FAT CITY, ALL THE WAY
A few weeks ago, I joined the ever-expanding ranks of Americaís heroic unemployed when I was laid off from my more-or-less miserable job, an act that brought a quick and decisive end to my internal hem-and-haw about whether or not I should throw in the towel and move on to greener pastures. But the decision was made for me, which was unfortunate in that it didnít afford me the smug satisfaction of walking away and saying, in purely professional terms of course, 'blow this taco-stand'. Getting canned, however, does entitle one to a hidden little gem of our great Civilized Society: Unemployment Insurance, a.k.a. The Dole, Easy Street, Fat City, or Daddyís New Pair of Shoes, as Iíve heard it called.
The Unemployment Office was laid out just as I had imagined, with all the standard design elements common to government offices: a geometric, institutional grid of white tile, blaring fluorescent lights, and gray industrial carpet -- a sort of Feng Shui of dull misery and lack. I spent a lot of time waiting in uncomfortable plastic chairs, the kind that can be stacked vertically or hooked together at the sides to create claustrophobic rows, so you can bump elbows with the (mostly) unwashed masses and easily read whole paragraphs of their horrid spy and/or romance novels.
After filling out all the requisite forms, I was led to a computer where I signed up for the State Skills Match program, an interactive database that allows the unemployed to list their skills and, theoretically, match them with job openings that come over the wire. I was prompted to 'pick any skills that MIGHT apply' to me, and I took the word 'might' as a license to go more or less ape-shit, checking any and every skill that even remotely tickled my fancy: art director, TV script-writer, sculptor, painter, multi-media artist, bread-maker, editorial cartoonist, master of ceremonies, stand-up comic, etc. I mean, if the State offers me a job sculpting busts of fine-suited, important men or writing jokes for fundraising dinners, thatís almost as good as winning the lottery. Why not?
At the computer next to mine, a man was beginning to boil over into a full-blown tantrum. He was running his hands through his hair, exasperated, muttering obscenities under his breath, trying to get me to agree with his whispered proclamation that THIS IS FUCKIN' BULLSHIT! I nodded distractedly, and he waved over the little Mexican woman who was assisting people with their computer problems.
'They donít have my skill listed here.'
'Well, what did you do?'
'I was an actuarial trade assessment coordinator... I... I worked on the trading floor...'
'So you were a floor clerk?'
'No... I worked... I worked on the trade floor... I predicted the valuation of stock options...'
'I donít understand -- what skills did you use?'
Veins bulged in his forehead -- 'MATH! My skill is math! I used math to determine the eventual value of stock futures...'
He was teetering on the verge of tears as she patted him on the shoulder and told him to calm down, which only deepened his rage.
I could tell he had been a member of the nouveau riche, and now, as the Great Bubble of the New Economy was bursting, the orgy of cash and stock options was careening into the abyss. His parade was being pissed upon.
There were several of his kind there, chatting on cell phones and drinking expensive cups of coffee, visibly annoyed that they couldnít just hire someone to sit in these uncomfortable chairs and fill out the idiotic forms for them. And they were dressed like they were headed down to the beach to get drunk and sunburned: flip-flops, old T-shirts, shorts. Their appearance did not in any way suggest the concept of Suffering.
Back in uncomfortable chairs, I was waiting for further instructions when a jittery young man took the chair next to mine and began a hushed barrage of nervous questions about fraud and denial of benefits and the generally sour state of things -- and how much money are they gonna give us, anyway? I replied that I didnít know, I hadnít really heard anything about it. My only hard information about going on The Dole came from my friend Rick, a copywriter who recently lost his job. To Rick, being eligible for State money was akin to hitting the jackpot.
Rick is my model for what this trip is all about. He spends his days wailing on guitar in his basement, going to the movies or out for sushi, and generally just 'kickiní it'. As he explained to me when I lost my job, in his familiar, good-time drawl, 'You gotta enjoy these times, man. Itís not often in life when a man is truly FREE.'
Right on, Rick. When I cash my government check, Iíll drop by with a sixer of Corona and my cheap electric guitar. After we scan the want ads weíll turn the amps up all the way and lose ourselves in the heavy buzz of Black Sabbath chords, and act as men should. Which is to say: slightly drunk and unemployed, and truly free.
Mr. King lives in Chicago. He has been planning to move to the North Woods and make fine wooden furniture for years. You can read more of his random scribbling at: http://superking23.blogspot.com.