At least the email invitation had the right tone. No mention of celebration whatsoever, since there is little for most of us to toast. The subject line instead read: “Second Anniversary/Excuse to Come Together to Drink.” Straightforward, newspapery. But it remained to be seen how many former colleagues from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would want boozy camaraderie on the date that changed our lives forever.
About 35 of the 160 of us did turn up that Seattle evening at the Streamline Tavern, now owned by a former coworker, but I was not among them. I had been uncertain about attending all along. I would have liked to see colleagues again, but had no interest in repeated recountings of how I haven’t yet found regular work. That is the conversation epicenter at our gatherings, everyone hoping for some nugget of good news, however rare.
Our monthly coffees and happy hours have also dwindled to a handful of those who lost their jobs when the Hearst Corporation in New York City ended life support for a feisty, underdog Northwest newspaper founded in 1863, that “just-business” decision producing this dreaded headline: “P-I Presses Fall Silent.”
Unemployment has been a depressing slog for many of us since — likely the reason only about half the staff responded to an 18-month survey of what we were doing at that point. The survey, by colleague Ruth Teichroeb, did discover some encouraging trends; more people were finding fulltime work, yet they totaled only about one-quarter of those suddenly unemployed one March day in 2009 during the great economic implosion. Even fulltime workers sound mournful about smaller wages, less satisfaction, lost purpose.
Consider Dan Raley, a star P-I sports reporter, one of the few staffers lucky enough to land another newspaper job. Raley is editing in Atlanta and relates, “There’s no longer panic or a feeling of desperation in not having a job, but it’s hardly how I envisioned my life – 3,000 miles away from my family, away from the P-I, away from Seattle … But I’ve been a survivor, ready to do what I have to do.”
I suppose I am a survivor, too, mainly because my quarter-century at the P-I resulted in decent severance (gone now), plus unemployment insurance that has been my only regular paycheck (ending soon). I am indeed grateful for those twin pillars of support, and I know I'm much more fortunate than many unemployed compatriots. I have been able to cobble together some freelance work, writing and editing and teaching, although the remuneration from major national websites has been a couple hundred dollars, or less, that pitiful pay underscoring new media’s unmistakable lesson — what you’re doing is just an approximation of real work, a shadow play in Internet ether.
Not that I haven’t tried hard to find something better. My blue file folder marked “Unemployment” overflows with a three-inch stack of paper — weekly tallies of prospective jobs, plus logs of submitted job applications. I knew little of “unemployment insurance” before 2009, assumed that those receiving such benefits were unfortunates lacking in initiative or training or schooling or something. What I have learned since 2009 is how unemployment can happen to anyone and how much work is required to find possible work.
Federal unemployment law mandates that recipients apply for three jobs every week; my current Washington State unemployment mandates four — disheartening searches guaranteed to produce my gloomiest day of the week. Granted, job applications can be submitted electronically, sparing the job-seeker from Depression Era embarrassment of appearing before prospective employers. But this impersonal Internet era of unemployment also means few job applications result in even a “Thanks, but no thanks.” It seems job applications might as well be sent to the moon; perhaps that’s where they end up.
My file folder contains countless jobs I could have done with no sweat, jobs where I should at least have been a finalist. But my 300 job applications have resulted in just three personal interviews, including two with people I know. One guy with the power to hire me at a local university, someone I used to consider a friend, was a guest at my wedding and baby showers. Other people — younger people — got those three jobs. Little did I know that being over 60 could be such an economic curse. I’m a writer, for godsakes, not a pro athlete.
I keep plugging along. There seems no alternative, especially with the unwavering support from those I love most — my two grown kids in distant states, my ever-encouraging girlfriend who has been there for half of my yo-yo through unemployment land.
Routines still matter, strangely, in my irregular life. I make a to-do list first thing Mondays, although most entries would once have been too trivial to note. I start each day as I did when I was employed, with a morning walk, time to reflect, listen to music. My iPod recently offered a plaintive Coldplay song about a relationship breakup, and I suddenly noticed how its lyrics could also apply to my two years of unemployment.
“Nobody said it would be easy,” Chris Martin sang. “No one ever said it would be so hard.”