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Aug. 18 2009 - 8:33 am | 260 views | 0 recommendations | 19 comments

Fear and self-loathing in America’s Rust Belt, Part II

terror underlying

"Terror is Underlying" by Niklas Lundberg (via diftype.com)

A new series of personal essays about job loss, mental health, and the undying pursuit of art.

When I arrived that morning, the magazine offices were nearly vacant. Nothing but the dull hum of a thousand overhead florescent lights and the distant clicking of a few phantom keyboards registered a sound. A stack of empty boxes had been left on my desk. Looking at them, they seemed to tell the true story of the last 24 hours: We care, we really do. But please take your shit and leave, it’s time for us to move on (Read: ‘Fear & Self-Loathing…’ Part I). I looked at the boxes, then over at the woman from Human Resources who had escorted me from the entrance of the building to my cubicle. “Take all the time you need,” she said. “I’ll check back with you in 10 minutes.”

Since receiving the call the day before, the one informing me that I no longer had a job, it had been impossible to think about anything else. It was like a bolt of lightning had been thrown from the sky and buried at my feet, barely missing me — it was instant terror, followed by overwhelming relief. I had no job. But I had also shed the weight of a job I had come to hate. And the pressing question quickly became: How do we survive?

Our drive out of the Laurel Mountains the day before had been quiet at first. Then Michelle began to cry. Seeing her so upset about the uncertainty of our new situation devastated me. I had no soothing words to offer, none at least that felt genuine. “Everything will be okay,” I repeated, like a mantra. But I was so unsure that I could barely convince myself. A half dozen miles into our drive, I asked if she could please stop crying. “It’s killing me,” I said. I didn’t mean to sound cold, I just couldn’t handle it. It was selfish of me. Michelle has always been strong, often propping me up at my most difficult times. When she looked over at me, her eyes were swollen and red. But she seemed to understand. I still felt terrible. I looked at Ethan in the rearview mirror. “You okay Bug?” He nodded and smiled, eyes fixed on the screen of his DVD player.

After getting off the phone with Tom — the man who delivered the news of my layoff as if he were reading aloud the instructions on how to operate a microwave oven — the woman from Human Resources called to discuss the ‘outplacement package’ that was being overnighted to my house. She then asked if I could come in and clean out my office by ‘close of business’ that day — returning to her my corporate cellphone, laptop, and security key. At first, and in my usual fashion, I attempted to accommodate her: “I guess I could get there by 5 p.m., if I hurry. How late will you be there? Maybe I could just drive straight there without dropping off my wife and son.” Then I stopped. Fuck you, I thought. So I said “You know what, today won’t work.”

We decided to meet at 7 a.m. the next morning, outside the visitor entrance. During our brief phone conversation, this woman attempted compassion, but it sounded like she was tutoring a World War II vet on how to use an iPod, her words deliberate and overcooked: “IF YOU, AT ANY TIME, HAVE QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS, MY PHONE NUMBER IS INCLUDED IN THE PACKET. PLEASE DON’T HESITATE TO CALL”

It turned out 30 employees were let go that day. The Dirty Thirty. Back in March, 30 others were let go. And before that, 25 were shown the door. ‘All difficult but necessary actions’ we were told in a group staff meeting following the first cuts. Then the company stopped convening staff meetings to talk about its problems. With its fate so intertwined with that of an automotive industry in utter turmoil, everyone feared for their jobs. And as the company thinned out, clusters of workers were seen crying or whispering to one another about the sweeping changes. I would hear about certain people who were let go, people I knew. But I never recognized all the names. After awhile though, I stopped seeing certain familiar faces in the halls and realized there were many people I would not see again. And now I was one of them, reduced to another name whispered among co-workers.

When I woke that next morning, it felt like I never slept. The alarm clock on my nightstand came alive at 6 a.m. I silenced it with a swat before slowly getting out of bed. Dull shafts of gray Pittsburgh sunlight broke through the wooden shutters in my bedroom. Exhausted from the nonstop rush of adrenaline the last day, my bones and muscles ached. My spine and shoulders were tight again. All the good of my family’s mountain escape erased with a single phone call.

