This day was bound to come. I have been sort of waiting for it since getting approved for my unemployment benefits. I have been dreading it almost as much as I've welcomed it. Today I finally got to find out not what I could do for my local unemployment office, but what it could do for me. Should I be happy about this or not?
Visiting the local unemployment office in Baltimore City is actually a very depressing. Today was no exception. With overcast skies and a slight chill in the air, I left my apartment building with my turkey sausage breakfast sandwich in one hand and a Rubbermaid bottle of Coke in the other hand. I didn’t think I’d be late for the 9 a.m. start because the office is only few miles from my house. I didn’t count on the parking situation being so bad. After a few cruises around the block, I landed a space that wasn’t exactly close to the door. Since I’ve been sick for the past three weeks—the last week with pneumonia—the walk was excruciating. But I made it. By 9:10 a.m.
Entering the building, I forgot what heavy security presence most government offices need these days. When I set my beverage container down at the security desk, the guard gave me that look. The kind of look that says you shouldn’t have brought that in here. “I’m here for training,” I plea, “and I’m just getting over pneumonia.”
“All right then. You explain that to the information desk,” he says as I walk through the metal detector which goes off immediately. A hand scan reveals something in my shoes. I assure him, as I give him a peak of my cankles (that’s girl code for fat ankles), that I am no shoe bomber. More than likely it’s something in the construction of my Payless work shoes.
I get my visitor pass and hop on the elevator. As if the building’s lighting weren’t depressing enough, the training, it turns out, is in the basement. I’m wondering if the city morgue isn’t located right next to it. As dark and depressing as the halls are in this grey, institutional place, it seems a little appropriate. Instead, I discover, it’s next to the cafeteria. I still can’t smell anything since my cold, so I don’t care. Except had I known this information before, I’d have purchased a soda there. Oh well.
I am surprised to see such a full room of people. The workshop leader, a middle-aged African-American woman with a scraggily wig clipped up into a very messy bun doesn’t take much notice of me. I spy a perfect, empty corner seat in the back and grab it. The young black woman next to me sighs heavily as she removes her bag of stuff from my chair. I notice how pretty she is, but also how she is wearing very heavy fake eyelashes that have an odd sheen about them. There are markers and desk name tags in front of us. I ask to borrow the green marker in front of her and write my full name on my tag: Kathryn Hudson.
The workshop leader tells us she plans to power through the presentation so we can leave early. The session was supposed to run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a lunch break, but she thinks we can probably get out of there by 1 p.m. and the whole rooms seems happy to hear the good news. With only four hours of sleep, I am, too. The young woman next to me, whom I’ll call “Princess,” whispers to me, “I am leaving at twelve no matter what she says.”
I’m a survivor
I am sort of impressed to hear that our workshop leader has been on her job for 15 years. She shares her own story of toiling as a state temp for a few years before landing the job that would eventually lead to her standing before us today. She has a lot more energy than the average bureaucrat I’ve had to deal with over the years which is refreshing. Then she says, “Sometimes a job is a job and you have to take what’s available to survive.” That is how a majority of state workers have landed their jobs, I think to myself.
She goes around the room and has each of us say our name and tell what we did at our last job and what we are looking to do with our future. One woman tells of her layoff from the last mayor’s office (Sheila Dixon was forced to resign in disgrace for allegedly stealing gift cards meant for the city’s poor). Another woman was down-sized out of the financial industry. A lot of people just say they are unemployed and looking—I don’t understand why they don’t want to discuss what they do or want to do. Then again, I would rather people think of me as a writer than my last job as a branch manager of a staffing company. It was never who I was, anyway.
One woman, an older black lady I’ll call “Tina” spends practically five minutes discussing her work history. Sitting next to me, Princess sighs again. “If that woman don’t shut up, we’ll never get out of here.” Princess conveniently slips out of the room for 10 minutes and therefore skips having to introduce herself. I’m dying to know what she’s no longer employed from for some reason.
As soon as the introductions are done, our fearless state employee turns off the lights and props some highly boring and not-so-useful slides onto the projector. Somebody needs to hire a graphic designer to jazz things up. Half of the class eventually slips into a coma at this point and it’s not even 10 a.m. Princess shamelessly puts her head down for a little nap. She’s clearly not into this whole finding-out-how-to-get-another-job thing.
