Being lucky

Pat McGann

February 10, 1993|By Pat McGann

AN earthquake strikes! The ground bucks and shudders. Skyscrapers collapse into piles of rubble. Long chasms swallow the unsuspecting, while terror stretches each minute into eternity. Then it's over. Neighbors and relief agencies rush in to put the pieces back together.

But what happens when an economic earthquake hits?

One evening, I'm at the Giant buying a steak for my supper. A nice sirloin, with just a little more marbling than the FDA approves. Next morning the budget ax slices away my job. OK, a real blow, but there are lots of jobs out there. Just a matter of looking, right? How could I know I was standing with one foot on each side of an economic San Andreas, while a chasm raced toward me, sucking down all the jobs as it came?

I leap into the temporary security of unemployment, but the ground still trembles beneath my feet. Wolves show up, howling for rent and car insurance and money for gas and food. No more steaks, but one still must eat. Past-due bills pile up like debris from an old building shaken too hard, too long.

Weeks pass. The daily ritual of job hunting continues, punctuated by the bi-weekly ritual of handing the unemployment check over to the most insistent creditors. Hey, it isn't supposed to be like this. I worked hard all my life, raised three kids, paid my bills. What happened to the land of opportunity?

A persistent memory haunts me, maybe a warning of catastrophe. The vision of dim-faced people huddling over steam grates while the wind tears at their threadbare scarves and coat collars. Maybe, this little thought whispers in my brain, maybe those people aren't lazy or on drugs. I shiver. It's getting cold out here. At least I have my unemployment benefits.

But unemployment benefits last only so long. As the number of checks you're entitled to dwindles, the faster the weeks go by, and the less promise there is of finding a good job. Of finding any job.

Funny, now you really notice the people standing at downtown intersections, the sign by the new stadium that reads, "Homeless. Will work for food."

Then, just before the benefits end, something magic happens. A job opportunity. A job I'm really qualified for. In fact, I'm overqualified. Will they hold that against me? Should I strike the best jobs off my resume? My dreams that night are full of cardboard signs with long thin legs shuffling through the dark rain, circling the unemployment building. The smell of sirloin smothered with onions is everywhere.

Morning comes. The interviews stretch forever, but finally it's my turn. I am chosen. I have a job! Not quite the job I hoped for. The pay is half what I made before, and I can't afford the health plan. In fact, just the basic deductions make my take-home pay less than I made on unemployment.

But I am working. I no longer have to fear the relentless passage of each week as another step toward destitution.

Or do I? The company is only hiring in temporary positions. The job will last a year, max. It could end sooner, but they doubt it. And some good news. Once I am out of training, there will be overtime available, especially in the first months.

A year? Working a year will make me eligible for unemployment again. When do I start? Monday morning? Fine.

Back outside, the cold wind whirls around my untattered coat collar. I'm employed! That's got to be worth celebrating, maybe at that steak house a few blocks back. I check my funds. Not much in there, but the gas tank is full, and there's tuna fish in the cupboard for lunches. I can just afford a large steak with all the trimmings.

My mouth is already watering when I pull up at the red light. A man with a cardboard sign waits there, his shoulders slumped into his coat. His eyes are dull from long days and nights of despair. They stare into nothingness.

I feel guilty, guilty that he's not as lucky as I. I fumble $2 out of my wallet and thrust it into his hand. Quickly, just as the light

changes. That way, there's no time for either of us to feel embarrassed.

PD I can celebrate with a smaller steak. It's better for the heart.

Pat McGann is a Baltimore writer.

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