Tanya Lawson's brightly painted orange fingernails glide along the keyboard, tap-tap-tapping under the fluorescent perma-glow of the NeighborCare pharmacy data processing center.
Lawson, 43, handles one billing claim after another from a lonely cubicle by the wall. About the only other sound is the gurgle and hiss of the fax machine spitting out more prescriptions.
It's Monday at 5:30 a.m., and Howard County is just waking up under a streaky graphite sky. Lawson, on the job four hours already, has barely begun her workday. She's finished here but will be on the go another 15 hours - working her main job, trying to nurture a business, tending to her three children, taking a child education class.
Monday is her busiest day. It's fitting that Lawson, a one-woman labor department, has on track pants and running shoes. "I don't know anything," she says, "but working hard."
Job jugglers like her are becoming more common. Even as the unemployment rate edges up, the number of Americans holding two or more jobs has risen to 7.7 million. With gas, food and utilities sky-high, every buck helps. Lawson works 60-some hours a week, counting her gift-basket business.
Of course she would love to relax, but she's proud to embody the work ethic so entrenched in this country. As important, her crazy schedule is a nod to another powerful American idea: the second chance.
Lawson moved to Howard County from Baltimore three years ago. Fled, really. Battered by domestic violence, she sought refuge for her family at a shelter. Since emerging in 2006, they've started anew. She still has the black, blond and reddish-brown dreadlocks she calls her post-shelter "coming out colors."
The family liked the suburbs and managed to land a subsidized townhouse in Columbia. After signing out at NeighborCare, that's where she heads next.
"Sasha, you up?!" she shouts after walking inside. A voice answers. Good. That's her 15-year-old daughter, Sasha Burrell. It's the first day of sophomore year, and she has to catch the 6:40 bus to Wilde Lake High School.
Lawson's older daughter, Kayla Fowlkes, 18, has left for work already. Her youngest child, son Naje Sanders, born after she entered the shelter, spent the previous night with his godmother.
"Oh, you look cute!" Lawson says when Sasha comes down in a purple dress. Then she stretches out on the living room sofa, one eye on the morning news. She has a few minutes until her main job and ponders squeezing in a nap.
But as she lies there, her mind churns. "Your hair's a little poofy on the left side," she blurts to her daughter. She does get a nap - for exactly three minutes. At 6:30 she hops up and pulls a polo shirt over her T-shirt. On the back is the word "director."
"On to the next life," she says with a laugh. She steps into the cool, breezeless morning and gets in the silver 1987 Nissan Maxima she bought for $400.
Her destination is Running Brook Elementary School. Every weekday morning Lawson oversees the Columbia Association's before-school program for pupils whose parents work early. Last year she was an assistant; this year she was promoted after taking child education classes.
Not only did that boost her pay from $10 an hour to $14, but it also gave her more responsibility. Lawson once worked days full time at NeighborCare. She switched to two nights a week, earning $13 an hour, partly to focus on working with kids.
That has been her calling. After graduating from high school in 1983, she was certified to work with troubled teenage girls and did so for years. Pharmacy billing, her first post-shelter job, was never as fulfilling.
At Running Brook, students returning from summer vacation eye one another with curiosity and suspicion. One anxious first-grader clings to her mother.
Lawson grins at her charges and tries to draw them out. When one boy whispers his name, she grabs her ear and says, "Ooh, I forgot my hearing aid this morning!" He says his name loudly and cracks a smile. She successfully masks her fatigue as she and an aide make sure the couple of dozen kids have games and eat their snacks.
When the bell pings at 9:05, Lawson dismisses the kids. An hour later she's in the Maxima bound for home, stopping to pick up Kayla from her job.
Kayla is weeks from having a baby of her own, and Lawson has concerns about her eldest's path. After all, she thinks she was too young to be a mother at 24, and having three children by three men has not made her life any easier. But she will love her grandchild, even if that means working harder to pay bigger bills.
"Sometimes I wonder how she does it," Kayla says, adding that her mother "needs a break." Lawson knows better than to wait for breaks. At midday she's thinking about 4 Keepz, her fledgling business selling goodies-filled baskets.
Boss's Day is Oct. 16, and she wants advice from a mentor. She calls Betty Bland-Thomas at Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore Inc., where she has had business training. The two agree she should canvass businesses and call her contacts at local banks.
"After you meet her and know everything is done by hand with love and care," Bland-Thomas says later, "you just want to buy it from her."
Soon it's time for Lawson's third shift of the day, at Dunloggin Middle School, where she helps with after-school care.
Her boyfriend, Bruce, often tells her she is no superwoman and has to slow down. She's trying to listen, trying. She's tempted to pick up hours at NeighborCare on Labor Day, tomorrow. Not this year, she resolves. She's taking the holiday off.