Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at email@example.com), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
On an unseasonably chilly autumn day, Lat and I are sitting in his office, commiserating about the cold. “I’m freezing,” I say, rubbing my hands over the steam rising from the coffee fountain. “Shouldn’t we be enjoying Native American summer right now?”
“Yeah,” Lat responds absently, his eyes fixed on the computer screen in front of him. I wait for a proper response, but he seems absorbed in the task before him. After a few minutes, I get up and stand behind him, peering nosily over his shoulder.
He is downloading a virtual fireplace to his desktop. After a few minutes of virtual tending, it begins to crackle gaily. “Ah,” he says, relaxing visibly. “There’s nothing like a nice fire on a cold fall day … and virtual fires are much eco-friendlier than their wood-burning facsimiles!” He leans back in his chair and arranges his feet on his desk. “Did I mention that I’m watching my carbon footprint?”
“I did notice that your carbon footprint was looking particularly svelte,” I tell him. I stare out at the window, where the trees are being battered by a cold wind. A wave of melancholy, sudden and bracing, washes over me. “The weather has gone as cold as the scent for job leads,” I say glumly.
Lat strokes his chin thoughtfully for a moment, and then begins to dig through a stack of papers on his desk. It teeters dangerously and then cascades onto the floor. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “Paper avalanche.” After a moment, he extracts a creased copy of the New York Times, which he brandishes triumphantly.
“I was just reading about these job clubs, where people ‘meet to mingle, resumes in tow,'” he says. “And I was thinking: maybe you should try going to one. It could be an excellent networking opportunity!”
Another swell of melancholy builds, gathers into a frothy whitecap, and crashes around me. “That’s what you said about that speed-dating event we went to last year,” I say, trying not to sound peevish, “and that was a total waste of time, in six-minute increments. Besides, I just … I hate those things,” I tell him. “They feel so … forced.”
Lat responds with stony silence, then leans over and minimizes the fireplace. “Get going, sister,” he says sternly. “Find a networking event, and then you can come back and tell me all about it. Until then, no merrily crackling fire for you!”
I sulk for a few minutes, and then relent. In truth, my job search has stalled, and nothing I have done lately in an attempt to jump-start it seems to work. Why not? I figure, trying to muster optimism. At this point, I have nothing to lose.
I spend the next few days searching online (using http://blog.yoursearchlights.org/ — one of the resources highlighted in the Times article — as well as Meetup.com and LinkedIn) for a networking event to attend. Because I cannot seem to find one in the city at a time that works for me (and because the one networking event I attended in Manhattan was both ferociously competitive and, unfortunately, a lot like speed dating) I settle on one in Northern New Jersey. This strikes me as a strategically sound choice: after all, I figure, the attendees are probably either commuters with ties to the Manhattan job market, or people with connections in New Jersey, where (I think hopefully) perhaps the job market is less moribund.
Having selected a meeting to attend, I email the group’s facilitator to RSVP and get some background information. Rhonda (the facilitator) responds on the afternoon of the event, but tells me that this particular gathering is geared primarily toward Human Resources professionals. But she assures me that they “have had attendees from various backgrounds,” and suggests that I “come to at least one networking event and determine then if this is the group for you. As the evening progresses, you can let me know what you think.” Her email ends with a cheerful, “Looking forward to meeting you tomorrow! :)” Discouraged, I consider telling Lat that I have decided not to go. “It’s not a good fit,” I plan to say. “And I’ll probably be the only lawyer there.” I am dialing the phone, however, when it occurs to me that the source of my apprehension is not the potential composition of the group. In reality, I am just not sure whether — after months in the breadline — I can still pass for someone employable.
Once this realization dawns on me, the floodgates open, and I feel a panicky swell of doubt rise — dark and ominous, like a sudden thunderstorm, or diarrhea – and threaten to douse me with something toxic. A list of qualms scrolls through my mind. What if (after far too many one-sided conversations with the cats) my social skills have atrophied beyond recognition? What if I can no longer play the part of a lawyer convincingly? What if people say, “I didn’t know lawyers got laid off!” and I have to explain – again — that lawyers do, in fact, get laid off? What if, despite my explanation, they look at me with pity, nod knowingly, and think “She must have fucked up”? Why, after all this time, does being laid off still feels like something that I did wrong? What if, in mid-conversation, I slip and say “Who’s a good kitty?” in my cat voice? What if we play a game, and no one picks me for their team? What will I wear?
After a few minutes of hand-wringing, I realize that my focus — on these hypothetical wellsprings of anxiety — is all wrong. Why struggle against the tentacles of ambient anxiety when I can identify the actual, concrete sources of my trepidation? Here, I remind myself, are some of the things I have learned: life in the breadline can be isolated. Life without work can feel directionless. Prolonged unemployment makes you question what you have to offer, and why (if it’s as valuable as your student loan bills suggest) no one wants to partake of it. Any one of these truths would be discouraging; in the aggregate, they have the potential to be debilitating. But, I conclude, staying at home and commiserating with the cats is a sure way to turn a perceived disability into guaranteed paralysis. My inner high school football coach materializes for a brief moment. “Get pumped!” he yells. “Run a smooth offense! Size doesn’t matter! It’s all about determination! The only opponent you’re playing is yourself! Now get out there, and prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet!”
