The Unemployment Diaries: The Red Room

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Photo by Loic Lextrait via

This is part 2. Read Part 1 here.

The New York Department of Labor requires you to check in twice. First with a security guard at a little fold-out desk just right of the elevator bank. She has a desk lamp, a box of kleenex, and a long list of who’s coming in that day. She doesn’t smile. Her job is to look skeptical and she does it well. She asks for the orange paper the Dole sent to you a week ago, not so much reminding as bombing you with your appointment. If you can’t make it, you better have a good reason as your benefits stop IMMEDIATELY – all caps – if you don’t show up. She points you to the receptionist who also doesn’t smile. The receptionist takes your resume, staples it to a stack of papers and hands you a pen.

There’s a little waiting area behind her, where several people are already seated. Surprisingly, they remind you of…you and people you know. Girls wearing Madewell sweaters and J. Crew boots. Men wearing skinny jeans. There is a man bun, a pair of Sperry’s. One girl has pearl earrings and holds a Longchamp bag. Her iPhone cover is the same brand as yours. Despite their apparent circumstances, everyone looks remarkably well-off, well educated and in one fat person’s case, too well-fed. It could be the waiting room at the Columbia Health Center, except more grey. Less sterile.

At some point the receptionist tells everyone to go on back to The Red Room, which is called that not because it’s red but because it has red office chairs. One for each of the ten or so wooden desks that line either side of the narrow room. The desks look like they were donated by a high school wood shop class. At the front there’s an old school projector – the kind my biology teacher used to use to show us diagrams of mitochondria, a greying white board, and an old PC, which is hooked up to a digital projector that’s playing a slideshow. There’s a chipper white guy narrating the video, trying to sound politically correct to go with the politically correct images of white, black, Asian and Hispanic people wearing business suits, all clutching folders that presumably contain polished resumes.

“Welcome to the New York State Department of Labor Job Search Resource Center,” the voice says, “We are here to help.”

The stack of papers stapled to my resume asks questions like, “How far are you willing to commute to a job?” One hour by subway.

“Do you have reliable means of transportation?” Yes.

“What methods would you use?” Walking, subway. I don’t circle “bus.”

“What shifts are you willing to work?” Monday through Friday, 9-6PM.

I answer the questions with a dull golf pencil and watch the video. There’s a white guy named Steve beaming at me from the screen. Apparently Steve is an “executive secretary” who’s lost his job and is now just starting the job search. Steve looks a little too happy to have a.) been an executive secretary  and b.) lost his job. But apparently he’s the most relatable example the slideshow makers can find and we’re supposed to follow him through his job hunting journey, using the “cutting edge tools” and “up-to-date resources” the Dole offers.

“Are you on LinkedIn?” The man’s voice says, “Social media can be a powerful tool.”

He’s right. I look around – no one else is paying attention to the video. Everyone is checking Instagram or Facebook on their phones, despite signs over every table that say, “No Cell Phones, No Food, No Beverages. NO CELL PHONES.” Man Bun is texting someone on what looks to be the Tinder interface. The girl with the pearl earrings is sitting directly to my left and is scrolling through photos of her friends (or influencers) on Instagram. Ice cream, champagne, the beach. I’m sure her profile, like mine, has a lot of the same stuff. There will be no selfies in the Red Room. I take my phone out too and check my own feeds. Might as well.

To be continued… 


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