This is at least the fifth time in my adult life that I’ve struggled with having enough full-time work consistently, this time in concert with the Great Recession and a drying up of consultant work. Luckily I do teach and do have some consulting work. There have been other times over the years, though, where having any work at all was beyond my grasp.
The first time I went through this as an adult was the long, hazy-hot-and-humid summer of ’88. Long because the University of Pittsburgh’s school year ended the last week of April. I was home from April 30 to August 29, 120 days in all, marking the longest time I ever had off from school. I came back to New York, Mount Vernon and 616, and spent the first two weeks on domestic work. I waited two weeks because there was too much cleaning to do, too many clothes to wash, too many old responsibilities to pick up again.
It was already too late by the time I began to look. Summer jobs were sparse and I was now in competition with college students in the area. I could’ve had a two or three-week head start on things if I’d started looking right away. My mother didn’t let me here the end of it. “I told you to look, but you didn’t listen,” she said to me over and over again. “You could’ve had a good job, but you sat on your ass and did nothing” was another thing my mother said to me, as if I didn’t need a break before looking for work.
By the beginning of June, I was also in competition with high school students for jobs. The summer of ’88 just happened to be one of the worst summers on record for finding a job, at least if you were between sixteen and twenty-four. In some areas like New York, the summer unemployment rate for young adults went over seventy percent, and it was worse for Black males. So I wasn’t alone, at least according to Tom Brokaw and NBC Nightly News.
I certainly didn’t feel any better, though. I went to the New York State Employment Office on Gramatan, and they offered me jobs mowing grass and fixing air conditioners. The first one required a car and barely paid four an hour. The other paid $4.50 an hour but I needed to have experience fixing air conditioners. Oh well! I looked through the papers, and called for a law office job doing research. The job required a history background and offered a $10 an hour salary, but it required me to have my B.A. in hand. “Just because I don’t have degree yet doesn’t mean I can’t do the work,” I practically begged. The woman on the other end of the phone responded, “Trust me, I’m doing you a favor. You’ll thank me later.”
I was desperate for work by the second half of June, so desperate that I literally walked Manhattan for a job one day. I looked at a job ad in the Daily News, one that required applicants to go to an address on Broadway in Manhattan. The job allegedly paid $400 a week. I had just enough money left from my CIS job at Pitt to catch the Subway there and back. I walked from 616 to 241st, and took the 2 like I used to. Stupid me got off the train at 42nd Street and Times Square, having forgotten that New York’s numbered addresses didn’t take jumps from block to block. If a building’s address on one block was 1000 Broadway, the building’s address on the next block would likely be 996 Broadway. My address was around the 200 mark of Broadway. I proceeded to walk in my only good suit from Times Square to Broadway and from there in Midtown all the way to Chinatown, a walk of nearly three miles. It was pouring rain on that hot and humid day, somewhere in the upper eighties.
After almost an hour of walking, I found the place. It was a sweatshop, with lots of Chinese immigrant women sewing cloth for dear life. Apparently the job involved “supervising” these poor women. I had to turn around and walk until I found the nearest Subway stop, wind my way back to 241st, and then walk home from there. Five hours, five lost pounds and two ruined shoes later, I was beyond worn and forlorn. I gave up hope that day of finding any summer work.
My last real attempt at finding work that summer was to take the U.S. Postal Service’s postal carrier exam out at their sorting facilities in North White Plains. It was an embarrassing experience, taking a civil service exam with folks who obviously weren’t in school. I didn’t even know that there were study guides for these exams, for knowing the difference between McClellan and Mclellan, zip codes 10552 and 15250, and AK and AL as states. I spent two hours sweating in a warehouse-like room, breezing through questions and hoping that I would get a call. That was the twenty-fifth of July, the last Monday of the month.
About ten days later, a letter came from the Postal Service telling me that I passed the exam with an 86. Preference would be given to veterans and other applicants with special circumstances, then the highest scores after that would get a call, depending on job vacancies. I knew that it would be a long time before I heard from them again. I did, just before Christmas ’92, when I was in my second year of grad school.
While going back to school ended my unemployment cycle that time around, I don’t have that as an option now as a partially gainfully employed professor and consultant. But, between my skills, faith, hope and the fact that I still have quite a bit of work already, I have as much to look forward to now as I did twenty-two summers ago.