The Unemployment Diaries

Subway rider in winter

On the E train downtown, I took a seat near the door and turned on my Kindle. A small, dark man in baggy clothes who’d been behind me on the platform stepped on and stopped. I wondered if he was looking for a seat and scooted down closer near the door to make room on my right, but he stayed standing and looked around. He looked relatively clean and wore a dark jacket over a grey hoodie. He had on a North Face backpack. A bottle of Axe body wash was tucked into one of the side pockets.

The train started again and he cleared his throat, started to speak.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I need your help today…

His name was Samuel and he had no parents, no brothers and sisters, no friends. He was going through some troubles and was trying to get by. He didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. At the moment he had a dollar to his name.

“I’m just another dollar fifty away from getting a breakfast sandwich,” he said, his voice not yet hoarse, “I’d appreciate if you could help me out with any spare change. I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

A woman sitting across from me, holding a suitcase, was on her way back from the airport, perhaps returning from a business trip. Or a vacation. She was feeling generous and rifled around her Kate Spade handbag for several moments as he spoke.

This was Samuel’s cue, when he finished, to stop in front of her. And me.

She handed him two dollars. I thought, “What a nice lady, I hope he actually gets a breakfast sandwich.”

I considered giving him a dollar of my own – why not give Samuel a coffee with that sandwich?

But then I remembered where I was going.

——

The New York State Department of Labor is in a very nice building. 75 Varick or as the developers called it, One Hudson Square. Maybe you work in one of the many vibrant businesses headquartered there. Maybe we walked past each other in the marbled lobby, which around the holidays was finely, festively decorated with a Menorah, a Christmas Tree and dozens and dozens of poinsettias, except I had to stop and check myself in at the security desk.

NY Dept. of Labor, unemployment services

Maybe we shared an elevator (Floors 1-7) and you were the woman who, right before the holidays when I had my first appointment, wore a luscious grey cashmere wrap, knee-high leather boots and a Cartier Tank watch. You were clutching a case of Johnny Walker Black Label, trying not to drop it.

“Holiday party tonight,” you said, even though I guessed as much.

I nodded back smiling like I totally understood, because I did, even though the last company holiday party I attended as an employee was five years ago.

Or maybe you were the young man between us, who after the Johnny Walker lady got off on the fourth floor, shuffled over to where she’d been, the furthest corner away from me and pretended that the button to your floor needed to be pressed again. You wore headphones and a backpack but instead of Axe body wash in the side pocket you had a stainless steel water bottle with your company’s name printed on it. You had an Apple watch and dark skinny jeans. You looked like you had roommates you didn’t talk to much, but that you paid your own rent.

In any case, I smiled at you and you didn’t smile back. Perhaps you knew where I was going, the last floor for this bank of elevators. Last floor for last resorts. Perhaps you thought I was trying to hit on you because you had a job. Perhaps you just saw the words I’d written in all caps on the scruffy manila folder I was holding:

UNEMPLOYMENT STUFF

You got off on your company’s brightly lit floor with its happy loud blue walls and, I’m sure, sunny young receptionists on either end who asked waiting visitors if they wanted bottled water or coffee. You probably went to your desk and sat down at your desk, close to that of your office crush – a bona fide working girl – who wasn’t yet at her desk (getting herself her morning cup of coffee from the office canteen). You Googled the 7th floor of your office address.

Working Girl sat down with a smile and you turned to her, “Dude did you know that right above us is the New York State Department of Labor? Like, where all the unemployed people go?”

And as you got to work, so did the people upstairs, among them a woman named Joy who waited patiently that morning to meet with me.

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