A six-part series by Laurence Peterson documenting an example of downward mobility in Post-Meltdown America

Part 1. Dumpster Diving for Work

In which the author attempts to fill a new role set for him by bourgeois economists: as a “discouraged worker”

This series provides a sequel to the last one I wrote for this site, which was posted going on two years ago (September, 2015). Since the Spring of 2014, the point at which that narrative broke off, the most pertinent aspect of my working life has come to consist in the fact that what little by way of relevant qualifications that attached me to a conventional workforce then—which seemed to offer at least a still reasonable, if rapidly declining, hope of eventual full-time, year-round employment, a wage that would allow me to live independently, paid health insurance (with large, and growing deductibles and co-payment fees, albeit), and even, maybe, paid days off/holiday—had become completely and perhaps forever severed. As such, I found myself forced to dumpster-dive at job opportunities I would have simply laughed away as a teenager with no tertiary education or professional job experience, all of which I possessed now, some thirty-five years later, but to no effect. 

In the cliché-besotted nomenclature uncritically acclaimed by hordes of contemporary human resources professionals, I have become a “discouraged worker,” who has “left” the regular labour force (as if one has a choice to do so in a country with a pronounced lack of a functional social safety net), and whose “skill sets” have simply evaporated into thin air away from the nurturing and indispensible gaze of the boss for the last few years. Never mind the fact that I had demonstrated a capacity for rapid and thorough readjustment by being converted from temporary to permanent employment several times in the past, in fields as varied as accounts-payable and unclaimed property; all the agencies I had generated fat fees for in this regard refused to talk to me anymore. Forget about my educational achievements (Phi Beta Kappa honours, 2 years of graduate study in philosophy) and even my more limited experience as a manager. In the view of potential employers facing vast numbers of candidates for extremely scarce positions, I was one thing, and one thing only: damaged goods, to be weeded out at the earliest opportunity, especially since I didn’t maintain any effective inside connections anywhere.

After a period in which I concentrated my efforts on finding regular employment (in which I ran out of my savings—I had exhausted unemployment benefits long beforehand–lost my apartment, and had to move in with my mother, at the tender age of 53), I tried to focus on jobs like bartending, waiting tables, or in liquor stores, in which I had worked in the past, before gaining any professional experience. I eventually found jobs in a country club bistro and also a liquor store on Cape Cod (where my family owned a summer home) but this was seasonal work only. Come autumn, I had moved back to my mother’s permanent residence, and repeated inquiries, responding to published solicitations for employment at the few local restaurants and liquor stores (in an economically devastated/high crime area) proved unsuccessful, in spite of my work history. One recent development that may have prevented me from finding work as a barman concerned the proliferation of bartending schools in America. Like other non-degree higher education institutions, chains of these expensive schools (which cost more than public community college classes) offer certificates that employers increasingly demand, regardless of experience, and this industry , which relies highly disproportionately on Federally-funded and guaranteed student loans (often accounting for up to 90% of revenues for a school), has been protected due to its lobbying clout in the US Congress despite extremely poor graduation and work-placement rates.

Two experiences really require special mention, in terms of the appallingly unnecessary rigmarole potential employers have come to expect of job applicants these days. I applied for a position at a sandwich shop that had expanded into, of all things, a striptease club, with the ultimate intention of trying to get on the bar or even in as a busboy or something in the club. I was put through two interviews for this position, and heard nothing thereafter, until I forgot about the whole thing. Then, eight months later I received a call from the owner’s son, with whom I had originally interviewed, and he invited me back for a third interview for the rock-bottom-wage/no benefits sandwich maker position. Instead of ringing off with the snort of contempt the situation so richly deserved, I not only slunk back, but took advantage of a friendship with someone who had worked at both the sandwich shop and strip club years earlier to load up on stories and names that allowed me to engage the owner’s son in several minutes worth of kneeslapping, footstomping reminiscence about the glory days during my interview. I left the interview fearing more than anything else that my new friend would turn into, as is all too common in this business, a psychotic boss, prone to all manner of lunatic outbursts, delusions of grandeur and paranoid suspicions. After informing me that he had retained the files on five others from eight months previous, and actually having managed to make contact with two of us, he said he would decide between us that weekend and inform me of his decision no matter what. He owed me that much, he said. Guess what: he never called me back.

