My son Sam is looking for work. He has worked a bit - odd jobs, really - since moving back to Ohio in November and has brought in a few dollars, but he needs something fulltime so he can support himself and get back on his feet financially. He is "getting by," with the help of family and friends. He just qualified for food stamps, making him part of the 36 million Americans who receive them.
Sam had two job interviews today, one at a local McDonalds and the other at a call center in the southwestern corner of Columbus. Sam doesn't have a car, so must rely on friends and family to get him where he needs to go. Today, I drove the shuttle. That not only gave me time with Sam but also, in the case of the call center interview, gave me a ringside seat to what it is like to be unemployed in these times.
Sam was told to wear "business casual" to the call center interview. In his case, that meant asking me to wash his only slacks and only button-style shirt while he interviewed at McDonalds in the morning. (The dryer at Sam's apartment has been broken since Thanksgiving, so his laundry has been migrating to our house.) He somehow got a ride from the first interview back to his apartment. I met him there, waited while he changed into his business casual outfit, and then we drove south.
On the way, he told me about his first interview. The manager made him wait 45 minutes without explanation before talking to him for five. Sam said this angered him, but he held his tongue and his temper. He thinks his chances of getting hired are "pretty good," because he is immediately available for any shift, including third. It would start at $7 plus an hour.
The call center job was more attractive, because it started at $11 an hour. I told Sam he would have a hefty commute, and if you figured the commute time into his week, his hourly rate dropped. He nodded, half listening.
We found the place, buried near the outerbelt in an area that if I were still practicing zoning law I would predict is zoned for "light manufacturing." If you had a job in this area, you could not walk to it as there are no apartments or houses anywhere nearby. There may be bus service; I couldn't tell.
I parked and prepared to read while I waited. It was cold, about 17 degrees, but I figured I would stay warm enough in the car. Sam peeled off his outer layers of shirts that pass for a coat, checked his hair one more time, and got out of the car. As I watched him walk away, I resisted rolling down the window and calling out "mom comments" - "Tuck your shirt in. Shouldn't you wear a sweater with that?"
For the next hour, while I read, I also watched applicants walk in and out of the hiring center. "Business casual" meant lots of things, from khaki or black slacks to well washed jeans. A few applicants were dressed in clean but well worn clothing; a few came "as they were." One young woman wore a skirt despite the cold weather; everyone else was in pants. The applicants were predominantly but not universally young, appearing to be in their 20s. There were older faces, however, wearing a look I know only all too well from volunteering at our local legal clinic.
A young man in jeans and a white shirt came out with a toddler asleep in his arms. He carefully tucked the child into a car seat and drove off. A half hour later, I saw another applicant exit with a baby in his arms also.
Being unemployed in these times means you bring your baby to an interview because whatever babysitting arrangements you made fell through and the interview is too important to skip. Being unemployed in these times means you have a friend or your mom drive you to this remote location because you don't have a car, and the interview is too important to miss. Being unemployed in these times means you do anything you can to find work, knowing full well that there are thousands of others like you out there also doing whatever they can to find work. I counted over 30 hopeful applicants streaming in and out of the doors in the first 40 minutes I was there.
While I waited, I began reading Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder's newest book. By sheer serendipity, I had received the "on hold" notice from our library just yesterday and picked it up today knowing I would be waiting around while Sam interviewed.
I love reading Tracy Kidder. I have read most of his books; I have heard him speak. Kidder is considered one of the best writers of "non-fiction narrative." I like him because not only does he write cleanly and clearly, but also because he is inherently decent and thoughtful in his observations. As I read and watched applicants, I found myself wishing Kidder would turn his attention to the Great Recession and tell the story of one of these applicants.
He could write about Sam. For me, Sam is the face of the Great Recession.
As I mentioned, Sam is getting by. He has shelter, and food, and a support system, which puts him ahead of many. When on rare occasion he shops for clothes, it is usually at Goodwill. (As I finished folding his laundry this evening, I saw "new" clothes that I am pretty sure came from there.) I help him with his rent; his grandparents made sure he got money for Christmas. Now that he has food stamps, even if only for a month or two assuming he finds a job, he is eating regularly again.
Sam is a hard worker, given the chance. He wants that chance. He also is fiercely independent and doesn't like a handout, be it from the state or from his mother. At times this fall, it was easier for him to go hungry than to ask for help. Being unemployed for almost a year now has been a hard lesson.
But not always a grim one, apparently. After almost an hour inside, Sam reappeared, laughing. He jumped into the car, saying "well, I think they didn't like me very much," then told me how he started laughing during the psychological questions part of the interview. He stopped mid-response, laughing hard, and told the interviewer that he just couldn't answer "such bullshit questions" seriously. The interviewer looked at him, startled, then started laughing herself, before getting serious and completing the interview.
There is dignity in work, or at least there used to be. I'm not so sure this is a country in which we honor labor anymore. I give Sam credit for being willing to do almost anything, other than answer apparently ridiculous questions.
As parents, we spend so much of our time trying to make things easier for our children. We pick them up when they fall down, we bandage their scrapes, we soothe their bruised feelings. It's easy when they're five, harder when they are grown. It is harder still in this Great Recession. At times I feel helpless as I watch my sons struggle to find work.
I'm glad Sam came out of the bombed interview laughing. It told me he is resilient and that is a great trait to have in these times.
We laughed together as we headed towards home.