The Uncomfortable Lightness of Being Unemployed

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

(Warning: what you are about to read may make you uncomfortable.)

What's the difference between a cleaning lady who desperately needs a job and a prominent executive who desperately needs a job? If you think it has anything to do with their salaries, you're dead wrong. The difference is that the cleaning lady's friends will likely do whatever they can to help her. They will ask absolutely anyone, including their own employers, if they can help her find a job. They might even take her to work with them to prove how fabulous she is. For the former executive, well - the story is often quite different. Suddenly, an uncomfortable silence envelops this person. If the days drag on to weeks - or months - the phone doesn't ring as much as it used to.

You see, it's very awkward, this business of being unemployed. When I was a young executive in the film business back in the late '80s, a writers' strike threw many of us into the depths of (at least temporary) unemployment. Some colleagues had racked up savings accounts from their fat salaries, so they hunkered down for the wait. Others had trust funds they could tap into. They didn't really need to work, at least, for the moment. Unfortunately, I didn't fit into either group, so I had to (gasp) pound the pavement. With credit cards, a car loan and a hefty rent to pay, I became nervous. I was in for an unpleasant surprise.

No one wants to help when you actually need help.

It's much easier to help someone who doesn't need it, to recommend a person for a job when they already have one. It's kind of a twisted validation that you have great taste.

"People will smell desperation on you," I was once told en route to an interview with a famous producer. "Don't let him know that you need the job." Well, that's just bizarre, I thought to myself. Of course I need the job. I need to pay my rent, my bills. Who doesn't need a job? The whole thing seemed ridiculous.

When I started writing, the same rule applied. Confidence and a casual mention that you had written a script created a surge of excitement. Need to sell it - just a hint of vulnerability in your voice when you asked someone to read it - and you were dead.

The only way to get the job was to pretend you didn't need it.

In this economy, does the same rule apply? Are we allowed to be honest about the gravity of it all, to admit that we are frightened? Can a formerly successful executive ask for help?

It's just all so uncomfortable.

My best friend called recently to tell me that a pal was taking over at a major studio (she couldn't decide whether to send champagne to the house or the office). I said, only half-kidding, "While you're at it, can you please tell him that freelance writing is tight, and that I would love a full time creative exec job?" "Yeah, right," she laughed, but I could tell I had made her uncomfortable.

She is my dearest friend, who sings my praises louder than anyone, yet the idea of letting this studio exec know that someone in her world might be vulnerable sent shivers up her spine. It's akin to asking your celebrity best friend to read a script. It just isn't done.

I could say that it's because she is so wealthy that she had this reaction, and yes, she is. She will never know what it's like not to send her child to the better school because she can't afford it, or that you just can't buy that Prada dress no matter how good it looks on you ... Her future and her children's futures are set. But mine, like so many of ours, is shadowed by a big scary question mark. Will the contract be renewed? Will we keep our house? Will we be able to afford to send our kids to college - or to retire? Will we wind up homeless? She will never know the sickening feeling a man gets driving home the day he has to tell his wife that he's been laid off. And though she is insulated from this kind of fear, she is no snob, but in fact, one of the most generous, down-to-earth people I have ever known. She would do anything for me. Well, almost anything.

The next time we spoke, she offered to mention me to her friend. It was a small, but courageous gesture, this offer, and one I won't forget. She is an exception to the rule, as loyal as the cleaning lady who takes her friend to work with her.

The truth is, I am too busy counting my blessings to feel desperate. After all, I am self-employed, not unemployed. I don't actually need a studio job.

Which means that I just might get it.

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