man needs to work. And this is not just a matter of survival. It’s
through this work that a man knows, or at least feels, that he’s going
somewhere. Now, when he arrives at that place – there is no “finally” –
he may pause and take a breath or two — but then he just pushes on.
and maybe nothing more, is what it means to be a man.
brings us to Jim Hardson, who, like any man, just wanted to work. The
problem, however, was simple: there was no work to be had.
had, since graduating high school, worked in a small machine shop. But
Mitchell’s Tools, along with a lot of other small businesses, had been
slowly squeezed out, or, better put, choked to death, by the big
corporations that had moved in. The pattern was always pretty much the
same: first, new orders slowed, then fell off sharply. In this lean
period, an unused warehouse might be closed, or an extra truck sold off.
But it wouldn’t be enough, and so the lay-offs would start.
lay-offs would be thought of as temporary. In a few months, when things
picked up again, everybody would be hired back. So you tried to stretch
a dollar, and took whatever happened to come along. Even a couple of
things didn’t pick up, and small businesses went from the red into
closure. And local people’s lives went from bad to worse.
Mitchell said he felt like a bum when he closed the place. He’d never
been so ashamed in all his life as having to put 24 people out of work.
And in winter, too. His own son, with two kids of his own, had been shop
manager. Now, like the rest, out of a job.
man’s paternal granddad had opened that shop in 1935, with a loan from
FDR. Two and a half generations had been proud to produce fine tools and
make a decent living by it. Sure, there had been some tough times too,
but quality, hard work, and guts had always won out.
now? Well, people and quality were out, and machines and mediocrity were
out as long as he could. Maybe even longer. At last, there was nothing
left to do but cut everybody a month’s severance, type up letters of
recommendation, and file for Chapter 11.
a few of the other fellows had tried at some of the new factories. Each
time, however, they got the same song: 1) you were over-paid at you last
job, 2) you’re over-skilled for this work, and 3) we don’t need any
additional workers at this time, anyway. You might try in a couple of
months, for the cleaning crew.
Jim already knew that life was mostly hard knocks. But at that age, your
strength, and inexperience, provide optimism. Old man Mitchell, however,
who could see more than he wanted to say, had told everybody, “Apply for
unemployment right away. ‘Cuz ya never know, an’ things don’t look so
darkly ironic aspect of what is commonly known as the unemployment
office having the nerve to publicly term itself the “Employment Office”
is generally lost on people who have hungry children or are about to be
evicted, or both. Again, too, the stultifying quiet of the place is
something only unconsciously perceived.
seem to hold your breath as you wait, listening. Listening to the static
buzz of the lights, to the scrap of the shoes against the floor as the
endless lines shuffle forward, to murmured half-heard conversations,
beside you or far-off behind blurred glass partitions, to the
intermittent ring of telephones . . .
is, however, the occasional outburst to perk things up. It will be noted
(everything is noted) that the outraged individual creating this ruckus,
this momentary blip on the screen of bureaucratic bliss, this gratuitous
disturbance of the carefully contrived funeral-pallor atmosphere,
invariably fulfils two conditions. First, this person will be unaware of
the surreal reality governing the Employment Office (i.e., it is his or
her first time out of work). Second, “dependents”, as children are
termed, will be waiting at home.
authorities have studied these cases (everything is studied), and have
found that, invariably, one of three conclusions will ensue. Most
likely, the angered person will rapidly quiet down, settling into a kind
of numbed stupor, staring dumbly at a “benefit” check that amounts not
to one third of a normal week’s pay (and that limited to X weeks).
Second, a moderate number will be so incensed as to storm out of
unemployment, yelling to all within earshot, that the mayor or their
brother-in-law who works on the local newspaper will hear about this.
Finally, a rather small, but growing, number will actually have the
police called on them. These insistently naďve individuals are then
charged with breach of peace, disorderly conduct, and so on, and then
efficiently hauled off to the local jail (under current social
conditions, standing up for one’s rights is no longer permitted in the
“Land of the Free”, as many have noted).
however, had no illusions. Although vaguely entertaining the notion that
the government did do something for people, in his own experience
he’d never known them to do anything but collect taxes, hand out
speeding tickets, and occasionally pave the roads.
all this being the case (and in government offices, everything is a
“case”), Jim could only laugh when the sour-faced fellow behind the desk
informed him, after three hours filled with as many multi-page forms,
that his benefit would amount to a grand total of 42 dollars per week,
for 15 weeks. Starting in two weeks. Minus tax.
walked out of unemployment, printed copy of “leads” in his shirt pocket
(a list of three companies he knew damn well not to be hiring, but was
obliged nonetheless to apply to in order to “qualify” for his benefit),
Jim once again sized up his situation.