The woman from Human Resources met me at 7 a.m. as promised. Before she motioned me inside, I watched the CEO park his Cadillac, then silently walk past me — like he was ignoring a panhandler. The sight of him made me want to swing the edge of my laptop into his face, send an explosion of broken teeth and blood to the sidewalk. But instead I just stared at him as he averted his gaze.

terror is underlying pt 2

"I wanted to be a ghost in that building. Seep in like smoke then disappear forever." (Illustration by Niklas Lundberg via diftype.com)

Within minutes, the boxes laid out on my desk were nearly full. On the drive in, speeding across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I had mapped out just how I would empty my office. What would be thrown away and what would be saved. I would gather my things I decided, then say my goodbyes and vanish. I wanted to be a ghost in that building. Seep in like smoke then disappear forever. There was a knock at my door. When I looked up from my desk Pat, one of my former co-workers, was standing there, shaking his head.

“Maaaatt…” he said, the lonely vowel in my name hanging in the air for an eternity. “I don’t know what to say.”

I had a million things to say. I kept them to myself.

“It is what it is,” I said to Pat, “There’s really nothing to say I guess.” He told me it had been a pleasure working together. I said the same. We shook hands and said goodbye.

Little was worth saving it turned out. The tangle of lanyards from press trips and trade shows were first to hit the trash. Then came an avalanche of papers — old press releases, notes from staff meetings, and time sheets collected for the last five years. All meaningless. I filled the large trash can in my office, then another outside my door, next to the copier. My only hesitation came when I caught sight of the Peace Lily next to my window.

The lily had been a gift from my parents, who surprised me with a visit during my first week on the job. Proud of my new position they walked in with the plant and a pair of smiles on their faces. The wicker planter had a blue celebratory ribbon woven around its midsection. For five years I kept it alive, barely. Pressing deadlines and a daunting workload kept me busy. For weeks on end I would forget to give it water, then its brown curling leaves reminded me of my neglect. Then I would make up for it, trimming the browned leaves, watering it regularly, twisting it daily so all its leaves could warm in the sun. Then I would forget again. It’s as if it were a biological monitor of my indifference toward my job. I would try hard to care, pretend I was a career man who didn’t dread staff meetings, corporate Christmas parties, and all-day training sessions. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that things weren’t all that bad, the space between the start and end of my work day always felt like a waste of time.

The Peace Lily ended up surviving a few days longer than I did. On my way out, I dropped it in the overflowing trash can next to the copier, loose dirt and leaves falling to the industrial-grade carpet.

Two small boxes and four framed pieces of art were all that remained. Looking at my empty cubicle, I wanted to burn it to the ground. Soak the carpeted walls in gasoline and strike a match. Watch the smoke billow down the hall, blacken ceiling tiles as the fire searched for more fuel. File folders. Pencils. Pens. Magazines. All devoured. All consumed. All destroyed. But of course I didn’t. Instead, I awkwardly gathered my things. Made two trips to my car and back, Human Resources tight on my heels.

Out in the parking lot, the woman from Human Resources awkwardly smiled as she sent me on my way. I closed the door of my car and sat behind the steering wheel for a moment. Kevin, my manager for five years and editorial director at the organization, never said a word to me. No goodbye. No handshake. No apology. No compassion. Nothing. I was already a ghost in his eyes. His lack of basic human respect toward me was like a final punch in the stomach: Not only have you lost the means to support your family, we’re going to pretend you don’t exist, okay? Good.

Losing my job was a wake up call. But being disregarded as a person lit a fire in my gut. I started my car and peeled out, middle finger extended and the burden of five unhappy years left behind.

During those years I played a ridiculous game, trying to convince myself that I drove this 75-mile round trip from my front door to my office and back each day because it all meant something, that I was working toward some nebulous goal of creative freedom that I so desperately aspired to. I always viewed my desk job as temporary life support, a necessary evil that I indulged in to pay the bills, nothing more. It was at night, in the waning hours between darkness and daybreak, that I invested in my own ideas. Countless hours spent at a keyboard, crafting stories for magazines; transcribing interviews with people from the world who had interesting, fascinating, heartbreaking, important things to say; laying out and assembling zines; writing music — feeding an undying urge to do more with my life than populate a cubicle. My well-worn desk chair and its faded maroon fabric were a constant reminder to me: Don’t stay here long enough to dimple that cushion any fucking deeper.

But when it all ended so abruptly, it felt like everything I knew as truth was no longer real.

