, ,

An excerpt from my journal dated January, 2010.

“I know so many people out there right now that are struggling to make ends meet, struggling to put food on the table, struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Struggling just to struggle…” JB

Never underestimate the value of a $3 cigar.

Even when everything else in the world seems to be rotting on the vine, holding onto a single, small treasure like a cigar can give you at least a moment to look forward to at the end of a long, long week of sending out resumes, trying to scratch a living off of the internet, eBay, or Craigslist. With benefits having ran out, they take on an even greater meaning that I could not quantify. To me, it felt like hope wrapped with fond memories and when lit, turned into a moment – a timeout – from all of my troubles.

When all you can afford is one drink, make sure you drink on an empty stomach.

I am a realist. I see things as they are and not with labels. The glass is neither half full nor half empty, it’s simply a glass of water that doesn’t look like it will slosh out and splash all over me if I walk with it. Splurging on Happy Hour one day, I sat there with my one, $2 beer and pondered things for a few minutes. I came to this conclusion, “I can only afford this one beer. But, since I haven’t eaten, this is turning out to be one great beer!” Obviously already buzzed, I slowly nursed that single amber pint and relaxed more than I have in a long time.

Stress manifests itself in many ways and with me, it was a weight that bent my back. Hunched over, it seemed like that weight crushed my gaze inevitably downward. But, that one beer on an empty stomach seemed to give me just enough of a buzz that it made me relax; I could feel my shoulders loosen, my posture shift and I lifted my eyes up from the ground and found myself watching people walk by. Being able to sit at a restaurant amongst people once every eight or nine days, enjoying something as simple as a beer, seemed to matter more to me than the cheap, enjoyable buzz. It meant, for a few sips anyway, I was able to be part of society instead of being quasi-homeless…

White on White: Mayo packets stolen from the corner sandwich shop and mixed with rice and salt.

When you can only afford a scoop of rice per meal and not much else, anything edible that you can add to it, to somehow make it different from the last twenty meals, makes a world of difference. And while everyone says they crave stability, I don’t think anyone would apply that word to their diet. Eating basically the same thing, everyday, is what Jimmy Buffet sang about in Cheeseburger in Paradise, “Warm beer and bread they say could raise the dead…” But, when you are living on $3 a day, variety is usually something you shake out of a spice jar.

Back in our college days, where most of us learned how to be Top Ramen gourmets, we quickly learned how to make the most of our beer budget by adding other ingredients to those golden noodles. Me? I loved cracking an egg or two into the kettle after the noodles were done. They soaked up the spices and became little floating entrees amongst the noodles. But, when you are on the unemployment insurance diet, loosing weight isn’t a problem. After almost two years on it, you are guaranteed to fit into those “skinny jeans” of your younger years. Around day 750, just over 2 years of unemployment, I had a chance to step on a scale and found that I had dropped over 30 pounds, almost 6 inches off my waistline, and every ounce of baby fat I ever had in my face. In fact, looking at photos taken of me three years ago, to looking at myself in the mirror today I can see how my facial features have sunk. My jawline is more pronounced, checks seem thin— I can see muscles under my skin as if I’m eating something crunchy—and my eyes seem bigger somehow…

One day, while walking through the food court at the local mall I pilfered condiment packets off a hotdog stand. Like a pickpocket eyeing a target, I casually drifted towards the table with the napkins and condiment packets, pulled a napkin from the dispenser and made a show of wiping something off my hand, all the while looking casually around to see if anyone was watching… Obviously, it bothered me what I was contemplating (equally obvious, I suck at poker). Pulling out a couple more napkins, I grabbed a few mayonnaise and spicy brown mustard packets, covered them with the napkin, shoved them into my pocket and walked away.

My little larceny was for a cooking experiment: White on White. Since I’m limited to just a microwave to cook with, rice is the bulk of my daily diet. Rice for breakfast and rice for dinner. I can’t afford lunch. White on White is cooked rice, salted to taste, then I mixed in a few of those mayo packets and, voilà, I got something new to eat!

