NEW YORK — When laid-off toy company executive Paul Nawrocki hit the streets of Manhattan wearing a sandwich board and handing out his resume, he became the face of the recession.
At the end of 2008, with the giants of Wall Street collapsing and bank accounts dwindling, this lone, mustachioed job hunter with the sign proclaiming he was "almost homeless" seemed like a mirror of a slumping nation's fears and troubles.
Nawrocki appeared on CNN and was shadowed by South American photojournalists. In a handful of weeks, he gave more than 100 interviews in TV studios and on the street. He began to think of his photograph like a Post-it note – stuck next to seemingly every article about the economy.
The world decided he was a weather vane for the nation's economic troubles. And maybe he was: Even though the attention faded, his troubles did not.
Having the eyes of the world on him didn't land the then-59-year-old any viable job interviews. His wife was sick, and keeping his health care was a struggle. He began to decide between the doctors and the mortgage.
Well, if Paul Nawrocki is a sign of the times, then times are looking up.
Because last month, after collecting 99 weeks of unemployment, Nawrocki finally found a job.
He's not the only one. While unemployment remains high, the nation added 162,000 jobs last month – the first significant job growth since the downturn began.
"It was good. It felt good," the Beacon, N.Y., resident says of his first day back at an office – 25 months after he was asked to leave his old one. "It felt like all new again because it had been so long."
Nawrocki hopes he's back on his feet after the long, dark stretch. But he knows he's still on shaky footing. The financial damage of the last two years won't just disappear.
"We're still not out of the woods," he says now. He has two mortgages on his home 70 miles north of Manhattan.
"One of our mortgages – I'm like six months behind. I don't know how I'm going to be able to catch up."
Nawrocki and his wife declared bankruptcy last year. They got food stamps. They went to food banks. They took gifts from family.
For months, he's been waiting fearfully for his mortgage company to call – waiting for a foreclosure notice, for something. But so far, nothing has happened.
In the end, his path back to work wasn't through his television appearances, but through old-fashioned networking. He went to a toy-industry fair, and a friend introduced him to the man who would become his boss. Nawrocki believes the tales of his sandwich-board days helped him land an interview.
His paycheck is nearly half the size; he had made almost $100,000 a year. And his title is a little less grand.
But the job still seems a wondrous, unlikely rescue – as though a hand had descended from the sky at the last possible moment.
"I had reached the limit, the last week," he recounted. "And they called and had me start the next week. ... Through this whole experience it's been like that. We get right to the edge, and then ..." he trails off.
And then. Hope returns.