The Montgomery County Department of Economic Development deployed its Early Intervention Strike Force to get me off the street and back to work. For two days recently I was in "job attainment" training at Montgomery Works in Wheaton, Maryland.
Monday at 9 am sharp I join a group of 20 other recently unemployed men and women, watched over by two frenzied instructors, for 12 hours of bonding and resume building. The doors close at 9:10, so if you arrive late you end up standing outside the locked conference room, feeling foolish. The second day I return late from lunch to tap ever so lightly on the locked door, hoping a fellow student will hear, so I can sneak in unnoticed. Just as I spot a second door ajar down the hall, the male instructor swings the locked door open, booming: "There you are! We just set out an APB for you."
"I'm sorry," I say, looking him hard in the eye. He winks and pivots back to the class.
The male instructor is a tall, bald, knock-dead handsome black man. Both he and the female instructor claim to be over 60, about 20 years older than I had guessed -- maybe it's all the positive thinking they do. They are dynamic leaders, pacing up and down the long room, but I keep musing that this has got to be worse than teaching kindergarten.
Two older women up front cannot keep quiet. Each time the male instructor shares a useful tip Marge, a tiny, beautifully coiffed building manager with a Spanish accent, pipes up, "I do that."
Then Marge turns to Luca, a Polish émigrée, and repeats, "I do that," and the two of them are off and sharing.
Instructor: "What's the single most important key to a successful job interview? Is it preparation?"
Marge: "I do that! I know EVERYTHING about EVERY COMPANY I interview."
Instructor: "Or is it a strong handshake?"
Marge: "I do that! Here, see, this is my hand shake." She waves at the instructor, turns to Luca to demonstrate her handshake, and swings her left hand toward the instructor again to grab his attention.
Sometimes the instructor catches Marge out.
Instructor: "Or is it appropriate attire?"
Marge: "I do that."
Instructor: "If you are interviewing at a low-key business, do you wear casual loafers?"
Marge: "I do that. I ALWAYS dress appropriately."
Instructor, swinging toward her: "You say hello to casual and you say, good-bye, job! You never dress down, no matter where you are interviewing. Hose, hose, hose, ladies: Never, ever forget your pantyhose and heels!"
Marge's face falls. Perhaps she is about to cry. She turns to Luca proclaiming, "You know I dress appropriately. I have been an excellent dresser all my life. My church sisters call me Lady Di, I am such an excellent dresser! Why, I am practically a clothes horse."
Next to them sit Carlos, a young, good-looking salesman in need of a shave, and Sally, a young, blonde meeting planner with pink toe nails and flip-flops, squatting, knees up, on her chair. They both chew gum while leaning back in their chairs, snapping quietly in contrapuntal rhythm. They manage to communicate without looking at each other. Every time Marge chimes "I do that!" Sally loudly snaps her gum. Carlos's face is emotionless, but at the first loud snap, his eyes dart her way, then back toward the center of the room. At the next "I do that!" Carlos snaps his gum even more loudly than Sally.
The instructor is on to them. He pauses almost imperceptibly as he strides through the room. After the next "I do that!" Carlos and Sally let loose a cavalcade of gum pops. The instructor wheels toward them and says, "Aren't we chummy? Do you two need some private time?" Sally's face turns a deep red. Carlo's face remains emotionless. Marge the building manager is confused: Why is no one paying attention to her?
Through it all, we manage to learn something. We learn how to use keywords when posting our resumes online. We are told to never reveal our salary history and we discover that more than 90 percent of all new jobs come through networking. I wonder if this new knowledge is worth the two days of job-searching time that I lost, and decide it is, if only because no one else seems any closer to landing a job than I am. I feel less miserable.
These two days locked up in a conference room remind me how much I hate sitting still and being forced to pay attention. It is exhausting. I come home after each session to collapse on my bed for a long, rehabilitating nap. My bedroom is an escape from the dreary sameness of life as an unemployed person.
Every morning I drive my daughter to her summer job, go to the gym, and when further procrastination is no longer possible, sit down with a cup of coffee to scroll through the job listings that have popped into my email in box overnight. I send out my now professionally crafted resume and manicured cover letter, where they land in someone's dead file. Of the dozens of resumes I have emailed and posted, I have drawn one response so far.
This is life among the white-collar unemployed: I have ceased to exist, just as all the other unemployed cease to exist. If (as Freud is often quoted), "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness," than I have become temporarily less than human. Work is where I become who I am.
Until then, there is the temporary womb of my bedroom. It is like a cool, summer glade. Windows open to the east and west. The long entryway to the room is a dappled green, like sunlight passing through tree leaves. A dark-bronze fan rotates silently from the 16-foot ceiling like a giant hovering hornet. The overall effect is of Titania's "flow'ry bed" -- or of a nursery room for adults. I retreat here to read. When I am out, my daughter curls up on the bed to watch TV and paint her nails.
When I am working, the room is an escape from the frenetic reality of life. When I am not working, it is womb to who I am, my amorphous, undifferentiated, proto-, potentially working self.
In my bedroom, it feels as though I have returned to nursery school, where napping is always an option. I prefer it to the last two days of kindergarten, but yearn also to escape it to the real, working world outside. Where is Marge when I need her? "I do that!"
Shira Yael is a nom de blog. The names of the unemployed in this post have been changed to protect their privacy.