to put aside foolish notions about pride, about what others may think.
Another telling thing about the choice to advertise his business acumen on front porches was the courteous tone. He closes with a "thank you" on behalf of his family; he gives an e-mail address and two phone numbers so that neighbors can contact him around the clock with potential leads. At first, knowing all this information about the man made me uncomfortable.
When my husband first brought me the circular, he asked, "Do you think this is real?" I wasn't sure what to make of it; quickly, I gave it a general scan for phony promises or pyramid overtones. One thing defined it as real for me: the man put his last name in the opening statement, and again, in the closing one. It was real all right, that was my gut instinct. He was both professional and personal, the mark of a savvy person with good business sense and a willingness to be creative.
Without a clue about what my neighbor looks like, I could see him meticulously labor over each word. He probably even saved it to a computer file for a few days, hoping a position would come along in the traditional sense before his tour of front porches started.
I haven't called or e-mailed my neighbor yet, mostly because I don't have any leads to pass on. But I also haven't been able to toss out his notice; it has provided inspiration that good people are made kin by the current wartime economic struggles. Americans haven't forgotten how to roll up their sleeves and work hard. I feel a tremendous connection to this man. He is me, I am him, and we are neighbors.
Perhaps I can't throw away the now neatly folded ad because I want to let my fellow American know he's not alone. A lot of us have been downsized, laid off, fired, given a buyout or early retirment, or have filed for unemployment that will run out way too soon. We just haven't spread the word to front porches up and down the boulevard.
• Joyce King is a freelance writer.
By Steven Berbeco
SOMERVILLE, MASS. - I am probably the only American who speaks Arabic and is currently unemployed. I have three graduate degrees, including two in linguistics, and have studied more than 30 languages, but I can't find a job.
Well, that's not entirely true.My in-box has been flooded with job offers: Very Interesting Duties with a National Defense Organization in a Turbulent Area at a base salary that hovers around $70,000. These positions are for the Persian Gulf, "immediate deployment."
A contractor for the CIA offered me a job, too, to provide "summaries of letters, audiotapes, and pocket litter." They're paying up to $105,000 a year.
I thought briefly about applying to be a special agent for the FBI. Someone had dropped an anonymous envelope into my mailbox. Inside was an article citing the FBI's current need for Arabic speakers.
Last month I followed up on a position in Bahrain as a translator for an Air Force contractor. I didn't tell my mother. How could I not check it out? The high salary, a free desert-colored uniform with helmet and flak jacket, a secret briefing before heading out. I couldn't quite find out what I'd be doing, though. The job description changed with each person I'd talk to: I would be sitting in a tent with headphones on for 10 hours a day. Or ... I would be interpreting for reporters in small villages. Someone said that I'd be a "cultural liaison" and I pictured myself wandering the countryside in a Ronald McDonald costume handing out Freedom Fries.
I had to get a security clearance, which usually takes eight months to a year. I got mine in four days.
Bahrain has long been on my list of places to visit. It's a cozy, small island in the Persian Gulf: no oil wells, just a lot of banking, and some good snorkeling off the south coast. I like snorkeling.
There were a few problems with the job. I wouldn't be able to leave the base without an armed escort. Also, the contractor couldn't assure me that I wouldn't be forward-deployed into Iraq. Linguistics used to be about world travel and libraries, not flak jackets.
I ended up turning down the offer.
Recently I went to the website for the Office of Personnel Management, a database of the available positions in each of the federal agencies, a total of more than 15,000 jobs. The very first link on the page was to the National Threat Level website. The link to the jobs wasn't as obvious.
Here are some of the agencies that weren't hiring: Commission on Civil Rights, National Endowment for the Arts, National Institute for Literacy.
The Department of Education had 10 openings. The Department of Defense had 243 openings, including a meat-cutter opportunity in Guam, at a salary up to $28,000, depending on experience. The Department of Justice had 272 openings, including an on-going recruitment drive for Border Patrol agents with a stipulation that applicants must show "emotional maturity." The Department of Homeland Security had 91 openings, including painter. Applicants must demonstrate "ability to do theoretical, precise, and/or artistic work." The Department of the Navy had 795 openings, including a sandblaster position that doesn't require theoretical or artistic ability, but curiously may require a security clearance.
In the end, I think that I'll apply for the job that doesn't involve armed guards, a helmet, or sifting through someone else's pocket litter. After all, I can live like a king in Guam for $28,000 a year, and I hear they have great snorkeling.
• Steven Berbeco is an unemployed linguist.
By Joseph H. Cooper
NEW HAVEN, CONN. - There's no financial security on his home front. It's the 1040 time of year and he longs for a return to W-2 status. With a mix of memory and desire, he sighs, "I'd never complain about owing taxes, if only I had a salary again."
He confides in me. His prospects are dull, dried. I see him retreat.
He hangs up his suit jacket. He uses the good hanger - contoured cedar - a vestige of better days when he had the income to fuss about his wardrobe. He makes sure the pocket flaps are out and flat, that the back vent is straight. He runs the palm of his right hand over the shoulders and lapels. It's the suit he wears to interviews, which are few and far between.
He slips out of the suit pants, pairs the legs, lines up the inseams, joins the cuffs - then, in some controlled fury out of his ken, he seems for a moment about to slam the trousers against the jacket poised on its hanger. He wants to be part of a labor force again, to belong again, to wear some badge of employment: an ID suspended from a lanyard, an ID clipped to the waistband of nice pants, clipped to the pocket of an oxford shirt, or, better, to the breast pocket of a suit jacket. He wants to return to active duty among the fully employed.
Prepared to join any labor force, he dropped by an Army recruiting office, where the sergeant spoke to him more courteously than human resource types do. He pitched the sergeant an outsourcing idea; the sergeant found him a phone number and wished him well.
He camps out at the library with other job seekers, plumbing the papers for notions of where there might be some "upsizing." They take turns at the computers posting résumés and checking e-mails in the hope that somebody out there in "HELP WANTED" cyberspace finds them a match. Almost always the return e-mails are from résumé services that claim contacts not available to the mere unemployed mortal. There's a fee - and we go over his cost-benefit calculations.
For 30 years he worked at arriving at some level of comfort and financial security. He now wonders how he'll survive the next 30 months. He sits by his daybed, looks at the suit neatly balanced on the cedar hanger that swings just slightly on the coat tree. He wonders when he'll next have an interview; he wonders when he'll next wear that suit.
• Joseph H. Cooper is an attorney and writing instructor. This essay is adapted from his semiautobiographical play, 'Independent Counsel,' which will be performed in June by the New England Academy of Theatre.