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Bitter is the new black, p.10
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.10

           Jen Lancaster

  Last year, when my folks were up for Thanksgiving, Fletch and my father hid away in the den for hours, haggling over which was the very best Internet radio station for jazz. After they left, Fletch said, “I didn’t know your dad killed someone.”

  “He WHAT?” I practically shouted. “You’re teasing, right? Because I think if my dad had ENDED SOMEONE’S LIFE, I would know, especially given his propensity to tell the same story over and over. I’ve heard about his Mexican invasion at least four hundred times.”59

  “Jen, your dad got into hand-to-hand combat when he was stationed in Korea after the war. One night he was on patrol on the border of North and South Korea and got ambushed. It was a shoot-or-be-shot situation. He didn’t have much of a choice.”

  “I swear I had no idea. Was he all shaken up about it?”

  “Nope, he was pretty matter-of-fact.”

  “No surprise there. I can’t believe he never used that little nugget of information to his advantage, though. Imagine how much more obedient I might have been had I known. ‘You failed your geometry test, Jennifer? Now I have to kill you.’ ‘You think you’re going to a Michael Jackson concert? Over your dead body.’ ‘You stayed out half an hour past curfew? Here’s a shovel—start digging your grave.’ What a wasted opportunity to scare me straight.”

  Anyway, seeing Dad and Fletch giggle about me like I’m not even sitting here makes me mad. Just then, my mother appears in the doorway.

  “Hey, Mom, did Dad ever tell you about the time he killed a guy?”

  My severance and vacation pay disappear quickly. The painting project cost way more than anticipated, and my new interviewing outfits did not come cheap.60

  “Brett and Kim want to meet at the Adobo Grill for margaritas and I don’t have any money.” I wave Fletch’s wallet at him.

  “Fool, did you part with all your money already?” Fletch asks.

  “I didn’t blow it, if that’s what you’re implying,” I say. “I invested it in work clothes. People aren’t going to hire me dressed in rags, you know. I needed a fresh new look for interviewing, and it’s not like I threw away all my old stuff. I donated those huge boxes of last season’s clothes to the Salvation Army so I can write the cost off my taxes. And I even remembered to get a receipt this time!”

  “Congratulations. You’re a true philanthropist.”

  “Ha, ha. Seriously, I want money for drinks, so toss the salad,” I say with an extended palm.

  Fletch forks over a wad of bills, but it’s not as selfish as it sounds. We’re pretty egalitarian around here. When Fletch was out of work for three months last year with no severance or unemployment insurance, I paid for everything. And not just rent, utilities, and groceries. I even covered his car note, insurance, and that sticky hair pomade he likes so much. For an entire quarter, I had no new clothes, no dinners in restaurants, or nights out with friends, and I had to trim my bangs myself. I never once complained about the situation, so if I need money for drinks now, it’s payback time.

  Besides, Fletch says he’d never be making the money he does if I hadn’t been his cheerleader, encouraging him to go for jobs he wasn’t sure he could get and urging him to demand to be paid what he was worth. Get a couple of Scotches in him and he’ll prattle on about how meeting me changed his life for the better (of which I can never hear enough).

  Growing up, he was always underestimated and considered a little weird. For example, there was a huge soybean field by where he lived. At six years old, when his contemporaries were totally into Bugs Bunny, Fletch was plagued by the philosophical question of why anyone would want to grow beans you couldn’t eat. Instead of appreciating how bright Fletch was, his dad told him he was stupid to ask that kind of question. (And, really, what the hell purpose do soybeans serve anyway?)

  “Jen, when are you going to sign up for unemployment?”

  “Never,” I reply.


  “Because I’m not a deadbeat. I’m not about to suck on the government’s teat. For crying out loud, I’m a Republican. They’d kick me out of the party if I went on welfare!”

  “Go get your last pay stub,” he instructs.

  I dig around my files until I locate it. “Here you go.” I hand him the sheet and perch next to him on the side of his armchair.