The way I saw it, I would someday — someday soon, please, God, soon — be able to support myself and my family from my writing — writing that mattered and was important and didn’t conflict with my values or personal integrity. Writing — dare I say art — that would outlive me and prove that I had been here on this planet at least for a small amount of time and that that time mattered and that I did the best I could with it. Art that grabbed hold of those — at least one, some, or any of those — who encountered it. Art that was transcendent in some small way.

As I exited the Turnpike on my way home that morning, I pulled into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn. It was here that I worked one of my first jobs, washing dishes in the kitchen of a karaoke bar called The Cheatin’ Heart Saloon. It was a trainwreck of people — drunks singing Garth Brooks and Clint Black until I was begging for a razor blade to help me escape the world; wall-to-wall, denim-clad camel toes; alcoholics, lots of alcoholics; and terribly bad food. It was a much-needed and sobering dose of reality in an era of my life deeply marred by clinical depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (Author’s note: Stories for another time). It made me appreciate what I had, however fucked up it all seemed. So it seemed fitting to return here and toast my first day of unemployment with a shot of whiskey and a beer.

Sitting in that parking lot, 15 years later, now a husband and a father, and absolutely jobless, was difficult to comprehend. But still I felt strangely happy. I was free from the bullshit of it all, if only for a brief moment. I looked over at the box of framed photos from my office and saw Ethan’s black and white photo from his first birthday. It’s the one where his hair just started to grow out. His smile is electric and his cool blue eyes are piercing, even without color. He is happy, healthy, and beautiful. And it reminds me of the birthday wish I have made every year for as long as I can remember — the phrase that resonates in my mind as I blow out the growing number of candles covering the top of each year’s cake:

I hope everything works out.

(Illustrations via diftype.com)


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  1. collapse expand

    Great piece. Your boss is a coward as are many; I was fired without my boss having the guts to show up either. A handshake and a thank-you seem pretty damn basic to me, especially after your five years and insanely long commute.

    Writing art and getting paid well for it may not be likely, but you’ll find something to pay the bills that is not as soul-sucking as this was. We all get wake-up calls in life — mine was three days in the hospital from overwork-induced pneumonia — and you have to make a change to save your life, and your soul.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks Caitlin. Coward is a perfect word. During college, I used to manage 10-15 people in a retail store. I can’t imagine treating people the way my former employer, and especially my former boss, did. However, it takes guts and integrity to look someone in the eye and shake their hand — it sounds like you know this all too well yourself.

      Surviving on writing as art is a whole other issue I suppose. I would settle for less soul-sucking any day.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Excellent, excellent piece.

    I’ve been laid off once, and fired once. The difference? The second time it was my fault…I didn’t follow the rules. Still, the huge difference between my layoff where I was acknowledged and ‘taken care of’, and my being fired which was a lot closer to your experience…it’s difficult to think about even now several years later. I feel for you.

    Hang in there and keep writing.

  3. collapse expand

    Matthew,
    as an IT contractor I have experience of the layoff cycle and let me assure you things will get better. This experience will not have a frustrating sting when you look back on it in several years. You will not hate the bosses, you will not despise the perfect lack of control you have over your life and you this experience will make you stronger as a person.

    BUT
    Right now you have to start looking at the other side of the story. Firstly your boss has been told by HR not to communicate with you so just get over that. He is not your friend. However bear in mind you will come across him/her again. The more mature (i.e. not slagging him/her off) you are now the better for you.

    Secondly your ex company is doing what it needs to do to survive. Its not personal. Dont imagine for a second it is. All that hate – channel it. Run, Read with your son, do things with your family you never had time to do in those 50 hour weeks. Enjoy your time off – I have had periods of 6 months being unemployed and loved it.

    Life is awkward but its short. Dont be fooled into thinking its all about you.

  4. collapse expand

    Very good piece. I got laid off from my first job after 5 1/2 years back during the recession of 1981. Ten people from our department got the axe that day, and the stone-faced boss who gave us the news at least had the courtesy to call us into his office one by one to tell us. Surprisingly, no one stood guard while we cleaned out our desks (which is probably why I saw some of my fellow terminates packing everything that wasn’t nailed down in their cubicles – drawing boards, art supplies, etc – and taking it with them. I was crushed, devastated, you name it. Almost six years of working overtime like a Good Girl whenever needed, even covering in areas not in my job description (looking, like you, for that raise/promotion/pat on the head) and I was just cut off like a gangrenous limb.

