Once I Built a System, Made It Run . . .


November 19, 1993|By J. BLAKE WHITE

Six hundred and ninety-nine of my closest friends and I officially became dislocated workers on October 18. Our company decided it no longer cared to do what it had been doing daily for 40 years. It declared us all buggy whips and introduced us to the peculiar transformations and deformations of the newly unemployed.

We did not expect to become buggy whips so suddenly; we are in a high-tech industry, versed in arcane languages of computers, main, mini and micro. We thought we were right up on the cutting edge, and we were, but the cutting edge was an ax, and now here we are, facing mass unemployment in a chilly season.

The unique quality of our dislocation is that we were not scattered and displaced immediately. We are staying together for at least 30 days. This is very much like being on a ship which is sinking very, very slowly. Basic mammalian behavior surfaces in the form of mutual grooming, continuous snacking and subdued canine howls.

We are acquiring new haircuts, new neckties, new hair colors (not gray), new suits, new shoes, new resumes for people who have not changed jobs in decades. We try to believe, helplessly, that if we spiff ourselves up, we will be irresistible and if we don't, no one will ever want us again. In unison, we read the advertisements and make relay phone calls to the head hunters, and some of us have told our children and some have not.

Young programmers are sure of getting another job; old managers are not. We are being as gentle with each other as we can, and we are telling each other about possible jobs and we flatter each other that, yes, we do look beautiful in those new shirts and shoes and hair color.

The company, having decided to close down, is trying to be humane in an impersonal, nameless way. It arranged for a kindly, well-spoken, obviously well-meaning gang of people from the state of Maryland to introduce us gently to the facts of unemployment. They gave us brochures.

One brochure, a reprint from Dahlstrom & Co., Inc., ''Surviving a Layoff'' told us that we ought to ''take a moment to be honest with yourself: If you're strapped for cash because you spend a lot of money on drugs, alcohol, gambling, over-eating, fetishes, expensive compulsions . . .''

Fetishes? Cut back? Oh, yeah? Obsessions? Tell that to Calvin Klein! And, furthermore, ''sell off the family jewels.'' Pop your heirlooms! Oh, and just what do you think my grandfather's pocket watch is going to bring in, compared to the terrible guilt of having to sell it? We are not the Duchess of Thurn und Taxis. Our heirlooms are mostly valuable only to us and, maybe someday, to our children. Let's not sell our stuff, OK?

But there it goes, relentlessly: ''Unload the second car, the boat, the mink coat . . .''

Not until we can't afford popcorn. Not until the last minute, the last cup of coffee or hemlock, the last fling. Let's steal a chicken, first, and rent a bunch of movies (how about ''Grapes of Wrath'' and ''Elvira Madigan?'') and then sell the mink. But not as our first move, please! And not until next summer! We might need it! Winter is almost upon us!

In another brochure, ''Coping With Unemployment,'' one Donald W. Steele, Ph.D, tells us that the dislocated, unemployed person ought to avoid being sucked into the ''household routine'' and ''household jobs,'' but rather spend every day all day looking for a job, as if jobs resembled truffles or contact lenses or garnets.

Dr. Steele, whose advice is mostly harmless, tells us to ''Avoid falling into the household routine without a plan. It is easy to forget that a household has its own plan. You probably have not been active in the daily routine during hours that you have been away at work. Now you may find yourself expected to do work during the day that you had not counted on. While there is nothing wrong with being involved in household work it is up to you to plan household tasks into your schedule. Schedule what you are going to do as a member of the house rather than let your jobs just happen randomly.''

In other words, don't just pitch in, fellows; make an appointment with the ironing board.

I believe that the kindly bureaucratic pamphlets ought to come down definitively in favor of scrubbing the kitchen, rather than recommending, as they do, ''attending court trials'' for amusement. And perhaps people need their fetishes in these parlous times.

We certainly need to keep the house tidy, since the job search inevitably involves a lot of newspapers and laundry. The newspapers drift to the floor and the new suits and shirts get stained and wrinkled as we root around on the forest floor looking for mushrooms, cheap fetishes, emeralds and jobs.

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