I sit in the overheated waiting area of the Office of Unemployment, pressed into a high-school chair, filling out my paperwork and seeking to become part of the statistic that counts how many people are unemployed. I am unemployed either way -- registered or unregistered -- but without a claim to unemployment I am not counted.
So I sit there, talking with men and women, black and white, 90 percent of whom were between the ages of 40 and 55. Two hours we talk about what fate has put us in those seats.
Many are from recent layoffs in the construction, steel and auto-making industries. The man next to me was an auto mechanic making $600 a week, when he was told by his employer that he could not afford to keep him on any longer.
I had been fired. I'd made the mistake of telling my employer I would be looking for a new job -- but not to worry, it could take me up to eight weeks, and I'd give them plenty of notice. Three days later I'd been replaced with a 23-year-old. I was out. He was in.
Six weeks later, having used up all my severance pay, all my savings, I'm seeking help from the government for the first time. Though I am a single parent of one, I'd never held out my hand before. I've borrowed from banks, from parents, from savings. I've worked hard and I've worked long. I've never been a burden on the state. I begin to seriously resent the woman at the grocery store, in the leather coat, who paid her bill with food stamps.
All this goes through my mind as the sweat trickles down my neck and I watch 50 percent of the staff take a half-hour break, as over 100 people wait to be seen.
Finally, it is my turn.
The ticket-taker takes 5 minutes with me. She informs me -- never looking me in the eye -- that I am to fill out ''this'' form; send it in Sunday, then we would see. ''You might have to see a counselor.''
''What is a counselor and why will I have to see her?''
''Because you were fired.''
''I can explain that.''
''Explain it to the counselor. You'll hear something in 8 to 10 days. Take this to the second floor. Number 45, please.''
The second floor is where they will help me find a job. I fill out another form, just like the first, and wait. Forty-five minutes later, I sit with a human being who actually seems to want to help me find a job. I am temporarily optimistic.
After 5 or 6 different job category searches across the country, she is sorry, she'll let me know.
I go home and call a few friends who aren't part of the statistic. My 54-year-old friend used to be a programmer, but can't get rTC hired because he's too old, and just got laid off a seasonal job taking school children's pictures. He doesn't know what to do. Then there's my 43-year old friend, who's working for crooks, but afraid to leave her job because she doesn't know where she'll get another.
Another friend who is in serious financial debt would get any job she could, if taxes wouldn't take $5,000 of her pay, and child care for her three children another $5,000. When you only can make $16,000 a year, a net of $6,000 hardly seems worth the effort.
I send in my sheet Sunday. I send another 20 resumes to various places and go on one interview. At 10 days, I call Unemployment.
Unemployment says, ''Report Wednesday.''
Five days later, Wednesday, 15 days after my first request, I ''report.'' I sit in the waiting room with a carpenter who's been laid off. He says, ''I tried everything before coming here.'' It does seem to be the place of last resort.
After only an hour's wait in the sweatbox, I find out that I didn't make enough money in the first two quarters of 1990 to claim benefits, but if I wait another week when the quarter turns, then I can claim benefits again and they will drop the first quarter and count only the 2nd and 3rd quarters. I did make enough money then, but, of course, I was fired, so I'll have to wait 10 days and see a counselor.
In 5 days, 20 days since I ran out of money, I can start the process again. All over again.
Meanwhile, I eat cabbage soup and borrow $500 to pay my monthly bills, do a few word-processing jobs and tell my daughter that the charges are maxed out and I'm sorry but she'll have to wait to buy a replacement for her coat that got stolen out of her locker at school. My widowed mother once again picks up the tab for my housing.
I am without honor.
The quarter turns and I want to go and stake my claim again. But I know it will be denied because I was fired. I fight with myself about going. I understand what the carpenter was going through. Another week passes.
I make eight calls for employment. They have potential, but potential won't pay bills.
I send out six more resumes and go on one more appointment.
''We will make a decision next Wednesday.'' ''We don't know when we'll make a decision.''
Then it's Christmas and New ear's and then my daughter gets the flu. That takes my mind off my troubles.
I should clean the house, but I don't.
I tell relatives, ''We're fine. We're OK. Something will break soon.'' But I don't believe it.
I go buy a hamburger and rent a movie, just to remind myself I'm alive. ''It's a brave man who, when things are at their darkest, can kick back and party,'' (Tuck Pendleton, ''Innerspace'')
I feel brave.
Today, I will go to Unemployment and begin the process again!
. . . Or not.
Lynda Case Lambert writes from Baltimore.