Thanks, Coach! I think. Spirits buoyed, I hit the shower. Afterwards, I am still not sure what to wear, so I rifle through my work clothes with the guilty sense that I am waking them from hibernation. I put on my grown-up watch and a skirt, then a different skirt, and then – unable to face the inevitable battle between me and panty hose – settle on a pair of black pants. Suddenly aware that my dawdling has put me behind schedule, I rush into the bathroom, where the bras I hand-washed earlier in the day are hanging to dry. Alas: it seems that I have miscalculated the atmospheric conditions in my apartment. Every bra is still soaking wet.
I run back to my bedroom and paw frantically through my underwear drawer, lingerie flying cartoonishly as I dig through the pile. Buried in its recesses, I find a bra which, though clean, is a tattered relic of its former self; it probably should have gone to live on the farm a while back. “You can retire after this,” I tell it, “I promise. Just do me this one, last favor. I really need your support right now.” Despite my pleas, the strap detaches itself defiantly the minute I put it on. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I snap irritably, and spend the next fifteen minutes tossing my apartment, first for a needle and thread, then a safety pin, and, ultimately, for my stapler. Although I am certain I have seen each of these items recently, I am unable to locate any one of them. I wonder whether, when I leave, they will emerge (animated like the bombastic housewares in a Disney movie) and stage an elaborate musical number about their clever escape.
Glancing at the clock (which, I suspect, is part of the houseware conspiracy), I realize that I am officially running late. After digging through my dresser once more, I stumble upon a solution: the top of my bikini. It may be inelegant, I tell myself, but sometimes you have to go to war with the army you have.
Fifteen minutes later, I am headed north on the FDR Drive — or I would be, but for the wall of traffic blocking my way. (Yes, car haters: I drove.) Sighing, I put my car in park and turn on the radio. The President is in town, the announcer informs me, and motorists can expect “scattered traffic snarls.” I scan the sea of cars: this is definitely a snarl. It wouldn’t be so bad, I think idly, if a Starbucks barista on rollerskates could bring me a cup of coffee! I fantasize for a moment about my hot, cheerfully-delivered cup of coffee, but the dream vaporizes quickly amidst honking and distant sirens. When I look over to the car beside me, its driver makes an obscene gesture involving his tongue and first two fingers. “Fuck you,” I mouth slowly, and flip him the bird. I hope that I am not accumulating bad networking karma.
Traffic crawls over the bridge, but once I get to New Jersey the roadway clears magically, and I pick up speed. The event is being held in a “family restaurant,” or what my friend Liam calls a “flair chain,” and I scan each of the strip malls I pass (of which there seem to be dozens) anxiously, afraid that I will miss it. I am already fifteen minutes late. Finally, I see the restaurant’s festive sign, looming like a beacon in the second of several strip malls on my right. I pull into the parking lot, wrap a bulky scarf around my neck to camouflage the bow that holds my bikini top in place, and run in.
Two bored hostesses, each resembling a flair-laden Christmas tree, greet me. I tell them I am looking for the networking event, and they point to a dining area upstairs. I decide to stop at the restroom first, just to make sure I look presentable.
Once there, I examine my reflection in the mirror. I am wearing work clothes (or some facsimile thereof, not counting the bathing suit) and makeup, and the woman who stares back at me looks unfamiliar – something like me, but in costume. “Hi,” I say, trying for a network-appropriate tone, “I’m Roxana!” Too informal. I try again. “Hi, I’m Roxana St. Thomas. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” The woman in the mirror manages a prim smile. Before I can respond, the door opens, and two women walk in. “I tried like fifty fucking kinds of haih-spray,” one says. “Nothing holds my fucking haih up.” My dress rehearsal is over, I decide. It’s showtime.
“Does this scarf look stupid?” I ask the women, before I turn to go. They step back and look me over. “Lose the scarf, hon,” says the woman with flat haih. “Whaddya, cold?” her friend chimes in. “It’s like 60 fuckin’ degrees out.” They exchange a look, and then peer at my feet. When I follow their gaze, I am mortified to find that I am still wearing sneakers.
“Oh, fuck,” I say. I know exactly where my work-appropriate shoes are: at home. By the door.
“Don’t worry, hon,” the friend reassures me. “It’s dark in theah. No one will notice.”
I scowl at my feet for a moment, and then gather myself. “Thanks,” I say to the women. “Enjoy your dinnah.”
On my way out of the restroom and up the stairs, I pass a colorized portrait of Elvis. “Got My Mojo Working!” I tell him silently. He smiles, aloof and perfectly coiffed, back at me. I bound up the stairs quickly, and am greeted by the stares of about a dozen people, who are seated around a table in the otherwise empty room. They look at me expectantly.
“Hi,” I say, smiling brightly. “I’m Roxana St. Thomas.”
TO BE CONTINUED….
Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email (at firstname.lastname@example.org), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook. And check out the Notes from the Breadline t-shirt store here.
Earlier: Prior installments of Notes from the Breadline