was the rent and the car payment: his savings could handle those for a
couple of months. But then he’d be flat broke. Next, 42 bucks wouldn’t
go very far in terms of a week’s food and gas, but he figured he’d just
have to skip a few meals and charge the fuel. About the electric and the
phone . . . Well, Jim always kind of wondered how long you could go
before Ma and Con cut you off.
wind snapped at Jim’s face as he unlocked the car. For the first time,
he found himself considering the term “repossession”. Though only two
o’clock, the sky was dark, and the temperature dropping. Pulling the
leads from his pocket, he frowned at the memory of the pencil-necked
geek who’d pushed them across the desk at him.
one was Devon Corporation: “World famous manufacturer of fine paper
products . . .” Jim snorted in derision, the cold air pluming white.
Devon, everybody and their dog knew, churned out cheap toilet paper, and
the only thing they were famous for was treating their employees like
sighed at even the thought of working for Devil Corp. (as it was locally
known). The rows and rows nondescript concrete buildings; the huge,
circular water-treatment plants that stunk to high heaven and deep hell;
and every fool in the joint droned-out in blue work clothes, heart
covered by the devil’s name and number.
cold wind rattled the tops of the bare trees, and Jim glanced up through
the windshield at the cloudy sky. Yeah, it looked like it would get
worse before better. Well, at least one problem was nailed down: a month
back Jim had put on the snow-tires and even tossed a sturdy shovel into
the truck for good measure. No, he wouldn’t get stuck.
he said aloud, with resolution, as he shifted the car into gear, “time
to pay the devil a visit.”
the road, Jim pulled out of unemployment.
personnel section of Devil Corp. was not busy; in fact, it contained but
a single woman, blue-clad and neatly barricaded behind a solidly stacked
desk. As Jim entered the silent, air-tight enclosure, the mechanized
door spring hissing after him, the woman did not look up, but merely
continued on assiduously filling-in whatever it what was she was
me,” Jim said to the tight bronze bun bowed to the numbered boxes. The
woman, expressionless, condescended to direct her eyes upward.
wonder if you have any openings – ” he began, but before he could say
anymore the woman was already shaking her manikin-like head.
quite obvious from her expression – she had no openings. Quite
untouchable. Impregnable, one might say.
sorry, we’re not hiring now,” came the bland phrase. “You might try
again in a couple of months.” She returned her attention to the empty
second, Jim considered asking for an application, if for the sole and
sorry reason of “proof of appearance”. He then rejected the idea:
unemployment wasn’t horseshoes and they weren’t giving away a damn
cool nip had turned to a cold bite, and snow, in a steady drift, had
begun to fall. Jim looked up through the white swirl, then down to the
hard, black of the parking lot. The ground was just as cold; it was
already sticking, beginning to pile up. How long would it last?
sudden fall threw the town’s traffic into a minor tangle. The thin-frame
econo-models, as well as the all-engine sports jobs, spun and whirred. A
few, in their hot impatience to get wherever they were getting to,
managed to slide themselves off the road completely. Jim, however,
simply kept his eyes wide open, a firm grip on the wheel, and let the
tires do their work. Getting home was slow work, but he got there.
snow continued the rest of the day, and all through the night. When Jim
tried to open his front door the next morning he found a foot of snow
blocking it. Down the street, in fact as far as he could see, the thick,
white cover lay unbroken, its frozen top glistening in the cold morning
sun. Even the plough-trucks had yet to venture out. It seemed everyone
was waiting for someone else. Well, at least it had stopped.
didn’t even bother to close the half-open door, but merely turned and
threw on his overcoat, boots, and hat.
helps those . . .” he said as he forced the door fully open. Knee-deep,
he crunched and high-stepped his way to his buried car. The trunk was
unlocked and the shovel retrieved.
minutes, a nice clear path was cut from car to door. Jim stood for a
moment on his cleaned doorstep, looking away down the street at the
gentle, rolling whiteness.
window banged open. Next door, on the second floor, old man Gaston stuck
his thin, bald head out into the chill winter morning, looking about in
disbelief. Gaping (dentures not in), he stared slack-jawed at the
whiteness that spread out before him.
appearances, the furnace was on (as evidenced by the absence of snow on
the roof). The old man called out to Jim.
raised a gloved hand in greeting. “‘Mornin’, Mr. G!”
that shovel to get to my door,” Gaston yelled back, his breath puffs of
white, “An’ you’ll find ten bucks waitin’ for ya!”
my way!” Jim called back, laughing.
minutes, a pair of crispy Lincolns were slid into Jim’s pocket.
stood for a moment, leaning on his shovel, taking a breath in the icy
as there was an awful lot of snow in front of an awful lot of houses, he
put the shovel over his shoulder, and moved on down the line.