Pop goes the Kat
I am glad when the lights are turned back on. I wish I could remember much of what was discussed, but I can’t. I am eagerly anticipating the promised 11 a.m. guest who is coming to discuss training opportunities. In the meantime, I reach into my purse to take out a couple of Aleve’s for the lack of sleep headache brewing in my skull. Princess takes an interest in what I’m about to pop into my mouth.
“Are they Tylenol P.M.s?” she lights up. “My back is killing me.”
Since it is now barely 10 a.m. and we are forced to be awake for this, I wonder why anybody would take anything to make them drowsy. “No, they are regular, but I’ll give you some if you’d like,” I offer. She doesn’t want anything that won’t make her sleepy.
I reach for my warmed-up Coke forgetting the loud POP sound it will make when I open the flip-top of my Rubbermaid container. Two seconds later, the whole room is roused awake when the sound, like a champagne cork or a gun (this is Baltimore city and it’s either one or the other) jolts everyone. I sheepishly mouth “I’m sorry.”
Another hour passes and Princess is dying to meet our guest speaker. Or at least she’s looking for something to break up the monotony. Tina, the little old lady in the front, is really working Princess’ last nerve. She sighs and swivels and in her chair every time Tina opens her mouth. Admittedly, Tina is getting on my nerves, too. For someone who seems to have all the answers to every question, she also has a lot of questions, too. When our 11 a.m. guest speaker arrives, Tina pounces on him. I am waiting for Princess to pounce on her.
The “Lost” portion of the day
As if the whole morning wasn’t already starting to feel like some bureaucratic episode of “Lost,” the appearance of our guest speaker puts the final nail into the coffin. He looks just like John Locke, the skinny bald man and sometime Smoke Monster from the show. He has a bit of pep in his step as he tells us of the wonderful offerings available to us his first floor office known as “Baltimore Works.”
His constant reference to us as “dislocated workers” is a little off-putting. Once upon a time, I dislocated my knee cap. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life until the same thing happened to my ankle/cankle. It took several types of painkillers to stop the pain after my surgery. Too bad they weren't offering drugs here to get through this workshop. My brain is starting to feel dislocated.
Princess is squirming pretty much all the time by now. I make her another offer of my non-drowsy pain meds. “I go to a pain clinic. I forget to grab my Percosets this morning.” Now I can see why she has such a short fuse. Still, I am surprised to see her raise her hand when the mention of nursing assistant training comes up. She is the last person in this room I would want helping anyone get well.
Living in a material world and I am a material girl
John Locke departs from the room around noon. I figure Princess is leaving for good as she grabs her purse and other materials and disappears. She says to me, “I don’t want to find a job; I can live just fine on unemployment.”
I’m glad someone can. While I don’t exactly live in Buckingham Palace, my rent and utilities alone come to almost $1,000 a month. Car payments, car insurance, cell phone bill and Internet bills add up to another $500. That leaves me less than $200 to eat, drive and feed my cats for the rest of the month. And I’ve opted to pay taxes later; right now, I need every penny I get just to survive.
The last hour of the class goes by a little faster. We are doing role-playing scenarios in front of everyone, but most people are afraid to participate. Not Tina, however. She volunteers but quickly forgets which part she’s playing, the employer or the jobseeker. The whole class is sighing at this point. It feels like she’s holding us hostage. Eventually, another role playing opportunity comes up. I stick up my hand and I’m picked. I plan to make it quick and painless so we can leave.
The exercise I volunteer for is to be the jobseeker in an interview situation. Our leader, who is looking a bit tired at this point, gamely asks me to follow along with the handout she provides us that teaches us how to talk about what we do. I do such a good job, she says, “I’d hire you.” I draw a round of applause from the class. That one silly exercise makes me feel a little better for spending four hours withering under fluorescent lights with a group of people who clearly wish they were elsewhere.
Death becomes her
Before we leave, Princess returns. She’s been gone for about 45 minutes and I suspect she has been enjoying a nice cafeteria lunch where she could bide her time. I risk being nosy and ask her, “What was it you did when you were working?”
“Mortician,” she says wiping the corner of her mouth. “I can get a job anytime, but I like sitting around doing nothing.”