A Recessionary Tale
By Mary Seymour '80
A little over a year ago, I took a leap of faith and left my comfortable position as an alumni magazine editor. I had no job lined up, but I had a few thousand dollars in savings and, thanks to profits from selling my home in Massachusetts, a mortgage-free house in Greensboro, North Carolina.
I’d dreamed of moving to a warmer climate for years; with my son in college and my 50th birthday looming, the time had finally come to leave behind New England’s bone-knocking winters. It was also time to leave the Pioneer Valley, where I’d lived since arriving at Smith College in 1976. In 30 years, I’d moved only seven miles.
I felt bold, terrified, fully alive. Comfort and stagnation are only a few degrees apart, I’d discovered, and my life had become brackish.
“What will you do for work?” friends asked.
“I’ll work at Walmart if I have to,” I told them, fervently hoping that day would never come. “Or Starbucks—they give health insurance to part-time employees.”
“But you don’t drink coffee,” one friend pointed out, “and the smell gives you a headache.”
Details. What mattered was my willingness to take a risk. Unfortunately, the rest of the country, after a decade of profligate risk taking, was on an opposite track. Seemingly in the two days it took me to drive from Massachusetts to North Carolina, the U.S. economy sprouted huge cracks in its foundation. Suddenly the news was all about bankruptcies, stock-market losses, bank closings, mortgage defaults, and plummeting real-estate values.
The adrenaline rush of moving and settling into a new city kept me buoyant despite the dire economic news. There were rooms to paint, stores to visit, unfamiliar streets to navigate. What a lark! I had several freelance writing assignments and an interview at a custom-publishing company.
“You’re just what we’re looking for,” the HR director told me. “We’ve signed with a new client, and we’re expected to roll out the first publication in February. We need to start hiring yesterday.”
Flush with the prospect of a salaried job, I bought curtains for every room in the house. Days and weeks rolled by without a word from HR, despite my follow-up queries. Finally I learned from an inside source that the company was laying off employees after losing two longstanding magazine contracts. The company’s downturn had a further twist: its CEO had invested millions with Bernie Madoff, Wall Street swindler extraordinaire.
And so began the slightly surreal experience of living the news rather than reading it. I began to understand—truly understand—that an oceanic recession was under way, and I, like millions of Americans, was flotsam in the receding tide.
By November, my savings account was thinning and my credit card was my crutch. The rate at which money went out—house repairs, car registration and insurance, utility bills—was alarming, especially given the lack of influx. I dropped my health insurance and started grinding my teeth at night.
Since my professional career seemed to be on hold—or worse, given the number of newspapers and magazines shutting down everywhere, I decided to take a less conventional path. I began applying for every oddball job that struck my fancy. Remember, it’s an adventure, I reminded myself. That’s what I wanted, right?
My initial pluck faded with the news that my fail-safes, Target and Starbucks, were laying off employees all around the country. Meanwhile, the Greensboro airport had no interest in me as a baggage handler, and my application to the temp pool at the local university gathered dust. I wished, a little too late, that I’d learned how to use Excel and PowerPoint.
After I filled out an application on the UPS website, the company democratically invited me to a group interview for seasonal package handlers. We assembled in a plastic-paneled HR room, where a tough young woman in acid-washed jeans lectured us. I was about 30 years older than most of my fellow would-be handlers; most were male and looked like weightlifters.
“If you get the job, you’ll probably quit within 10 days. Your bodies will ache so bad you won’t be able to sleep. But, if you stick it out, you’ll get used to it, and you’ll be in the best shape of your life.”
She led us at a brisk pace to the loading plant, turning to shout, “Those of you who can’t keep up with me should go home now. Slow doesn’t cut it around here.”
Our tour took us through cavernous gray warehouses filled with grinding, shrieking machinery; past peephole views of hairy knees and tattooed shins; next to workers in solitary confinement tossing barbell-size packages onto an unrelenting conveyor belt. “You’d be crazy to work here,” a guy in a Metallica T-shirt shouted at us just before a manager headed in his direction.
The final stop in the tour was a security checkpoint. I walked through the metal detector, imagining I was entering a portal into an alternate world, a soft and welcoming place where jobs grew like toadstools and affordable healthcare was available to all.
After we gathered again in the HR room to complete our paperwork, I stared blindly at my application. Given my propensity to depression, I felt shaky about working in such bleak conditions, especially since the only slot available was the graveyard shift.
“I’m afraid I can’t work those hours—I’ve got a conflict,” I told the HR woman.
“No problem. Just give me your application; we’ll shred it.”
And with that, I was free to return to joblessness.
With Christmas approaching, seasonal retail jobs began to open up. I applied for sales associate at Macy’s and got a job in women’s ready-to-wear after a five-minute interview. Perhaps my years of retail experience in high school and college had landed me the gig. No, the HR guy told me. “If you have a pulse, we’ll hire you.”