07 Mar

Off the Job


By JEFFREY ESSMANN, NYT Magazine, March 7, 2010

My first bout of unemployment began in October 2008, about a month after the Lehman Brothers collapse. Losing my job as a proofreader in the financial district was serious, but I didn’t think anything too terrible was going to happen to me. I tend to land on my feet. I see myself as hopeful, if not optimistic. For years I scraped by with one day job or another, mostly gypsy clerical stuff. In social upheavals, however, the gypsies are the first to go.

I registered with temp agencies, I hit the job Web sites, I got out four or five résumés a day. Nothing happened. So in November I went to Social Services — the first of what turned out to be about 20 visits over the next year. I was going to miss my rent payment and was trying to get an emergency loan. Somewhere in the second or third hour of the nine I spent there, I had the strange thought that I had “come down in the world,” an expression I’d never really used. Maybe it sounded better than to say that I was losing control over my life, that some unraveling was beginning and I didn’t see how to stop it. At the end of the day, the caseworker told me they couldn’t pay my rent because I still had $600 in the bank. But I got food stamps.

The next few months I remember as an ongoing numbness punctuated by stabs of anxiety — the dull throb of a blister pierced by a pin. I looked for work during the day, slept or didn’t sleep at night. November rent never got paid, and the landlordly grumblings began. When I begged for time and patience, I got an even scarier silence. There were flickers of light: a couple of good phone interviews; a German translation gig that would cover a month’s rent once it was all done. I recall being hopeful around Thanksgiving.

Then I missed December rent as well, and shortly after Christmas the landlord called to say he was “moving to legal.” A few days into the new year, there was a pounding at the door so loud that I thought, Gestapo. It was the city marshal with my eviction notice. I had five business days to report to housing court. The good news was that there was only $3.93 left in the bank; I figured maybe now I could get that emergency loan.

But it wasn’t quite that easy. For several weeks, I ping-ponged between housing court and Social Services, courthouse and caseworker. I also tried the Legal Aid Society, the Coalition for the Homeless, the Catholics, the Protestants, the Jews. None of them could help me with my rent, but each organization offered me a letter I could take to court to show that I was trying to pay it, which bought me some time.

Then my luck turned: Social Services approved a loan — and I got a job doing P.R. for a German company. It was only part time and would barely pay the rent. I still had court dates, still had a caseworker. But it sounded good in housing court. It sounded good to Social Services when I picked up my loan — though it also meant that they cut off my food stamps.

For the first time in a long time I actually thought things might work out. Unfortunately, by the end of the summer it was time for my German employer to start feeling the pain of the recession, and the pain trickled down to me, the low man on der Totempfahl: after five months on the job, my position was discontinued. They gave me four weeks’ notice, enough time to find something else. But there was really nothing else to find.

My last day at work was a muggy one last August — thick with the unknown. I figured I could get back on food stamps, but I had no idea that because I’d worked for a foreign company, I wouldn’t be able to get unemployment. I didn’t see that by October I’d have to leave my apartment and start shuttling between friends’ spare rooms. I didn’t know that several months later I’d still be shuttling, waiting for money (that may never come) from publishing a dirty book.

Maybe I should have known. Because on my last day at work I got this weird virus on my computer, one of those horrible ones for which all you can do is save what you can and wipe out the system. Now, I try not to go looking for metaphors. I try to just let things be what they are, not invest them with personal or prophetic meaning. Clouds on the horizon are just a storm front; a rose blooming in autumn must be near a vent. But when the I.T. guy came and wiped me out — everything: me, just gone — I remember trying not to think about how easily you can be erased.

Jeffrey Essmann is a playwright and a performer. His first book, “Life on the List,” about his experience with Craigslist personals, was published in the fall.

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