  “Look at these lines right here. You see these dollar amounts?” I nod. “This is all the money you’ve had taken out in taxes this year. Wait, maybe I should back up. You are aware that we have a tax system in this country, right?”

  “Don’t be a jerk.” I whack him in the head with my handful of bills.

  “OK, then you understand when you pay taxes, your money is distributed to federal and state governments. They use your tax dollars to fund a variety of items such as schools, fire departments, Medicare, Social Security, interest on the national debt, etc.”

  “Are you about to start singing about how a bill becomes a law?”61

  “Wasn’t planning to.”

  “Then will you tell me why you’re giving me a civics lesson?”

  “Because you need it. I’m trying to help you to understand that some of the money from right here”—he draws a circle on the page with his finger—“goes to fund unemployment claims.”

  “You’re saying it’s not welfare?”

  “Exactly. When you collect unemployment, you’re getting back the money YOU paid into the system for just such an occasion. It’s like collecting an insurance policy. You’ll particularly like this part—your ex-employer also has to pay a portion of your claim.”

  “Those sorry Corp. Com. bastards could be funding my tequila binge tonight instead of you?”


  This man knows EVERYTHING! I lunge at Fletch and knock him over with the force of my hug. “Can you love me a little less? You’re crushing my windpipe,” he gasps.

  “Nope,” I reply, squeezing harder.

  I spend the morning trying on and casting aside outfits in my walk-in closet. What does one wear to the unemployment office? Do I dress up? Shall I carry my briefcase? What’s the protocol? To be honest, I don’t own a lot of casual clothes. I have really dressy things for work and sleek, fun outfits for going out to chichi bistros, but not a lot of regular, weekendy stuff. I finally settle on a long skirt, sweater set, and triple strand of pearls. A quick glance in my full-length mirror confirms my suspicions. I look like a Stepford wife. Oh, well, it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed, right?

  I pile on the kitchen counter all the documents I’m supposed to take with me.62 I don’t feel like carrying my heavy pad folio, so I swap out my small Burberry clutch for a large Prada shopper and shove the whole lot inside of it.

  I drive to the unemployment office and circle the parking lot for what feels like hours. Judging from the number of other cars trying to find a space, I’m not encouraged about the state of the economy. I finally wedge Fletch’s SUV into the spot farthest from the door.

  I walk up to the office, push open the glass doors, and am immediately greeted by a couple of friendly gentlemen. They usher me in and offer me coffee. How delightfully civilized! They want to know all about me, and we have a lovely chat about patriotism. This is great; I bet they find a job for me in no time. I heard all kinds of horror stories about filing for unemployment benefits, but everyone must have been exaggerating because these people are so helpful. Maybe it’s because I look pretty today? No, I bet they’re impressed with my bag.63

  I converse with the kind men in the snazzy matching outfits about my goals and aspirations for a few more minutes. As they natter on about duty, honor, and country, it occurs to me that most government employees don’t wear uniforms. Or have such short hair. Or glossy, glossy shoes. OR NEATLY FOLDED MAPS! Suddenly all the flags and pictures of tanks and submarines on the walls make sense…I walked into the Armed Forces recruiting center located conveniently next door to the unemployment office.

  Like the mature adult/consummate professional I strive
to be, I shriek and run away.

  OK, we’ll try this again. This time I walk through the doors marked with an Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) logo, where security personnel are already laughing at me, having just witnessed my Great Escape.

  “Don’t feel like being all you can be today?” a smart-mouthed guard in a shoddy security jacket asks.

  “Those doors should really be marked a little more clearly. I practically enlisted, thinking I was signing up for benefits,” I reply. “Or maybe that’s the plan? Kind of a good idea, if you consider it. Anyway, can you please tell me where I should go to file a new claim, or would you prefer to make more fun of me first?”

  The guard’s cohort answers, “The few, the proud, and the unemployed need to go over to that station to fill out forms.” They continue to snicker and nudge each other.

