The young woman in line in front of me has rust-colored hair straight out of a bottle. In her suit and heels, she runs her finger intently down the top copy of her stack of résumés, as if to commit to memory some fine point that she might be in danger of forgetting.
Two employees of the state Employment Development Department work the line, passing back clipboards holding stacks of half-sheet forms. The earnest young black guy looks like he feels sorry for the poor schlubs in line, dripping in sweat in the ninety degree heat as we wait for the doors of the job fair to open. The white guy is about my age, wearing a blue checked shirt and suspenders, reminding me for all the world of a circus clown who has made his escape from the big top and has somehow ended up in Roseville, California. All he needs is a red bulbous nose to complete the look.
Miss Clairol starts chatting up the clown guy. Noticing the Packers lanyard around his neck, from which hangs an employee badge, she asks him whether he is from Wisconsin. No, he says, but how do you know the Packers? You a cheesehead? No, she giggles, I’m from Alaska, but there aren’t any jobs in Anchorage.
I grab a form, pass the clipboard back, pull a pen from my pocket and begin filling it out. Name and phone number. No, I’m not a veteran. No, I’m not receiving unemployment (not anymore, thanks to Congress). No, I’m not homeless (yet).
The job fair was advertised for 1:00, but I had arrived half an hour early. I can’t see the entrance to the building because it is at the other end of the strip mall. The line is already snaking around two corners. When the doors open and the line begins creeping slowly forward, I turn around to find that another twenty hopeful job hunters have lined up behind me. There are at least thirty in front of me.
As I shuffle closer to the first corner, I have my eye on a conveniently placed bench that appears to be wide enough to seat three. At the moment, it contains one old woman with a walker. When I am within five people of the bench, I bolt out of line and claim a seat next to her. With two bad knees and a Santa Claus belly, I can only stand on my feet for so long. I avoid eye contact with anyone, assuming that some would be glaring at me for having cut ahead in line. As far as I am concerned, they can all go ahead of me while I rest in the shade. I may even take a little nap. Someone please wake me up when this nightmare is over.
The line seems to be moving again, so I jump up and rejoin the fray. About five minutes later, I round the last corner and the door to air conditioned nirvana comes in sight. White clown guy unlocks the employee entrance with his badge and lets in the first ten people in line. A few minutes later, he lets in four more. Then another three. Then he says no more until some people leave. Apparently there are fire code regulations.
I am wilting in the sun again, leaning against the brick building façade, alternately shifting my weight to my right foot and then to my left. There are still five or six people ahead of me. An older man seems to have stopped by just to witness the spectacle. Standing in the parking lot a few feet from the long line of unemployed, he leans on a railing and greets earnest black guy, who is still handing out clipboards and forms.
“You off work today?” he asks the visitor.
“Nah, I’m retired!” the visitor announces proudly. “Did my 25 years with Arden Fair. I still work, though. I’m a licensed minister. I still serve the Lord.”
Two more are admitted. I’m almost to the door now. As I lean on the building, I’ve been texting my wife, griping at my fate. I know that more lines await me inside.
“We can take four more!” announces white clown guy. He counts us off like a shepherd using a clipboard instead of a staff. He collects our forms as we step forward. “One, two, three, four!” I am “four.” The air conditioning washes over me like a wave of relief as I walk through the doorway.
Now if only I can find a place to sit down for a few minutes.
Two signs on the wall list the names of the employers that are present at today’s job fair. Four of them are to the left, three to the right. I notice that the other three who were admitted along with me head to the right hand room, so I instinctively turn to the left. Call me a rebel. Maybe the lines will be shorter in the left room, I figure.
Long tables for the employers surround the edges of the room. The four employers in attendance are Walmart, a construction firm, University of California at Davis, and an agency that specializes in placing disabled veterans. There are only two waiting to speak with the recruiter from the construction firm, so I get in that line. I notice that the woman in the white suit behind the Walmart table is all by her lonesome. Everyday low prices and no takers. This is such a joke, I think. Why am I wasting my time?
“Any interest in hiring experienced managers?” I ask the construction firm lady. Yeah, right. I can just see all 400 pounds of me balancing on a skyscraper beam with a clipboard, wearing a hard hat and trying not to look down. Construction lady hands me her card and urges me to check the company’s website to see what positions are currently available. For this I had to stand in lines for the past 45 minutes?
I spy two chairs against a wall and I hurry to claim one of them while it is still vacant. From my comfortable vantage point, I check out the goings-on in the room. Three or four are waiting to see construction lady. One or two peruse the literature at the disabled vets table. One brave young girl approaches the suit at the Walmart table. Apparently, however, UC Davis is where the action is. The line to see their two recruiters stretches clear across the room and blocks the doorway. I’d like to speak with them myself, if only to ask why I never received even the slightest acknowledgment of an application I had filed with them several months ago. But I am unable to summon the energy to stand in another line of that length. Instead, I decide to keep my seat and see whether I can start a conversation with anyone. Perhaps I can gain some insight into how my brothers and sisters have been approaching this particular hell called unemployment.
A young woman smiles and nods at me from the construction company line, and goodness, she sure does look familiar. I can’t place her, but I’m pretty sure I know her from somewhere. Finally, she steps out of line and asks me whether I was a supervisor at the state relay service. Yes, I answer, although it has been a lot of years since I held that particular gig. “Vicki,” she reminds me. “Kurt’s wife.”
