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When the federal economic stimulus package hit the news in January, my latest run on unemployment was just going dry, and the mere prospect of getting another job was enough to make my testicles retract into my body. When reports surfaced that a three- or six-month (!!) unemployment extension was going to be part of the package, it seemed like government was finally doing something for the little guy, instead of just the fat cats and whiny Christians. I spent the next two weeks Google News-ing “unemployment extension economic stimulus” every 10 minutes.
When the package including the extension failed by one vote, I was so fucking pissed at the United States government that if an al-Qaeda recruiter had pitched me at that moment, I’d be in the Afghanistan desert as we speak, screaming Arabic at the top of my lungs while bayoneting an Uncle Sam mannequin.
I’ve been on unemployment three times in the past six years. Each time was better than the last, and each time I stayed on until the last cent was exhausted. I didn’t even try to get a job; it was a paid vacation. This is somewhat unusual from what I can tell. There’s a deep vein of antipathy in this country toward collecting checks from the government, especially in precincts that tend to skew rightward. Politicians imply that it’s un-American for an individual to milk the government, all while jacking up corporate welfare for their campaign contributors. And your uncle who cheered at the end of Easy Rider? He insists that if he had to obliterate 40 years of his life punching a clock, why should you goddamn hippies have it any better?
This brand of puritanism has gained traction among the gullible masses, including those I count as friends. Around the same time I got fired from a start-up in Herndon—the second of my three stints—a wave of layoffs claimed several in my circle. Most of them stayed on unemployment for only a few scant weeks before getting another shit job they immediately began bitching about. When I asked why, they muttered various reasons like “not wanting to be on welfare” or “wanting to work for a living.” One even fretted about “what her parents would think.”
Given a choice between getting a check every week for doing nothing and getting a check every week for flushing 40 hours of the prime of their lives down the toilet, they chose the latter. I mean, what kind of self-hating, masochistic Protestant bullshit is that?
Not only do I feel no guilt whatsoever about sucking from the state’s teat, I feel that I’m absolutely entitled to it. First of all, the employer that fired me pays for half of my unemployment, and fuck them.
Second of all, it’s really my money in the first place. See, your employer never pays you what you’re worth—there’s a surplus, some of which goes toward overhead and various other business costs, and the rest of which is kept as profit. (This is what Marx was referring to when he talked about “exploitation of the workers.”) A tiny fraction of this surplus—which, again, has been skimmed off of my labor—is put into a government-mandated account to go toward unemployment checks for fired workers. So yeah, it’s my money. Give it back. And since most people’s lives are so devoid of meaning that they’d rather go directly into another shitty job than be forced to confront the sheer emptiness of their existence, most of that money never even gets distributed.
The other half of my unemployment is paid for by taxes. I pay taxes, but I don’t have kids who go to public school, I don’t have a car that depreciates the roads, Social Security (which I’m paying into) is going to be belly up long before I retire, so my taxes are basically being taken from me and given to other people anyway. And I hate to be “that guy,” but we’re flushing half a billion dollars a day in Iraq, and you’re begrudging me a few hundred a week?
The most oft-heard complaint about unemployment is that it’s not enough to live on. Generally it’s about half of what you made on the job, capped at around $400 a week. (Before my payments ran out in January, I was getting $270 a week.) I guess if you have kids to support or a lot of debt to pay down, $400 a week is probably not a livable income. So I hope buying shoes on credit and not pulling out was worth being chained to a desk for the rest of your life.
For those of us who haven’t irreversibly fucked up our lives, $400 a week is doable. While you’ll have to cut back, you’ll find out that pretty much all the shit you spent your disposable income on—eating out, drinks, purchases from the “As Seen on TV!” product line—is no longer so important once you escape the 9-to-5 gulag.
At most full-time jobs I’ve had, my first thought upon the close of the workday was to get to the nearest bar and drink until the previous eight hours had been permanently obliterated from my memory. Hence, happy hour. This can run up quite a bar tab, especially after several months of building up a tolerance (not to mention the hard miles on your liver). I also ate out every single day, often two or three times, both because I had no time to cook and also because after sitting in a windowless room for eight hours and then in traffic for two more, I was so understimulated that I needed sensation, any sensation. Heroin would have been ideal, but most of the time I settled for Taco Bell. Same with intermittent shopping sprees. When you’re miserable, you buy things. It’s the American Way; whatever your problem, there’s a product that can solve it. Have a bad day? Buy some jeans! Just realize that your best years are a distant memory? Buy a big car! This is why a lot of people who make six figures still live check to check—perhaps this 50-inch plasma screen/Louis Vuitton bag/waterfront condo will make my soul hurt less?