  “Thank you,” I say, whipping around only to slam into a short pole supporting canvas dividing ropes. I untangle myself and stomp over to the table to grab the paperwork, the guffaws barely fading from earshot. As if being here wasn’t humiliation enough!

  I complete reams of forms and wait my turn to bring them to the counter for a clerk’s inspection. A bored man with an absurdly high voice glances at my work history and tosses the form back at me.

  “You didn’t complete this. Fill it out and come back,” he says shrilly.

  “Right here it says I can attach a résumé instead,” I reply, handing my packet back. “See? Here’s my résumé.”

  “Well, it wasn’t attached,” he hisses. Whoa, pal. Take it down a couple of octaves, will you? You’re making the neighborhood dogs howl.

  I reach across his desk and grab his stapler, attaching the pages. I give the form back to him. “It is now,” I say, while batting my eyelashes prettily at him.

  He sucks in his cheeks as he tears through the sheets on the prowl for more mistakes. Finding none, he smashes a stamp down a couple of times and whips another stack of questionnaires at me. “Take these and sit over there with those people until your group is called,” he squeaks. Under his breath, he adds, “Miss Prada.”

  “Okey-dokey,” I reply. “Best of luck shattering those wine-glasses.”

  I soak in the atmosphere while I wait. Except for security, I’ve yet to see any of the IDES workers smile. This place is so depressing, no wonder everyone is cranky. The tiled ceilings are low, oppressive, and stained by rusty, leaking water pipes. Everything is industrial gray—the walls, the cubicles, the chairs, the floors, and even the employees’ pallor. The few dead rubber tree plants do nothing to increase the ambience. Windows are long and smudged, affording a stunning vista of the rutted parking lot and the Dumpsters behind McDonald’s. The blinding afternoon sun is not contained by the bent, filthy venetian blinds and dust motes float in the air. The only sounds are the constant drone of straining printers and a few crying children. It’s like a Dilbert cartoon, minus the whimsy.

  At one thirty, my group enters a small holding room for a briefing on the intricacies of making a biweekly phone call to the IDES. Ten of us shuffle in, and I take a surreptitious glance at my unemployed brethren. I notice I’m the only one not wearing a flannel shirt and construction boots. The small, angry woman running the meeting stares me up and down, her eyes narrowing when they reach the label of my bag. I get the feeling I made a bad wardrobe choice today. Finally, she snags the forms out of my hand and thumbs through the pages until she gets to my salary history. I assume her grunt is not one of pleasure, and I notice she doesn’t request anyone else’s paperwork. She rips away one of the sheets before returning the packet to me.

  She begins her presentation.

  In Spanish.

  I raise my hand. “Excuse me, but did I do this wrong? Should I be in another group? I don’t speak Spanish.”

  Small Angry Woman rolls her eyes. “No, but since everyone else here is Hispanic, I thought it would be easier for them to understand the presentation in their own language,” she retorts. “But if you need to have it your way, fine, I speak English.” Nine sets of dark, unhappy eyes glare at me. Oh, come on. It is NOT unreasonable to expect to hear my native tongue in a US government office.

  With thinly veiled contempt, Small Angry Woman explains the call-in process. Every two weeks, I’ll answer a litany of questions about whether I searched for a job. Apparently I’m only obligated to put in three applications every two weeks.64 She concludes by spelling out what to do with the final form. I riffle through all my paperwork, and I can’t find the sheet she’s talking about. When she asks if there are any questions, I raise my hand again. “Um, hi, I don’t have that form—” I start to explain.

  “Then why are you in here taking up someone else’s space? You were supposed to have all your paperwork completed before you came in,” she roars.

  “As I was saying, I don’t have that form because you tore it out of my packet.”

  “No, I most certainly did—”

  “Ma’am, it’s sitting right in front of you.” I point at the form, which is partially obscured by her pile of things, and she turns red.

