The View From the Bottom: Homelessness in America-Part 1
WHY ISN'T HE WORKING?
In the process of shopping this series around, the city editor for the local paper sent me a gracious email. Though she declined my proposal for having the series published in the paper, she made an observation that only an editor can make. It served to remind me that for all writers, however talented, the services of a good editor are always invaluable.
She brought it to my attention that readers would want to know why someone as articulate as I wasn’t looking for work, or working in some capacity, no matter how menial, asking if it were by choice or from circumstances I hadn’t written about yet.
I was going to address this, but in a later installment. I didn’t realize that it is important enough for the reader to want to know up front. Because I didn’t want to blow the word count for the first post all to hell, I didn’t want to go into it in the preface.
The easy answer is that after the first several months, I chose to stop looking for work. I had given up. I had lost all hope of finding work. Let me explain.
Hopelessness and despair are easy attitudes to fall into when you’ve been rejected so many times and don’t have a support network. The last time I was unemployed, 2003-’04, when I was out of work for about eight months, was tough enough. I was working with various temp agencies, and went to countless numbers of interviews and never heard a thing. And of the few jobs I managed to scrounge, I was summarily dismissed from. Whether for reasons of competence or fit or the color of my shirt or whatever, I don’t know. When one is sacked, it is usually without explanation when working through temp agencies. I found out that at least one was legitimate; I kept messing up the figures on purchase orders. But that manager didn’t like me anyway, so it was only a matter of time.
These days, the deck is stacked against me more insurmountably than ever. The temp agencies are gone. The pickings are much slimmer than they were the first go round. I have no money, I have no car, I’m old. I haven’t a college degree, and a credit check would set off klaxons. I diligently looked for work for the first four months or so, but after getting slammed time and time again, I just gave up. And it should be noted that, when interviewing for crap jobs, eloquence and intelligence work against you.
My apparent Intelligence and eloquence notwithstanding, my job performance was never very good. The primary reason is that I have had severe clinical depression for most of my life, have been hospitalized for it, and for most of my life it has been untreated. I think of suicide every hour of every day. I also have crushingly low self-esteem. One psychiatrist speculated that I also had ADD, but I lost my coverage in the middle of the diagnostic process, so I have no definitive answer for that. Certainly I have a difficult time absorbing new information, especially verbal.
Almost as soon as I started getting treatment for any of these, my employment would change, I’d lose my coverage, and my treatment would be derailed. And some jobs had medical plans that had no real mental health provisions. In the workplace, depression had the effect of giving me low energy, poor focus, poor concentration, and an inability to multi-task. I was always forgetting stuff. Under pressure, knowledge had a nasty way of flying right out of my head.
But full disclosure requires that I tell you about one more piece in my pathology that is relevant here. I have a problem with authority. Or, perhaps more accurately, authority has a problem with me. I am a rebel, and enthusiastically take up arms against posers, fakes, petty tyrants, tin pot dictators, self-serving bureaucracies, and B.S. in all its multitudinous forms. I speak out against policies that make no sense and have no patience with politics and people who, by choice, adopt a position of ignorance. I try to be scrupulously honest and fair in everything I do, and think it not unreasonable to expect it in the people I work for. The world, of course, feels differently. For the last half of my working life I had been working in call centers in a customer service capacity, and learned the nature of the corporation intimately, and became thoroughly disgusted by what I saw. How it grated that I had to play the apologist for an organization that was dead wrong, forced to not treat the customer fairly. I guess I viewed myself as something of a crusader. Too much Ken Kesey as a kid, I guess.
When I have aired these feelings, people would just shake their heads and say that it was “just business,” that, like the line, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” this served to both explain and justify the notion that, like gravity, there is nothing you can do about it. Why is there nothing one can do about it? I just can’t bring myself to accept this.
Despite all my antics (I could have you rolling on the floor if I described all the stunts I pulled in my working life), I managed to hold on to my last job for a little over four years. For them, the last straw was when I divined the correct answers for an on-line test my team had to take. A back door was designed into the test that gave you the correct answers after being tested on a particular module, and would allow you to repeat the entire test if you didn’t get a satisfactory score. If you compiled the correct answers from the first run, it was a piece of cake. You didn’t learn nuthin’, but everybody passed, compliance numbers looked good, and upper management was happy. Because the test was extremely technical and cost a lot of time for the test-taker, I emailed the answers to the other people in my team. Nothing would have happened of it (I was still on my way out for low call scores…I wouldn’t have lasted much longer), except, by way of rubbing the firm’s nose in their own hypocrisy, I emailed them to my supervisor also.
What does this playing with fire tell you? I would dearly love to know, because I have no idea why I do these things. Perhaps I was intent on letting them know I was onto their hypocrisy. Perhaps it was a way of asserting my moral and intellectual superiority in an effort to compensate for my low self-esteem. In a sense, it was also a determination to commit professional suicide. At the very least, it represents almost the complete absence of an instinct for self-preservation. Or maybe that sense was not as important as other considerations. What it truly is, I don’t know. Why 99.99% of the population seems to have made its peace with these conditions and manage to have satisfying lives despite when I cannot makes me into a freak. It could take years of therapy to find out why this is so. So to answer the question in the minds of readers, a portion of my not having a job is choice, and a portion circumstance. The exact proportions in the mix they represent, I can’t say. If I were to write myself as a character in one of my stories, I wouldn’t have clue how to convey all this in a succinct and easy to comprehend way.
However my pathology is characterized, I have such a revulsion to lying that I can’t seem to bring myself to do it anymore except as a last resort.
Don’t get me wrong. I want very much to work, I need to work. I just don’t want to lie anymore or help others to lie. I don’t want to help the NYSE go up a tick. I want to be a force for the positive. I want to help bring about social and economic change. I want to help people more than anything. I want to follow the Buddhist injunction to practice right livelihood. It is the only way, I feel, that I can save my soul, and prefer death to feeding the beast and helping the forces of darkness anymore.