    Hang in there! Eventually you’ll look back and realize that this was the kick in the pants you needed – that you weren’t happy there, but you were “settled” and you may not have ever looked for something different/better if this hadn’t happened. Times may get worse before they get better (they did for me), but you’re bright, witty and talented. Something better will eventually come along. I wish you the best of luck!

  5. collapse expand

    You are a great writer. You made me feel what you just experienced. You have a gift of being able to make the reader climb into your skin and feel what you are feeling.Most things in life happen for a reason and I have been in situations where I could not imagine where to go from there, but things always get better. You will look back on this as the best thing that ever happened to you, because you were better than they deserved. Keep writing and it may turn out to be a book.

  6. collapse expand

    Matthew,
    Thanks again for writing this. You are sharing your inner emotions, and not playing them for sympathy, or laughs, just sharing, and I appreciate that. Keep it up! Looking forward to hearing more from a fresh, strong voice.
    I wish there was something we could do for you.
    Chris

  7. collapse expand

    Matthew, like one of the commenters in part I, I also signed up specifically to comment on this post. Your story parallels my own in many ways. I too am unemployed in Pittsburgh. I too have had the humbling experience of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and worse. My situation differs in that I am the only person I have to support financially, and in times like these I am grateful for such a lack of responsibility. The thought of not being able to pay bills and support myself is distressing enough, I cannot imagine how exponentially worse this would be with a family to support.

    I too share your disgust for the banality of the cubical-cell life sentence. I would delude myself on a daily basis into thinking that this was only temporary and somehow in my spare time I would derive the solution of “surviving” and “happiness” being mutually exclusive in my life. This is a major existential issue, and I hope that myself, along with the collective conscious of this nation can learn something from it in these times of economic hardship. It’s sad to say, but sometimes enlightenment can only be induced by a crisis.

    I really enjoy reading your posts.

    -John

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for your comment John, it means a lot. And I’m very sorry to hear you’re going through the same experience that I did. I know firsthand (as you read) how shitty it is to lose a job. Especially being from Pittsburgh, I know how tough (and unsatisfying) the job market can be here.

      I wrestle with this same existential crisis that you mention, this idea of how to balance survival and happiness without feeling I’ve completely sold myself out. Being treated the way I was by my former employer, however, taught me a ton about my own resilience, which has been enlightening, as you said. Good luck out there.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    Both your Fear & Loathing pieces are just great! They are a perfect capture of the awful alienation, insecurity, and sadness in “business casual” land…right down to the tragic office plant. In the midst of sad departures, orphaned plants always seem to punctuate the death of hope with such painful precision. I was cheering for you when you had the guts to chuck the peace lily. “Mad” is so much better than “sad.”

    I am a native Pittsburgher, long gone from home, but like most Americans today, I still have plenty of job-related worries. I feel less alone when I read great pieces like these.

    Glad to hear you got a new job. Better? (I hope).

    • collapse expand

      Nice to hear from a fellow Pittsburgher, and I’m glad you enjoyed the series. Getting rid of that office plant was a great way to purge. So was writing these essays. I was so pissed when I lost my job that writing about it actually made me feel better. And I also received so many supportive emails, notes, and comments afterward that it turned out to be a great remedy to a bad situation. The new job is good (thanks for asking), I feel much more at home. I’ll never place much trust in an employer again — but that’s probably a good thing.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I am a writer, editor, and blogger who lives and works in the once-decaying heart of America's Rust Belt (i.e. Pittsburgh, PA). My work focuses on subculture, crime, mental health, race, class, and creativity.

    My writing appears in Spin, Good, XLR8R, Next American City, RaceWire, and Swindle, among other print and online publications. I have reported on the decline of sampling in hip-hop; interviewed artists and musicians who survived Cambodia’s killing fields; investigated the struggles of U.S. military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; and shadowed graffiti writers, coaxing candid confessions about their obsession with illegal art.

    If you have story ideas or tips, please email me at mr.newton@gmail.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at newtonmatthew. And I've recently launched a companion site to my blog here at True/Slant. You can check it out here.

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    Location:Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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