  “You’re all done, dismissed,” she says aggressively, sliding the document toward me before grabbing her binder and storming out of the room

  “Oh, that’s OK,” I call after her. “Accidents happen. Apology accepted!”

  My final hurdle is to sit at the bank of antiquated computers I may have once played Pong on in 1982 and register on the state’s job search Web site. Initially, I’m happy to do so. I figured they might have opportunities not listed on places like Monster. But after an hour of encountering nothing but minimum-wage-paying jobs that require a broom and a strong back, I wave the computer area supervisor over to where I’m sitting.

  “Hi, I have a question,” I say.

  “About what?” the supervisor replies.

  “Can you tell me, am I inputting the search string correctly? Every time I add my information, I get back janitorial and manufacturing openings.”

  “What are you askin’?”

  “I guess I’m looking for something a bit more challenging.”

  “Industrial cleaning is very challenging. Ever tried it?”

  “Um, no, can’t say that I have. I’m looking for a position commensurate with my experience, and I don’t see any. Do you know if there’s different criteria I should list in order to see the better jobs?”

  “You sayin’ you’re too good to work any of these jobs? What, you too mighty to get your hands dirty? Will it mess up your nail polish?”

  “No, it’s just that I have a college degree and—”

  “Oooh, college degree…so you’re sayin’ you’re too smart to take one of these jobs? You askin’ for special privileges?”

  What the hell is wrong with these people? Why are they all so freaking rude? As far as I know, my only crime is carrying an expensive bag, which I paid for myself with my old high-paying job. It’s not like my benefits checks will be coming out of their pockets, so there’s no reason to be so surly, especially since I don’t want to be here any more than they want me to be here.

  With my most winning Miss America–style grin, I reply, “What I’m sayin’ is I’m completely overqualified for every position I’ve come across so far. What I’m askin’ is, do you have any job listings that don’t suck?”

  Ring, ring, ring…

  “Uh-huh…uh-huh…Let me ask you this: Is there really a demand for encyclopedias these days? According to IBM’s advertising department, we have the sum total of human existence at our fingertips through the Internet. Why would anyone need to buy your book? Hello…hello?”

  Ring, ring, ring…

  “I’m so excited you called! I’ve followed your company’s stock for years! It’s such a solid buy—you really can’t go wrong with pharmaceuticals…. Sure, I used to visit physicians’ offices all the time when I worked for the insurance company…. Oh, I see…. No, I wasn’t aware…Um, yes, considering I get my legs waxed because I practically t
hrow up each time I cut them with a razor, I probably would have a problem going into the OR to demonstrate your newest cardiac tool on a live patient…. OK, then, thanks for your time, and please keep me in mind if you need someone for a noninvasive product.”

  “I’m home,” Fletch calls as he brushes the snow off his shoulders, hangs up his coat, and stows his computer bag in the closet.

  I’d been so bored with my own company over the past few months that I’d taken to pouncing on him the moment he walked in, assaulting him with verbal diarrhea on the minutiae of my day. But now I’m making a concerted effort to let him unwind for a moment before attacking him with attention. His job isn’t going as well as he’d like, so I figure I should try harder to give him a relaxing home life.65

  Recently, I’ve focused my energy on e-mailing friends, and it’s been nice to reconnect. However, I’m always slightly disappointed when I only receive a few paragraphs in return, especially when I send them huge, multipage missives.

  “How are you?” I ask. “You look cold. Do you want some of that hot chocolate you gave me for Valentine’s Day?”

  “Yes, please. My day was not great. The corporate brass came down on Clark about a couple of his processes, so naturally he went ballistic and spent the rest of the morning spouting off like a lunatic. Then he felt bad and took us out to lunch at his favorite hot dog joint, but once we got there, he yelled at us some more. At what point did screaming until the tendons of your neck stick out become the preferred method of talking to network engineers? I feel like I’ve been through the wringer.”

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