But once you’re off the hamster wheel, you find you no longer need to overcompensate. You don’t need consumable solutions because your essential problem—your life sucked—is solved.
Getting on unemployment isn’t always easy, though. There are earnings requirements, and you need to have lost your job “through no fault of your own,” which means getting laid off or getting fired for something that could plausibly have been an honest mistake.
This last requirement is highly subjective and can lead to some entertaining court hearings if your ex-employer challenges your eligibility. I’ve heard about a delivery driver who was caught drinking on the job but won an eligibility hearing by claiming she was never explicitly told she couldn’t drink at work.
I lost the job in Herndon for drawing a semi-lewd cartoon on my boss’ dry-erase board. When an elderly Pope-worshipping VP saw it, she nearly had an aneurysm and fired me on the spot. I filed for unemployment, but my former employer protested and a hearing was scheduled. Now, this would seem to be an open-and-shut case. I had drawn a woman with her legs spread (albeit with an artfully placed question mark covering up the Promised Land) in my boss’ office (it may be relevant to add that I was sleeping with her at the time). However, I was able to get statements from other ex-employees describing an anarchic office environment that contextualized my drawing as not only par for the course but somewhat low-key compared to a lot of the antics.
Still, my former employer had one last advantage: a statement from the office lackey, who claimed to have seen, and been traumatized by, the drawing. His statement went into such impossible detail that it was obviously fabricated (“I saw the labia…the anus…the clitoris…the vagina…the urethra …the rectum!”).
The stage was set for an unemployment courtroom exchange, possibly unprecedented in the history of litigation, that went something along the following lines:
I pointed out that he specified he’d seen a urethra in the drawing.
He responded that he had.
I then wondered aloud whether anyone in the court knew what a urethra looked like and then asked him to describe it. Can you describe to the court what a woman’s urethra looks like?
After a long pause, he said he couldn’t.
My opponent’s case discredited by all this Johnnie Cochran-like legal maneuvering, I received a letter a few days later notifying me that I was eligible for unemployment. I was going to use the first check to send an expensive flower arrangement to the VP who’d fired me, with a card bearing nothing but a tiny reproduction of the lewd drawing, but by that time, she herself had been fired (ha!), and the few people who knew where she’d found a new job refused to give me the address.
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Though I’ve never experienced this particular horror, there are times when, try as you might, you just can’t get fired. My sister, already a veteran of one maxed-out unemployment tour, decided a few months ago that she wanted to get back on the gravy train. She had a miserable job at a nonprofit, surrounded by smiley people with mean people suck bumper stickers, and she had had enough. She started coming in at noon, rolling her eyes during meetings, skipping required company functions, and did zero work. All her boss did was call her in for occasional gentle talks about her “attitude” that ended with entreaties for her to be a better “team member.” My sister claims that if you’re a minority female—our mom is Korean—it’s absolutely impossible to get fired, for reasons of political correctness and fear of litigation. (Her previous stint on unemployment was because the company went bankrupt.) She ended up resigning and getting a similar job at an office across town that has a reputation for sudden and inexplicable layoffs. Her fingers are crossed.
Another friend of mine—also an old hand at unemployment milking—tried for months to get fired from a local movie theater. After witnessing shenanigans that at most work places would not only get you fired, but would also get you arrested, he realized they had him in check. After much hand-wringing, he walked out mid-shift.
We saw each other in the grocery store a few weeks back, during the economic stimulus debate. He’d read about the wrangling over the unemployment extension and said he’d thought of me.
“The best part,” he said, chuckling, “was when one of the senators supporting the extension was like, ‘These people want to work, they want nothing more than to work but through no fault of their own, they just can’t find jobs!’”
“Yes, I want nothing more than to go into an office for eight hours a day and get ordered around by inferior people. It’s not about the money! I’ll do it for free!”