(This was when my food budget was $3.00 per day and the bulk of my diet consisted of a scoop of rice around mid-morning and a scoop for dinner. A scoop was 1 cup.)

Friendships are rented.

Friends and family seem to vanish either because we push them away or because we drift apart. But sometimes, we lock ourselves away into a self-imposed exile because of pride. We are embarrassed by our circumstances. We are no longer who we were, at least from our depressed point of view.

Showing up at Happy Hour is uncomfortable at best, often painful, or simply draining of what energy I had left to simply just to show up. There are so many people out there that have no clue that the person standing next to them (1 in 10 here in California (circa 01/10)) might be unemployed… It’s at those times that you realize that the term “friend” has meaning. It becomes a word that is used to describe those people in your life you can actually talk to and escape your personal exile with for a few moments. They are the ones that will float you $20 until your next Unemployment check so that you can buy 10 days worth of groceries (5lbs rice-$5, fresh veggies-$7, chicken bouillon cubes-$4, special entree of the week (4 cans of chili-$4, pasta sauce, 2 for $4, et cetera)…

Other people in your life will, hopefully, never know or realize that you are (were?) unemployed. These are the people whose “friendship” was rented. They were friends as long as you bought a round from time to time. They were friends when you joined them for Happy Hour once in a while. They were friends that were there only socially.

You know they are rented friends if they never ask, “Hey buddy, what’s up? Haven’t seen you for awhile… Everything okay?”

But, these are the social networking friends that we must ply in our search for employment. These are the old colleagues we bump into from our long lost paycheck days, and lie to, telling them that “oh yeah, things are great now that I’m not with…”

It’s a lie we, the unemployed, tell ourselves, too. We have to. Pride is also rented.

Looking for work is harder than work.

Being unemployed is such a misnomer. Those of us who’ve been unemployed for double-digit months, let alone years, know all too well that we have jobs: Our work is looking for work; our job is getting out of bed every day and trying to remember what day it is (think Groundhog’s Day to the tenth power); our job is trying to force ourselves to get out of bed and tell ourselves that, “Today will be productive.”
Sending resumes to every job opening that you want morphs into sending them to anything that you feel you might possibly be qualified for—even those jobs that you have to dumb-down your resume for by cutting out all references to graduate level education (i.e., a Bachelors of Arts degree in Psychology when you’re applying for a job at Subway), redacting all accomplishments (i.e., 10 years of experience as a Technical Field Trainer), and turning past employment into plain vanilla bullet points (i.e., 14 years of management experience morphs into “People Skills”).

I have about 20 different resumes that I send out not to mention rewriting and editing each one to match the job opening I am applying for because I know that they will run a keyword search on the resume to see if it has the correct buzzwords long before anyone will take the time to even bother to read it.

(Jump to today, December, 2012)

I have decided to post this journal entry so that you will know what the low-water mark of my life was as nothing in my life was as bad as those days. Having no hope left was like a weight on my chest making every breath an effort. Yet, having no dreams was even worse. It was then that I prayed for more weight to keep the air from entering my lungs. It is then that I gave up…

When my unemployed odyssey ended on January 1, 2011, when I started the temp job I’ve had for almost two years now, I had been unemployed for about 1,000 days. In that time I wrote, I walked, and I met Jules; who showed me that I didn’t loose my dreams and that they were still inside of me. She taught me breath once more. To take deep breaths. To gently blow on the embers that were still glowing deep inside and she helped me reignite and resurrect them.

This voyage that I am planing is not a mid-life crisis. Been there, done that already; Gulf War, closing my mother’s eyes when she died of cancer, and two divorces that ripped my heart out don’t even compare to being unemployed for 1,000 days, trying to grasp at any and every straw to keep from drowning in despair, to finally giving into it only to realize that there are worse things. Things that make you remember despair with fond memories.

Oh yeah, one piece of advice if you know someone who is or has been unemployed for a long time; don’t try to prod them into sending out more resumes? It’s like offering a drowning victim a glass of water.