But what really killed all hope of obtaining a position in a bar or restaurant was my experience in the extremely unlikely setting of a Turkish restaurant in a neighboring town, Stoughton, Massachusetts. We don’t have Doner Kebab or anything like that in New England; and this was an independent, sit-down restaurant in a nondescript, economically challenged community with no significant Turkish or Middle Eastern ethnic presence, so far as I knew. But I was desperate, and the fact that I had seen the advert on Craigslist (which mentioned nothing about ability to speak Turkish or anything else that might disqualify me from the start) raised hopes in me that the management of this place would make do with a warm body with a lot of restaurant experience, anyway. At my interview, which took place on a Friday, I spoke with the owner, Ali, for about ten minutes, and it became clear within the first seconds that Ali’s command of English was minimal. So minimal, in fact, that I tried to speak to him in German (lots of Turks speak German, on account of the large Turkish migration to Germany that took place after World War II, and played no insignificant role in rebuilding the country), but Ali didn’t speak that language at all. Still, we parted with the understanding that I would turn up the following Monday at ten in the morning to begin work.

Ali looked a little surprised when he answered the door that Monday, and took a few minutes to come up with a plan of action that involved a second person. He and I began filling a slops bucket up with water to wash the floor, but when I asked where the cleaning fluid was Ali leaned against the mop, sighed, and dismissed me forever with the words “Business very bad, my friend; you go home now.” I could have made his life a little difficult by insisting that he pay me a day’s wages for coming in to work, but I figured we were both miserable enough as things stood.

Accordingly, I lowered the dumpster bar a considerable bit in the weeks afterward and confined my job search mostly to retail outfits offering little more than minimum wage, often for work which I had no experience in whatsoever. Here, my experience as an applicant for a position chasing shopping trolleys in the car park surely deserves one more honourable mention by way of employer callousness towards applicants. For this job, I interviewed three times; during the first interview, I was quoted a wage rate ($9.50) that mysteriously declined by one quarter dollar per hour in the second, and was kept waiting one half hour for the third interview by the manager, who unceremoniously told me they’d lost the online application for which I had received an acknowledgement of submission from Home Depot a few days before. In this case, I was so angry when the manager insisted that I file a new application that I simply refused and walked out.

Despite lowering my standards about as far as I could (I even tried to get work in a day labour agency, but was turned down because I didn’t possess a pair of steel-toed boots), I received no calls back for two whole months. By this time I was living off the kindness of my mother, and I began to wonder whether or not something in my past—or something that had come to take an undeserved place on my criminal or employment records, anyway—was preventing me from obtaining any kind of employment whatsoever. Let me explain: in the United States, large, profitable private data collection companies provide information to employers, for a charge, about the work, criminal and credit histories of jobseekers. Unfortunately, the data can be—and are, 5% of the time , according to estimates–incorrect; so much so that employers, by law, are enjoined not to make decisions on employment based on the data. Needless to say, there is, almost all the time, no means of redress for those whose data are mistakenly or otherwise mishandled, and victims mostly never know of any breach to begin with. And given the fact that, until very recently, the entire process was unregulated, concerns about the effectiveness of the prohibition remain palpably unaddressed, especially since the industry is a major donor regarding political campaign funds.

Relief of a sort finally came my way towards the very end of October. I had responded to yet another Craigslist advert, this time to exhibit samples of food and drinks products, mostly, with a few consumer items thrown in, sold at the wholesale club Costco. I would not be working for Costco directly, but for Club Demonstration Services, operated out of distant San Diego, which is part of Daymon Worldwide, a multinational provider of retail-related outsourcing services. Like so many other jobs I had found myself applying for in the last few years, I seemed superbly unqualified for this position: I knew very little about food (and what I did know, mostly about revolting food processing and agribusiness practices, would not be welcomed by the bosses as part of any presentation), am decidedly poor at preparing it, and, for some reason, find talking about food utterly uninteresting and uniquely meaningless or simply tautological almost all of the time.

But the magic of the marketplace had brought this sad little pairing together, and I had no choice but to conjure up a living with precious little besides sheer presence.

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