“My life is empty if I can’t man a cash register. Please, I want to contribute!”
“Goddamnit, why can’t I find a job? It’s almost as if I’m not trying at all!”
We amused ourselves in this manner for several minutes.
One of the most insidious things about working is “office ass”—that lateral expansion of your lower regions brought on by too many heavily-sugared coffees, lunch buffets, and Doritos snack packs. If you take the holistic view, this is the physical analogue to your spiritual destruction. In other words, your body is going down the shitter just like your soul.
The dole reverses these afflictions. You actually eat much better on no money than when you’re pulling down big checks. Not only can you not afford to eat out, you can’t afford any kind of prepackaged or processed food. All you can afford is brown rice, vegetables, a little meat, and the occasional bag of farmer’s market fruit: i.e., the ideal diet. I’ve been eating this for a year, and it’s turned me into a goddamn Superman. And if you do get sick of healthy food, or if you go flat broke, there’s another option; shoplifting food is much easier than you think. Flat foods like steaks and family packs of Reese’s peanut butter cups are easiest to conceal under a coat. (I lived on London broils and Reese’s for a month when out of money in New York.) A friend of mine, an underemployed painter, goes to Whole Foods, gets a huge bag of something expensive like almonds, tags it with the code of something dirt cheap, and then goes through the line of the youngest, most distracted cashier. It hasn’t failed yet.
Local rent being as ludicrous as it is, you’ll probably have to make a few concessions on the housing front. Two artists I know packed four people into a two-bedroom apartment for years, variously working part-time or milking unemployment. One slept in the laundry room—he claimed the rhythmic vibrations of the washer/dryer were like a mother’s heartbeat in the womb—and the other crashed permanently on the sofa. This would occasionally result in friction; the living-room-dweller would sometimes have to ask his three roommates to stay out of his end of the house while he took care of “personal business.” The three roommates would sit in the kitchen trying to act casual while the squeak of living-room-guy’s computer chair would get faster and faster and faster and then finally stop. Then he’d go to the bathroom, wash his hands, and yell, “All clear!”
Still, it beats working.
My situation is somewhat better, though only through blind luck. I’ve lived in the same Shaw row house for several years. In that time, the rent has barely gone up at all, so I’m paying way below market. This is partly because the owner lives overseas and doesn’t really keep up with D.C. neighborhood developments, but also: My place is a dump. The roof leaks, there are cracks in the walls through which you can feel blasts of cold air, the wheezing refrigerator is 30 years old, everywhere you look there’s (probably lead) paint flaking off or ’70s-style wood paneling, half the radiators don’t work, and the water heater was broken for all of November and December. After you’ve taken cold showers in December, you’ll fear no man or beast for the rest of your life. Once, after stripping off snow pants, jeans, and long underwear and jumping into an ice-cold jet of water, I learned there’s a fine line separating extreme shivering and convulsions.
I honestly don’t mind the squalor, though. All it takes is seeing your friend throw a hissy fit because the TiVo is full or because you didn’t use a coaster on her Danish coffee table to realize that the gilded cage is real and that once you’re in it, you’re ruined for life. And besides, living in this place means that I can not work for months at a time and I’ll be fine. I can’t overstate the calming and liberating effect this fact has upon my day-to-day work life. It means that when most people are all but fellating their supervisor in hopes of that 2 percent annual raise, I can say and do whatever I want without having to self-censureor compromise.
At my last job, as a writer/editor at a U Street nonprofit, my boss “asked” me to work more hours, it being clear that it wasn’t a request. I shrugged and said no. (I’ve found that a casual refusal will often confuse a supervisor to the point of paralysis.) She brought it up again a few days later, and I did the same: pretended to think it over, shrugged, and said, “Sorry, can’t do it.”
On the eve of my weeklong vacation, she asked if I could spend one of my vacation days compiling a mass e-mail newsletter. I consulted my schedule.
“Sorry,” I told her, “I’m going to be at the beach that day.”
She insisted that I “find a way.” I explained to her that I didn’t have a laptop and that even if I could find a Kinko’s in the outback, spending six or seven hours on a pay-by-the-minute computer was complete fucking insanity. I suggested that I send out the e-mail newsletter the day afterward, when I’d be closer to civilization, but she found this unacceptable. God forbid we send out the spam one day late! I felt like dropping a dictionary on her desk and telling her to look up “vacation.”
