One afternoon before the close of the fiscal year I received a phone call. As a member of the union’s executive team, I guessed the phone call had something to do with layoffs, an item that had been on the agenda for the last several meetings. I was right about the layoff part. We were scheduled to discuss the issue the following day. But it was my own funeral. The team didn’t want me to discover my name inscribed in gold at the top of the layoff list. They had called to break the news slowly.
The union protested. Management countered. Back and forth around the meeting pole we went. On the third day of what seemed like my inevitable layoff, I went home and sat on the couch to watch the evening news. I did everything I usually do to get myself ready for bed. Brushed my teeth. Maybe I didn’t brush my teeth. Threw dirty clothes in the wash. Opened the refrigerator door and closed it again. Poured myself some cranberry juice, marvelled at its garnet color. Finally, I wound myself inside my covers and found a place next to my partner.
Several hours later, I was listening to cars screech down the hill outside my condo. Saying I could not sleep would be an understatement. My head was an airplane terminal. Everything flying above me was crashing into everything else. And there were no air traffic controllers. They all had been laid off.
I resolved to leave the bedroom so as not to wake up my boyfriend who had to rise at 5:30 am on a Monday morning. I removed myself to what used to be my daughter’s bedroom before she moved to college. I fell down on the futon. It was not a safe landing. Gripping the blankets I began to sob, to shake, to wail. My cat got up from the corner of the room, blinked at me with iridescent green eyes, and then walked outside to the living room.
How could this happen? How was I going to get my daughter through college? How could I let my children down? How was I going to reinvent myself, particularly in this job market? How was I going to compete in middle age? How was I going to pay my bills?
Followed by: Why didn’t the mothers of executive management teach them to say ‘thank you?’ How I would never come back to work even if they begged me, crying how they had made an awful, terrible mistake. How the management of the IT or IS department or whatever else they wanted to call themselves were a bunch of self-important assholes.
But mostly, I was afraid.
I crept back into the bedroom. My boyfriend grabbed me. He held me. He talked to me. He did all the right things. He told me everything was going to be all right. I believed him.
My job had fit me like an old pair of jeans. It was comfortable. When I zipped them up, I knew just where to suck in my stomach. True, the job was boring and repetitive. I had more in common with a virtual team in New York than I did with anyone else at the bus company. Oh, and there was also the time when management stuffed me into a windowless room the size of a closet that had been formerly reserved for personnel records. My manager needed to consolidate his power base and didn’t want me coordinating with the Planning Department. But like I said, I knew when to suck it up.
I’d come to the job during an earlier transition. Employees were getting laid off from my dotcom company every week, including all the salespeople. I could see the guillotine rolling my way. I handed in my notice. During the ensuing months, I preserved meyer lemons for a dish of chicken with couscous. When funds began to dwindle, I looked for work, finally snared a temporary position at the bus company to update their web site. Then they offered me a full-time job.That was then.
Maybe I was being punished for leaving a job. Now I had to find another.
“Relax,” said my lover, stationed full-time for the weekend at my apartment. Easy enough for him to say. “It’s nothing personnel.” He clasped my hand. “It’s not about you.” It wasn’t about me, but I still had an icky feeling. “You’ll be able to collect unemployment.”
So began my one-sided romance with paperwork. Filing and monitoring forms every two weeks, dealing with COBRA and outrageous health care payments, signing up for the Employment Development Department’s workshops, all a battering ram to my self-image. I thought I’d already been through the rougher parts of my life. Why was this happening to me? I didn’t realize I was so vulnerable, reduced to tears, anxiety, checking my computer to see if anyone had responded to a resume cast into the wilderness of the Internet. Of course, no one had, except of course, the occasional automatic message telling me how someone would get in touch if I were good enough. After six months, I was tired of watching Food Network reruns. I watched shows on TV that I never knew existed like My Big Red Neck Wedding followed by My Big Red Neck Vacation. After awhile, I turned them off. Everyone was so ridiculously happy.
I put on my sweat pants with every good intention of walking to the condo’s gym, but never seemed to get further than the mailbox. Besides my unemployment check, I’m not sure what I was expecting to arrive. In the meantime, I went back to the house and opened the refrigerator, looked at open cans of tuna fish and garbanzo beans and sighed. The two didn’t sound like a winning combination. But maybe in a salad?
I don’t know when the light beamed, but it had to be over coffee. Caffeine has always saved me. So what happened? I realized that I was sick of being a Russian doll housed inside an office building, inside a cubicle, and inside a closet. I had a conversation with my better half, the part that was counting on me to do something fun. It was time to shed my white-collar skin and to slink into something more multicolored.
I was going to do exactly what the employment development workshops were telling me to do. I was going to be entrepreneurial. Of course, I had to find something to entrepreneur. Then I realized exactly what it was, in front of my face every time I went into the kitchen.
I had mustered my limited resources to become the Leftover Chef. Now I was going to share my recipes with everyone. I imagined how Rachel Ray of the Food Network would devote an entire segment to someone who had avoided culinary institutes and well-stocked kitchens. Maybe she’d let make a guest appearance. After seeing me on Rachel, the Red Neck series of TV shows would invite me to cook at one of their weddings. I realized I was getting ahead of myself. First I had to gather my recipes. This could be work.