Looking back at '91: Reversals of fortune, 'without incident' The joy of the year's triumphs seems lost in the pain of its defeats

WILEY A. HALL 3rd

December 31, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Chauncey walked up to his buddy, grinning broadly.

"Hey, man. Guess what!" he exclaimed. "I just got myself a job!"

"What!" shouted his buddy. "All right! Way to go, man! Way to go!"

They exchanged a high-five, slapped hands, and ended with a clasped fist handshake.

We were at a bus stop in front of the Baltimore Convention Center, one balmy day in early January, and Chauncey was shouting his news from half a block away.

None of this was any of my business, of course.

I didn't know Chauncey and I didn't know his buddy. And it wasn't a hot news item. Who cares if one little guy "got himself" a little job?

But there was something in Chauncey's exuberance on that warm winter's day that was infectious, something in that triumphant shout that struck a universal chord.

"Hey, man! I just got myself a job!" ranks up there with, "It's a boy!" or "We made it!" as a cry we can all share. It marks a moment of victory, of vindication, of sweet, sweet relief.

"Hey, man! I just got myself a job!" We've all been there. Or, if not, we all dream of being there.

"Hey, man! I just got myself a job!": You can repeat that phrase over and over again and never get tired of it.

So, I found myself grinning and nodding my head, and stepping forward, pen poised, to get the particulars.

Chauncey's triumph, I thought, would be one of my first columns for 1991.

Here's what I found out: Chauncey was 32 years old and had been out of work for over a year. He lived with his parents in West Baltimore and had been doing part-time work with one of the temporary agencies in town.

His new job wasn't a big deal -- he was joining the maintenance crew for a motel chain.

But it was steady work and it might offer him a chance, at last, to get out on his own, and maybe save some money to go back to school.

"And I've got a little girl, too," Chauncey said, shaking his head. "So, this'll give me the chance to help out with her a bit."

Chauncey's buddy was looking thoughtful all this time.

"Shoot," he said at last, "I'm gonna get me a job, too."

And that was it for the column I planned to write that second week in January: It was going to be a nice, up-beat way to start off the New Year, a way to let us all share in some good news, a happy omen for the rest of the year.

But a few days later the president unleashed the troops against Iraq and Chauncey's glad tidings were swept off of the page.

So it was war, not joy, that set the tone for 1991.

1991 was the year the bottom fell out on hope.

The year started with an exceptionally ugly debate over whether fight. The burden of proof fell on the war's opponents-- and since they could not come up with sufficient reasons not to fight (not even church leaders could stanch the national lust for blood), the U.S. went in and smashed the Iraqi army flat.

Did we have to go to war? Too late. We went in anyway.

Our victory over the soft-as-butter Iraqi army was treated as one of America's finest moments -- a vindication for our bitter defeat in Vietnam.

But after the parade had marched by -- and the hoopla seemed endless -- we were left to face the cold reality of an economic crisis at home.

The recession was the other big story for 1991.

It was a year of layoffs, and bankruptcies, and homeless families sleeping in their cars. Welfare rolls swelled just as state governments grappled with sudden budget shortfalls, and so everyone felt squeezed. Everyone feels squeezed today.

There were other big-ticket news items in 1991: the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, David Duke's unsuccessful run for governor in Louisiana, the William Smith rape trial, Magic Johnson and AIDS.

It was a year of ugly spectacle, a year when the bottom fell out on civility as well as hope.

I suppose there was some good news in 1991, too, news that got squeezed out by all of the pain. That's what made me remember Chauncey and a spring-like day in January and a sudden, happy shout from half a block away.

"Hey, man. . . !

So, I called Chauncey's house last week. His mother answered the phone.

"Oh," she said softly. "I don't think he'll want to talk to you."

"Why not?" I asked.

"He got laid off several months ago," she said. "He doesn't have a job anymore. He's out there looking. He's been out there for a long time."

Out there. Out in the cold. Looking.

That's the kind of news, I fear, that will set the tone for 1992.

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