I ended up agreeing to “try to get it done,” which of course meant that I did not try even a little bit to get it done. In truth, I totally forgot about the stupid e-mail newsletter until I got back and was fired. It was ostensibly for something else, because of course you can’t fire someone for not working on their vacation.
That was in June. I haven’t worked a day since. But I have applied.
Another stipulation of unemployment is that you’re required to apply to two jobs a week. If you’re randomly picked for a checkup and the unemployment people find that you haven’t been applying to two jobs a week or that you’ve turned down “suitable employment,” they’ll stop the checks and slap you with a bill for all the money you’ve received up to that point.
With a little ingenuity, though, it’s quite easy to meet the letter of the law while defying its spirit. I remembered a job as an editor where I was tasked with hiring a staff writer. Among the deluge of responses from a Craigslist posting were a significant percentage—a quarter to a third—that consisted of an e-mail with no text in the body and nothing in the subject line. Just a résumé, attached as a Microsoft Word document. My general response to these was an incredulous “are you fucking kidding me?” followed by immediate deletion.
Later, after getting fired from that job, I submitted all my résumés in just the same manner for my two job applications a week. I never received a single response and milked unemployment to the very last cent.
A writer I know took it one step further and crafted a special “unemployment” résumé, complete with typos, misspellings, non sequiturs, colored wacky fonts, and liberal use of emoticons. Some excerpts:
• Objectives: “To have a job at YOUR place of employment! ;)”
• Education: “Went to the University of Life for almost 27 years old.”
• Skills: “Wants to be the managre. Quick—type 33 WPN and learn new soft ware ;)”
• From the descriptions of various jobs: “Never contributed to the fenomomenon of the ‘bathroom rush’ at start of work day” and “Did the office thing—you know! ;O”
• The résumé concludes with: “So when do I start????”
• Best of all, the document is named, “REAL resume, not a joke!”
It was such a masterpiece, it was almost a shame he sent it out only twice a week. If I’d written something this brilliant, I would’ve sent it out 50 times a day until Hollywood came calling with a sitcom deal.
I was sure he was going to get some responses from people who just wanted to see the author of such a craptacular document, but he never did. Then it dawned on me that a lot of real résumés are just as bad or worse. My friend was able to finish an entire novel before his unemployment allotment ran out. He is now shopping the book around.
We may debate the purpose of life, or whether it even has a purpose, but one thing we can all agree on is that we were not put on this Earth to work, work, work. To be the master of one’s time and oneself is the obvious ideal. Most people don’t experience this until retirement, when they’re old and broken down, when they have to go to the bathroom every five minutes, and no one will have sex with them without advance cash payment. I say fuck that, I’m having my golden years now. And they are golden! Youth is not being wasted on this youth.
Every once in a while I’ll find myself downtown in the middle of the day and I’ll see all the drones hustling this way and that with their pinched little waddles, looking at their watches and pouring Starbucks into their faces, and I’ll think, my God, I’m the luckiest bastard alive. Maybe I’ll have to pay for it on the back end and work as a Wal-Mart greeter when I’m 85, but then again, I’ll have a lot of company.
At some point recently, probably while you were listening to a Dan Brown audiobook on your commute, those decadent pinko, Socialist, pacifist, cheese-eating, nap-taking, 25-hour-workweek Europeans became the dominant economic power in the world. The EU is the new United States, and the United States is the new…Mexico?
And it’s not my fault, it’s because of people like you! High-earning workaholic assholes like you who feel entitled to buy big houses with gimmick mortgages and drive huge cars that force our government to subsidize gas prices, who run up credit card debt buying products you saw on your Chinese-made big-screen television and then vote Republican so you can pay less than your fair share of taxes! It’s your fault our country is now a second-rate power! Now who’s un-American?! You are! And I’m the real patriot! Ironic, isn’t it? I’m basically a bald eagle flying over Mount Rushmore while Hank Williams Jr. sings the Monday Night Football theme song in the background, and you’re basically John Walker Lindh, American Taliban!
So who wants to drink to the red, white, and blue?