December 2019, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. CareerLink office. The tone was set by the front desk staff. I was asked what I was here for. “R-E-S-E-A.” “OK, re-see ya.” As I signed in, I was told to check a certain box, but I did not see which one. I guessed correctly. I was then directed down the hall to the third door on the right, a small classroom. I had to sign in there, too. Did I have my letter? Yes. Did I have my 304’s? I don’t know what that is. “It’s OK; I’ll explain it.”
I sat down at the back of the room next to a black woman. A man delivered a PowerPoint presentation, first explaining his background: recently unemployed himself for five months and a long career in the military. He spoke with a clear and even timbre, neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It could have been the sound of desk rule. The sound of the clash between official rules and popular feelings: conciliatory, equivocating, and firm. By which attendees' anticipated confusion is resolved by shielding officials from liability.
After the presenter detailed the services available to us, we were enqueued in the order in which we signed in for personalized interviews with the staff. It’s a good thing I wasn’t among the first four to sign in, because I would have been unprepared.
Somehow I had missed the requirement to bring the work search records. It’s right there in the letter. No worries; I’ll have Steph send photos. I copied my 304’s as I waited. I listened to women hushing their stories as the men locked themselves away. I saw people of all ages, and most of them had a distinctly lower-class ethos. In my imagination, it would have been the jagged, drooping face of a lifelong smoker; the blemishes of abuse, neglect, and hardship; the tawdryward attempt to appear above one’s means. When my deskmate was called, she wished me good luck. U2, I reflexively reciprocated.
I sensed potential. People united by difficult circumstances, brought together in a room by fate. But in the grammar of this experience, we would not be of any consequence to each other. Our function in society would still be decided by others. This is not a time for creativity, but solemn compliance.
I was called, and before I had gathered my belongings, my interviewer was already back at her cubicle. I weaved through open floorplan and sat down on the outside of her desk, the back of which was walled off with beige-grey sheet metal, meant to be against a wall that did not exist. I was the wall.
“I’ll need your paperwork, please.” I’d been given plenty and I wasn’t sure what all she was referring to. “Such as?” I opened my folder for her to see.
She took what she needed, and that was the end of the typical bureaucratic bluntness. She commenced a monologue on attendees' misunderstanding of the organization’s purpose and her workstation software’s absurdity. Squeezing what of my wit remained, I joked, “On behalf of all programmers, I apologize.”
I was told I hadn’t completed my 304’s according to requirements but that, by her judgment, I had shown good faith. She warned that I would “definitely receive a scary do-better letter”. But my benefits would not be revoked.
She printed off a bunch of pages for me to take home. “Do you have any questions?” “No,” I emitted reflexively. I should have asked if she had any answers. She reached out for a handshake, finishing off the interview with, “Well, have a great day!”
I hunched home in the acrid breeze.
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© 2022 Karl Schultheisz — Lancaster, PA, USA