The door slams as your roommates leave for work. Nobody is there to stop you from rolling over and going back to sleep, but something compels you out of bed. There is nothing that must be done, but there are things to do.
Being unemployed means you exist in a state of limbo, a middle ground between the work-a-day world and the unfortunate fringes. Each new day is another opportunity to edge closer to one group or the other. There are plenty of reasons why you find yourself unemployed: you’re overqualified, you’re under-qualified, you’re lazy, you just got back from Ecuador, work interferes with art, there are no jobs, jobs suck, etc. The reason doesn’t matter. You stopped trying to chart your course in life a long time ago. Now the events just cascade over you like hot nickels. All you can do is wince and try to keep your head above water.
Some days you make an effort to dress like you actually have a job. All it takes are clean pants and a collared shirt. This is Vermont after all. You might even comb your hair. You walk downtown and see men in suits, an outfit unimaginable unless worn ironically. You slip into the stream of professionals, hoping that if they don’t mistake you for someone with a job, they will at least consider you a student.
Other days you don’t care if people know you are unemployed and you dress accordingly. You wear a hat to hide your unkempt quaff. You throw on the same jeans, the ones you’ve been wearing for days and smell like the bar. Your t-shirt is clean enough and your hoodie is dark enough to mask filth better than a lawyer. Although Burlington is flush with coffee shops, each one is imperfect in some way. Muddy Waters has no Internet. Viva Espresso is closed. Radio Bean is too alt. New Moon is creepy. Uncommon Grounds is like a cafeteria. Starbucks is corporate. And so forth.
You accept inadequacy and role into some coffee shop around 10:00 or 10:30, after the morning rush, but before lunch. You pay for your coffee with change. Or you order a ham and cheese croissant to reach the five dollar minimum required to use your debit card. “Work” begins when you slide into a table and open your laptop. First you check email. Empty. Then Facebook. Messages tumble down the screen announcing the accomplishments of others. You quickly navigate away. On the New York Times homepage, you scan the headlines. Now, with a little NPR, you’ll have something to talk about later while others are detailing their jobs.
Finally you start mining the Internet for jobs. Eventually your resume gets adjusted. Or, you start writing a cover letter. It’s easy to get a job, but do you really want to be a receptionist or work the lunch shift at Texas Roadhouse? These are the jobs you see on Craigslist. Seven Days is more encouraging, because it actually posts some good jobs. Unfortunately you don’t qualify for any of them. You’ve never supervised volunteers. You don’t know how to make a spreadsheet. And some people say your mustache makes you look like a pedophile, which means working with children is out. You lack the skills necessary to gain experience and you lack the experience necessary to gain skills. You can only get so far on enthusiasm, of which you have very little.
After returning to the same websites repeatedly, you close your laptop. Unemployment has given you ample time to read, the most passive form of productivity. You open a book, but after a few pages it becomes obvious that drinking too much coffee has flooded your system with caffeine. The words convulse and dance on the page, while hunger gnaws at your gut. It’s time for lunch.
After eating, you go for a walk. The bike path down by the lake is perfect for contemplative strolls alone. Benches beckon you to sit and stare across the lake. You ponder what life would be like in a bigger city, a smaller town, another country, or another time. The edge and folds of the Adirondacks hint towards mystery and adventure beyond Burlington. Your eyes follow the mountains north.
Two days ago you were in Grand Isle harvesting grapes for ten dollars an hour. Before leaving in the morning, your roommate said something about Steinbeck and called you an okie. For a second, you actually compared yourself to a migrant worker. But the vineyard was heaven. Among long green rows stitched across the land, a cool breeze rustled the leaves, revealing fat bundles of purple fruit. You cradled the grapes in your hand and snipped their stems. Your fingers grew sticky and stained, while little birds bounced in the wake, feasting on fallen grapes.
In addition to the owners and a full-time employee, three other people were there helping with the harvest. They were all unemployed. One lady had quit her job in theater production, because it had become too stressful. Another woman had been a lab tech until she was laid off. There was a guy there too, but he never said why he was unemployed. As the sun dipped behind the surrounding trees, everyone gathered around the owner’s truck. He handed each person seventy bucks and they scattered like refugees.
You turn from the waterfront and head back to town. It’s 4:00 and your friends with jobs are finally getting out of work. You join them for a beer and ask about their day. As they describe a team meeting where product development and brand identity was discussed, your eyes glaze over. Inevitably someone asks about your day. You tell them about cover letters sent, phone calls awaiting response, and interviews that you may someday get.
Meanwhile, the bar has filled with young people, some of whom are also unemployed. They just graduated school or are about to start back up. Others have recently moved to town or are about to leave. You feel comfortable amidst the conversations about movies and music, topics that keep people distracted from the confusion lurking beneath. You wallow in stagnation. Burlington is a place that allows you to live out the post college malaise, even as you creep into your late twenties and early thirties.
The day ends with a slight buzz. Somehow there’s always money for alcohol. Among the ranks of the unemployed, there are plenty of people who were far more productive with their day. They networked, wrote thank you notes and scheduled informational interviews. Other people took to the streets to protest the System, leaping and shouting like children begging for candy.
Although you accomplished very little today, your pride is intact. Someday you’ll get a job, but for now just look forward to the weekend. If there’s anybody that deserves a break, it’s you.