Oh, yes! I barely knew Vicki, but I remember Kurt well. As the friendly technician who kept all the servers and computer terminals working properly, he saved my ass on more than a few occasions. And I do mean friendly, particularly when compared to some of his sourpuss, know-it-all bosses, who desperately needed to be slapped. Even when my tech issues were the result of my own stupidity, Kurt always came through for me and never gave me a hard time about it. The man deserves some kind of medal for having survived in that place.
I now think of those as the bad old days, but truly, much good came of that job. After all, both Kurt and I met our respective wives there.
I ask about Kurt, and Vicki informs me that he’s doing well, working out of town today. As for herself, “we’re all in the same boat,” she reassures me.
“You just got back from the beach, right?” she asks, changing topics. I just stare. How could she possibly know that? “Too much information, huh?” she laughs. She reminds me that she is Facebook friends with my wife. “Yes,” I tell her, “job interviews in Orange County, one Friday and one yesterday.” Well, not exactly. More like mass testing in a room full of computers, but I decide not to get into it, particularly since it appears to be Vicki’s turn with the construction lady.
A thirtyish guy with a build like a football player is chatting with a young woman as they lead up the rear of the UC Davis line. I hear them talk about having worked for Sprint, which is also where my wife once worked. I ask him about it and he tells me, yes, he worked for their call center, but was laid off along with all the other employees when Sprint picked up its marbles and high-tailed it out of state. Just like many other businesses, Sprint discovered that the state’s high tax rates, minimum wage and cost of living, along with its employee-friendly laws, add up to California no longer being a cost-effective state in which to operate.
I ask Mr. Quarterback whether he was offered the opportunity to transfer to a position at another Sprint facility out of state. No, he tells me. His employer did provide a nice severance package, however, he concedes.
I count eleven people still in line to see the UC Davis recruiters. There is no way that I am going to stand in that line. Instead, on a lark, I relinquish my seat and head on over to the Walmart table, where there is still no line. I introduce myself to the lady in the suit, explain that Wally World needs an experienced manager like me, pass her a copy of my résumé. Glancing at it briefly, she tells me that my experience is very different from retail, offering to pass my résumé on to the recruiter who handles the management training program. “Each manager owns one-eighth of the store,” she tells me. “I like it,” I respond enthusiastically.
As my wife astutely points out when I tell her this story later, that would be one-eighth of the store more than I manage now. So very true. I summon up memories of the years when my sister-in-law worked in Walmart’s shoe department. She particularly objected to the silly cheers in which employees were required to participate as team-building exercises. “Give me a W! Give me an A! Give me an L! Give me a squiggle!” I point out to my wife that they have since lost the squiggle. “Walmart” is now all one word. “I’ll lead the team cheer,” I tell her. When you’ve been unemployed for a while, it doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore.
I decide to check out the other room, not knowing how long my knees will hold up. Maybe working in Walmart is not such a good idea after all. Is it really such a crime to want to be a sedentary drone who sits behind a desk and does endless piles of paperwork? I answer all emails promptly and I have an excellent customer service demeanor on the phone. What’s that you say? Those skills are now technologically obsolete? I think I’ll go hide in a hole somewhere, thank you.
The line to get into the other room is out the door and halfway down the hall. I watch white clown guy conferring with some of his fellow employees who decide that, no, they cannot let anyone else in with this kind of queue going on. I hear someone tell clown guy that he looks like John Boehner. “Who’s that?” he asks to no one in particular. “You don’t wanna know!” I shout out. “Isn’t he the Speaker of the House of Representatives?” asks the guy at the back of the line. About five people have already lined up behind me. “Yeah,” I say, “he’s the one preventing us from getting our unemployment extension.”
“It’s not just him,” says the guy in the three-piece suit standing right behind me.
I turn around. “Him and all the Republicans. He’s just the leader of the pack.”
“I don’t agree, but okay,” he tells me, holding up a palm as if to say “I’m not going to argue with you.”
I have advanced to the doorway and I lean against the jamb. I am now able to get a good look and I see that this is a far smaller room than the other one. The three employers here are a staffing agency, Lowe’s and the U.S. Social Security Administration. I realize that I am in line for the staffing agency, and I decide to stay put. I try to follow all the standard advice: Introduce myself, make eye contact, proffer a firm handshake, point out the vast experience on my résumé. They’ll let me know if they have anything that matches my qualifications. Taking a business card, I skip past Lowe’s, in which I have no interest, and head right to Social Security. There is only one person ahead of me, and she appears to be nearly done. I go through my whole song and dance about how they need a manager with my experience. I tell them that I recently applied for a position with SSA online through USAjobs.
“You did the right thing,” the rep tells me.
“Then why haven’t I heard anything?” I ask.
“How long ago did you apply?”
“About two weeks ago,” I reply honestly.
“Oh, you’ll have to wait about four to six weeks to hear anything,” he assures me.
I squeeze past the unlucky person in line who happens to be standing in the doorway, head down the hall and slip out of the side door just as they are letting more people in. Black earnest guy is now playing shepherd, having exchanged places with white clown guy. “One, two, three, four!” I hear him count them off as I make my escape.
As I go down the path and around the corner to where my car is parked, I notice that the line to get into the job fair has now nearly doubled in length, snaking around yet a third corner of the building and stretching out of sight.