The day I announced that I was changing jobs, I became Lord of the Flies.
Most of the people asking, and even begging for help were from my profession, the morphing, misshaped world of journalism, and they started to cling to me like I was a sticky, sweet picnic table. My Facebook page was so clogged with not just a hundred congratulations, but nearly as many simple pleas:
As I clicked on them, one by one, I started to conjure up images of the Great Depression; only now, the desperate and the penniless have Facebook as a way to give them cover from the photographers (many of whom are laid-off, too) who would use them as the subjects of their John-Steinbeck-inspired art.
Instead, the Internet -- the social networking tools, the standard, conventional emails and the instant messages -- has become their platform. What had become a haven for goofing-around teens and twentysomethings, and nostalgic fortysomethings trying to reconnect with friends, has become a virtual breadline.
Bad times don't need to be measured in numbers. All of the talk of recovery means little when so many people start turning to cyberspace, caring less about their reputations and pride, and start selling their lives like they're selling old, scratched up furniture on Craigslist. All the talk of an improving economy means little when people swallow their pride and start begging for help in the most public forum of all.
Since I announced that I became regional editor for Jersey Shore news (yes, that one!) at AOL's Patch.com division on Monday, Sept. 20, I have had resume after resume, cover letter after letter flooding up all my inboxes. I've had job seekers decorating my Facebook page, asking for help, all trying to maintain some shred of hope that there is some semblance of life left in the American dream.
Many of them hail from the towns in which I grew up: Point Pleasant, Belmar, Brick Township, Howell Township, Toms River and Berkeley Township, N.J. They're not Snooki or Vinny or any of the regulars from that MTV show. They're like everybody else who isn't getting a fat paycheck -- mothers and fathers with kids in college, single people who can't afford their rent, and divorcing couples who face bankruptcy and eviction.
With Patch.com, at least, those towns will finally get something they finally deserve from the media, something that the dwindling newspaper staffs gave up providing in recent years: Local news, wall-to-wall. Patch is looking for the same people who are hitting me up for work, because Patch wants locals to write their own news from their own house or apartment.
The journalists who join Patch.com will get an opportunity to provide that coverage, and engage in a labor of love they had left for dead. Many of them gave up careers long ago to raise families. Or they were laid off by the same newspapers who promised they would write the stories that would fill the news holes that would last forever.
Now they find they can't pay the bills, even with two incomes, because they can't afford to pay for anything in an overpriced world. They can't turn to their old newspapers for help, because they, too, are on the brink of default and self-destruction. Indeed, those newspapers are running out of chances, as well, because they didn't realize until it was too late that no one needed to buy what they were selling if they could freely access it on their computers.
As I've said before, these people are generally good people who ran into a wall. Now they're the victims of a system that no longer gives them the credit they need -- even though the same credit card companies once fed them credit like candy, camping out at their college student centers when they were 22 and signing them up for a lifetime of hell (in exchange for a free Boston Red Sox batting helmet!).
They were victimized by banks that no longer give them the home equity loans that help pay the mortgage, and now they find themselves living in cramped houses on the brink of foreclosure, stacking three children in the same small bedroom.
They were tricked by technology, and the Internet, that was supposed to make their lives better, and give them the opportunity to do more things. Instead, the Internet has taken away their job, providing the same product -- and not just news reporting, but also food delivery, retail sales and many other jobs -- at a much cheaper price.
Now, ironically, they use the Internet as their vehicle to vent, request and even beg and plead.
On Facebook, you can see the signs of trouble before they even reach out. The marital status may change from "married" to "it's complicated" and then finally "separated." The Twitter tweets say, "I'm sad," sometimes for days on end, with no explanation given.
Their friends post messages offering the same offers of reassurance. "Any help you need, let me know," is a typical one, or, "I've been there, man, so just let me know," is the more friendly one. But they can't do much, because those very same people are probably mired in the same kind of muck.
Some of the more direct pleas for help -- to me at least -- have been polite, and the desperate insist they they hate to impose. Some of those requests that have gone to my inbox usually include a 4 MB attachment that nearly crashes my computer, because it's carrying a portfolio that contains their life history.
Some of them are people who know how to charm -- particularly the same jocks and BPs (beautiful people) who wedgeed and stuffed me in locker lockers too small for my six-foot frame 20 years ago. Now they act like they're my very best friends.
A few even offered to partner with me in Mafia Wars, a Facebook game where you can earn billions and billions of dollars without even really trying -- and never, ever see one penny of it.
In the end, who can blame them? If they're not journalists; they're former teachers, market analysts and professors who will try anything that gets them on back on track. They are people who sat on a nest egg of benefits and tenured job security until the state governments and upper managements of their companies cut their budgets, their salaries and ultimately their jobs.
Who can blame them when they work in the media, and they trusted their employers when they said they had a plan to deal with this Internet thing -- which has taken away millions of readers and millions of dollars in ad revenue from major media outlets -- when, in fact, they had no plan at all?
When do we start to care rather than ignore? When does Washington and virtually every other government agency out there start to pump more life, money and resources into an economy instead of cutting until there's nothing left to cut?
When do we start calling this recession a depression when a guy who's an avid volunteer and a community leader is thrown out of house after he's arrested for stealing thousands of dollars?
Then, just a week later, this same guy, an active member of the local community, put up this Facebook posting: "(fill in the blank here) needs some help from his family and friends. Please give a call asap. Thanks."
His only responses were of the "keep your chin up" variety.
His response? "Thanks ... I just need a friend to let me crash."