The notice was clear. On July 10 I was required to report at the New York Department of Labor, Unemployment Division, for employment counseling. It reminded me a little of my draft notice in its officiousness: “This is mandatory. Failure to appear will result in the loss of your unemployment benefits.”
So off I trudge to the Big Apple for the first time since June 5.
I arrive at 2:30 sharp, my appointed time, and check-in. I am told to join the group that is just going into the conference room. A break, I think, because this might be the 2:00 group just getting started.
The conference room is packed. Rows and rows of long tables fill the room. I take one of the last seats in the last row. A swarm of Gray Ladies are busily handing out questionnaires and collecting the ones we were required to bring with us.
The head Gray Lady reminds me of Sister Helen Maurice, my third grade teacher. “No one will be allowed to leave the room without turning in your forms!”, she cackles. “No one will be allowed to leave without an exit interview! No eating or drinking!” I am thinking “defrocked nun.”
I am desperately trying to concentrate. I have to confess that I break down in the face of bullying bureaucracy, and questionnaires are not my strong point. I turn mine in to an oriental Gray Lady. She takes one look at it and slams it down in front of me. “Write,write!,” she says. Apparently she doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain my deficiency further. I am sweating bullets as I look at my paper and see all of the questions answered. I can think of nothing to do but add a few lines to one of them and hand the paper back. “Write,write!!,” she barks again plopping my paper down in front of me. Now panic sets in. I am back in grammar school with sister looming over my desk. I will never be allowed to leave the room until I satisfy Write-Write Lady.
Suddenly the man next to me saves the day. “She wants you to write down what you have been doing to find a job,” he explains. I look at the form and see no question to this effect. I write my response on the bottom of the page. This satisfies Write-Write Lady and she drifts away.
I thank him. He is a salesman from New Jersey and he seems to have done this before. “They are just trying to make us feel like shit for collecting our benefits,” he explains.
The woman in the row ahead of us turns and says: “You two are going to get detention if you keep talking like that.”
Sister Helen is now in front of the room and about to begin her presentation. She asks if there are any veterans present. One man raises his hand. “You can leave and see one of our counselors on the way out. There is no reason for you to sit through this,” she says.
Now my mind is racing. What are they going to put us through that even a battle hardened vet cannot endure? Suddenly a wild thought enters my head: a physical!!
Long suppressed memories of my army physical come storming back. Maybe they want to make sure we are physically fit for employment. I begin scanning the doorways for the appearance of a white smock clad doctor with a box of rubber gloves who will utter those dreaded words: “Drop drawers and bend over.”
Sister Helen is speaking. There is a power point presentation projecting on a green wall that is unreadable from where I am sitting. She does not explain it except to say that it is important. Will there be a quiz?
She is now talking about how she has no computer or technological skills and still has a dial up phone in her house. I am thinking “defrocked cloistered nun.” She then begins a rant as to why she will never set foot in Walmart. I wonder what this has to do with anything. Maybe it is to make us feel better about ourselves: if someone like this can hold a job, there is hope for us.
She announces that this ends the formal presentation and that each of us will be called up for an individual exit interview and counseling. Four Gray Ladies divvy up the pile of questionnaires and resumes. Two set up shop in the conference room, and two lead their victims off to the rabbit warren of cubicles outside.
There are 32 of us in the room as this begins. Gradually, as names are read out the crowd thins. Salesman is on my left and Vicky from New Jersey is on my right. Soon, we are the only ones in our row. We begin to wonder if our earlier chit chat is being held against us.
Salesman says “I hope we get that mousy chick in front of the room. She is turning them over fast.” I guess this shows how much he esteems the counseling one receives here.
Finally Vicky and Salesman are gone along with everyone else. I am alone. A team of two counselors have been involved for what seems like forever trying to sort out a banker's resume. Mousy Chick is deep in conversation with another applicant. It is 4:30. If they don’t get to me, will I have to return?
Mousy Chick finishes. She turns, surveys the empty room as though she is searching for someone in a sea of faces and calls out in a loud voice “Gerard Andersen.” I don’t correct her but spring from my seat to join her.
She looks at my resume. “This is long,” she opines. I explain that I have shorter versions desperately hoping to divert her from reconstructing my resume at this late hour.
“What is this organization you worked for…a union?”, she asks. I tell her that it is a trade association, a group that represents manufacturers rather than workers. “Oh, I never heard of that,” she says. Now I am in full flight mode. What kind of advise can I expect from someone who has never heard of what I do?
“I see you started in 1973…..25 years is a long time,” she says as she reads further. I tactfully point out that 1973 was 35 years ago. “Oh, I never was good at math,” she responds. “I was in high school then,” she adds. Yeah, and I bet you didn’t get asked to the prom.
Finally, she asks what kind of employment I am seeking. I say I would like to join another non-profit. She makes a graceful gesture with her hand that resembles a bird in flight and says: “Those union jobs are gooooooooing awaaaaaaay.”
With this nugget of counseling firmly lodged in my head I bolt for the door and home.