On Not Having a Job

PAMELA TANTON

February 12, 1993|By PAMELA TANTON

I got a job. This was quite a feat, because I had been laid off for 10 months. When I lost my last job I had reached a point in my life where I was able to pay my bills, buy a few articles of clothing now and then, and go out to dinner once a month. I was angry that this security had suddenly been snatched away from me, and a little afraid that I would never get it back.

But it was springtime, and I was determined to enjoy this joblessness after 12 years of having to be somewhere at 8:30 every morning. I watched from my apartment window each morning as kids got on the schoolbus and adults went to the office, the brisk clip-clip-clip of the women walking through the concrete breezeway contrasting with the muted footsteps of the men. By 9:00, the retired people in the building and I were the only ones with cars in the parking lot. This felt weird.

I needed to feel productive and energetic. I gardened with a vengeance, read to my heart's content, and, most important, I sent out lots of resumes. I didn't get a lot of responses. When you are first unemployed, you tell yourself that you will get a job, that you're going to go after it with all your energy: the Nike ''Just Do It'' attitude.

But when you can't get interviews, and you've told everyone you know that you're looking for a job, and they look back at you in this vague way and promise to ask around for you, and some Sundays there is pretty much nothing in the Employment section in your field, you ask yourself, ''How does one 'Just do it'?''

I resigned myself to the idea that it might take a while. I talked myself into believing, and actually do believe, that I needed some time. My last year or so at my job had been less than pleasant. Insecurity and paranoia ran high in a company that was going through a lot of changes. So I settled in for the long haul, telling myself that it might take several months to find something.

There are good things about not having a job. In fact, when you are first unemployed, you are on a kind of high. You wake up on that first jobless Monday and say to yourself, ''Wow, I don't have to go to work this week.'' I took lots of daytime bike rides. I watched Oprah. I got together with other people who had been laid off when I was. (We called each other the Class of '92.) It's nice to be able to do things at times of the day that you never could before. It's nice to have time, for once in your life.

But when you don't have a job, you can't completely relax. You walk around with a tightly coiled spring of fear and uncertainty inside you. Most of the time, it stays coiled and doesn't take up a lot of space, but sometimes it springs open, causing pain and temporary incapacitation. The spring is there at night, too, when you're sleeping, and at 4 o'clock in the morning, when you're not.

Sometimes, even if it's a beautiful summer day, perfect for sitting by the pool with a book, and people with jobs envy your freedom, you are capable only of sitting in your apartment and worrying. I have a friend, a single woman with two children, who has a hard time saving money. She had told me that people say that all she has to do is plan ahead, but she says, ''I can't plan ahead. The best I can do is worry ahead.''

That's what you do when you don't have a job -- a lot of worrying ahead. You're constantly asking yourself things like, ''How will I be able to afford my car insurance when it's due? How will I buy Christmas presents for my family? What if I have a medical expense?'' And of course, the most worrisome question of all, and one that you don't allow yourself to dwell on too much, is ''What if I don't have a job when my unemployment benefits end?''

You look at people differently. There are two categories of individuals: those who have a job (or some other form of income), and those who don't. It can seem like you're the only one in the don't-have-a-job category. Everywhere you go, people are not worried about their employment situation -- until you go to the unemployment office. There, at least, you are one of many. And while you are in line (most of your time at unemployment is spent in line), you hear stories that are worse than yours.

I heard a man in front of me talk of being laid off every year. A woman behind me had been borrowing money from relatives so that she would not be evicted from her apartment. Responding to a survey, in answer to the question, ''How long have you been unemployed?'' someone replied, ''Two years.'' All of these people were worse off than I was, and I always left the unemployment office feeling lucky and hopeful.

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