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Friday, March 21, 2003

Breathe Deep, The Gathering Gloom

I was cold, wet, and in a part of town where it seemed I didn’t belong; all three offices to file for unemployment insurance in the District of Columbia are on the East Side, in the kind of neighborhoods where I stick out like a sore thumb. And none of them are especially close to a Metro station – the one I went to was in Northeast, nearly a 20-minute uphill walk from the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station, and not a particularly pleasant walk at that. The other two are on the other side of the Anacostia, and even further from any Metro station.

The whole experience was odd since the city government is usually the one great equalizer in a city otherwise starkly divided between rich and poor, black and white, safe and unsafe, and so forth. At Jury Duty, at the Department of Motor Vehicles, at every downtown office, yes, I’m in the minority, but there are people from all walks of Washington life in those kinds of places. This office was immediately different.

Dressed in a button-down dress shirt (no tie, just a shirt) and a pair of khakis now soaked by the rain, I walked into the large waiting room. There was something…um..different about me when compared to everyone else in the room. I perceived some strange looks - not dirty looks, mind you, just strange ones. I was reminded of that line from the film Better Off Dead, when a tree trimmer sees Lane Myer (John Cusack) in a garbage truck and says “Now that's a real shame when folks be throwin' away a perfectly good white boy like that.” Times must be tough if he’s here.

Or maybe it was just me projecting that onto the crowd there. I’ve never been that good at reading people. It’s never stopped from trying, from imagining how the various people in this large room came to be here.

I got to listen to nearly an hour of orientation. The first part of it dealt with the mechanics of receiving unemployment, how much one might be entitled to, for how long, and how to fill out the appropriate forms (and determining which forms are appropriate.) The second part focused on things like where to go if you needed a GED, or basic computer skills, or classes in English, and so forth.

I spent the hour filling out forms (many, many forms to fill out, though I understand why they ask for that much) , and when I got done with that, half listening and staring with exasperation at the Successories that decorated the large room. I have an irrational loathing for those insipid greeting-card pictures and their insipid management-guru messages. The only bit about the whole thing I came even close to resenting was those blasted pictures on the wall.

One of the people giving the instructions let her fatalism slip when she said “If by some chance any of you should get a full-time job…” I hope that sentence wasn’t in the script. I wonder if a job/career dealing with people who are in trouble gets exasperating after a while, particularly in tough times. She probably sees many of the same people over and over again, who can’t seem to hold a job for some reason. I wonder if it feels like trying to shovel one’s driveway with only a spoon,

As the lecture ended, I buried my nose in “Return of the King,” sometimes glancing up at the clock as the Shadow from the East, breached the Anduin, and were laying siege to Gondor. For over an hour, name after name was called and I sat, alternately contemplating my own predicament and that of the book’s seemingly doomed characters.

If you haven’t read the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I recommend doing so, with one caveat: It makes lousy Metro and bus reading – it needs to be read in large chunks to be fully appreciated. It might work as reading material for a long transcontinental or overseas flight.

Just as I began to totally lose myself inside the walls of Minas Tirith, my name was called from across the room.

And then my meeting with my case worker happened, and it was less than five minutes long. I had brought ridiculous amounts of documentation, much more than was asked, just in case I needed it. I was almost disappointed. I was ready to be grilled and prodded, and there was none of that. Maybe it was the fact that I seemed to project the ability to find some form of gainful employment soon, but I’m sure it had at least as much to do with the pervasive fatalism that hung like a dense fog above the place.

She sent me on my way, and I was off into the dreary, cold gloom, of a rainy Thursday morning. The gentle and yet bitter wind put some sting into the water as it fell from the sky.

I felt as if Tolkien’s mythical Shadow were all too real, darkening spirits, dimming hopes, and sending legions to enslave the world beneath the all-seeing Eye, as it relentlessly advanced.


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