Thursday, July 9, 2009

The recession blues, all over again

Back in 1982 and 1983, I was making my slow way out of college. I wasn’t in a rush because I couldn’t imagine what I was going to do with myself once I was officially graduated and I didn’t want to leave Santa Cruz. My undergraduate thesis (on the Fourth Book of the Aeneid) was my excuse for lingering in paradise for another year, though I ended up expending more energy on scrounging money for food and rent than I did on research or writing. The thesis itself was written in a flurry, 60 pages on a manual typewriter, typed nearly non-stop the last week of the spring semester, still not totally finished the day I stepped up to the podium on campus in my silver go-go boots and free-box black dress to receive what turned out to be only a roll of paper. The actual degree was mailed to me a few months later, after my advisers had read the thesis and awarded me honors for it.

During those two years of lingering, I worked as a sort-of governess, a housecleaner and a babysitter. I tried to do elder care, which would have garnered me an actual paycheck, but the old lady died the day after I first showed up to her door. (Being Santa Cruz, my sometimes-psychic kundalini yoga teacher unexpectedly came to her house the exact afternoon I did, without my telling him I was going there; it seems he had been her counselor at one time in her life, and he just happened to visit her that day to check on her. He took me aside and whispered to me, “Her aura is black; she will die tonight.” And she did.)

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to find meaningful work, or better paying work. But jobs were slim and hard to come by. Paradise had its price. For every job listing, dozens of people showed up. People who were qualified to over-analyze Beckett and Joyce were taking jobs at the campus library or in bookstores—if they were lucky. To get a job at Bookshop Santa Cruz or any of the other independent bookshops around town was a mark of prestige. More likely, those lit majors worked at the bagel bakery or restaurants or, worse, at the cannery or the chewing gum factory. But I couldn’t even get a job as a waitress. I showed up at restaurants, wet from bike rides in winter rainstorms, wearing my thrift store clothing, to receive a firm no. I hadn’t worked as a waitress for a few years, and there were many more people available who wore better clothes and had kept their restaurant resumes active. Or they had connections.

I applied to be a copywriter for a computer software company (turned down immediately when I confessed I’d never used a computer), a waitress at various cafes and restaurants, a bus boy at India Joze (I couldn’t pick up enough weight to manage it), a cook at a tofu burger restaurant. No-no-no. No one wanted me. [That was the year my friend, Chandra, and I made collage postcards that we didn't know how to sell.] At one point, I took a part-time job at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, operating a spinning, tilting ride that played an 8-track tape of Fleetwood Mac over and over, all day long, but I left it to work as a live-in babysitter for a doctor and his wife out in the woods of Soquel, for $300 a month and a small, kitchen-less cabin to live in. That job was washed away when the 1982 winter floods brought mudslides and impassable roads.

I managed to squeak by, my last few months there, until the end of the spring of 1983, but once I finished my thesis, it grew harder and harder to find reasons to stay, especially with most of my friends going on to graduate school or internships and jobs elsewhere, and a new crop of students rushing in. Not knowing what else to do with myself, I followed a boyfriend to Idaho and was surprised that I found work there as a preschool aide and a bookstore clerk (though I only made $4/hour, and had no insurance.)

Maybe it’s always a little difficult to find meaningful or well-paying jobs in a college town because there are so many other students looking for work, and maybe it was doubly difficult in Santa Cruz because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world—redwood forests and fields of wildflowers and grasses, blue beaches below. But the recession of the early 1980s also, surely, played a part in my inability to find a job. Yet, I didn’t know this at the time. I thought that’s the way it would always be for me, never having really actively sought work before—that I was unemployable, and back to my elementary-school standing of being the last kid chosen for the team. The lesson I took from the experience was that writers/artists really don’t make money, no matter what they try to do.

I think about those desperate months every time I read a newspaper article these days that discusses the economy and references 1982 as having the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression, and thereafter. That recession had a long-lasting effect on me. Whenever I apply for a job, I never assume that I will be hired; I lack the presumption of being wanted. 

I wonder if there are young people going through similar emotions these days, especially writers and artists who are already wondering what they can do in the marketplace with their skills, maybe not wanting to be in the marketplace, anyway, except by necessity. It's hard enough being a writer anytime, but recessions are hard on creative people. It's hard to face rejection in nearly every facet of your life. So, it's especially amazing to witness the people who keep at it, who plug on, year after year, no market ready to welcome them, still somehow sure that what they are doing needs to be done, what they are writing needs to be said.

(Photo--My graduation day, Cowell College, UCSC, 1983).

No comments: