Today I Opened My Last Unemployment Check

After 30 months of unemployment, 400 applications, and only three in-person interviews, I stood looking at my last unemployment benefit without a job in sight.

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The temptation was to frame it, since it marks one of those transitions in life that merits being remembered. But I needed the money more than a memento, so I took my last unemployment check to the bank and deposited it -- $367 for some necessities. Food, rent, gas. My last unemployment check was $160 less than my usual weekly benefit, but still a welcome boost to my sagging finances. How I will miss those Tuesday trips to the mailbox and then the bank, one of the few regular events in my upended, irregular life!

I had always thought the unemployed were society's unfortunates, people unlike me lacking in education or training or experience or skills. Then in March of 2009, the Hearst Corporation quit publishing the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I suddenly became a labor statistic, one of millions without work in the worst economic implosion since the Depression. I was more fortunate than many unemployed people since the Newspaper Guild negotiated a decent severance that yielded two weeks' pay for every year of employment. Since I had spent more than a quarter century underneath the P-I's landmark globe, my severance was a year's salary, although that lump sum check as I left the building forever had a tax bite from a Great White Shark.

Now my severance is exhausted, as is my unemployment, and I am scrambling every day for work. I had been a columnist, then the book critic for the P-I, enviable newspaper jobs even among my colleagues. Now I seek any writing or editing work that I discover, the latest being a history of a software startup for the four partners who sold their company for more than $100 million. What they're paying me scarcely merits inclusion in their millionaire checkbooks, but I am grateful for this project. It resulted from a longtime friend's recommendation.

What will follow the startup booklet is uncertain. One book-editing gig for an emerging publisher may lead to others. But I will not be doing book critic articles for major national web sites that I did at the outset of my unemployed days. Such regular writing back then provided psychic benefits in my stunned state even when the pay was a pittance (if there was pay).

Now, psychic benefits be damned: I need real work for real pay. Of course, that was what I was seeking while I was on unemployment. I honestly thought that I could land another regular job, even if I was a few years short of retirement. That turned out to be a Fractured Fairy Tale, as my blue file folder testifies.

That folder, now 3 inches thick, scarcely contains all the weekly logs of jobs that I applied for in order to qualify for unemployment - three jobs every week during two years of federal unemployment, then four jobs every week during six months of Washington State unemployment. That totaled 400 job applications, from my first to be communications director for a Seattle private school on 4/8/2009 to my last to be a technical editor for a staffing agency on 6/30/2011.

My weekly logs contain jobs in writing, editing, marketing and communications, jobs at non-profits, at publications and publishers, at retail concerns, at universities and colleges, at ad agencies, law firms, the zoo, even a few newspapers. Some jobs might have been a stretch for me, but there were far more I know I could have done. There were even some jobs that seemed perfect - one was adviser to a high school student newspaper (finally using my master's degree?), although I never heard back from that school. But I never heard back from most places I applied and only scored three in-person job interviews from my 400 applications, three in-person interviews that taught me how close I could come to landing a job and still not get it.

With such dreary results, applying for jobs turned Wednesday or Thursday into the downer day of the week, guaranteed. Just finding three or four possible jobs consumed hours of numbing Internet searches. But I still did it conscientiously because unemployment required it and also because it might result in work, although I soon knew that my experience and maturity were not assets that employers were seeking any longer, quite the opposite. Younger and cheaper are today's mandate.

We unemployed disappeared from the news sometime early in 2011, muscled out of sight by popular uprisings around the globe and budget battles in Washington. Now, we've edged back a bit, a ghostly presence behind the latest economic statistics and a haunting threat to President Obama's re-election. But back when there was a national debate about unemployment, there were politicians and commentators who insisted that being on unemployment robs people of the initiative to get out and find work. I wish I'd had access to the hallucinogenic they were using, since unemployment requires weekly job searches and applications, no matter how depressing they are or how futile.

Unemployment compensation was no gratis government gift, I learned after I lost my job. It was a trade-off, a contract, an investment. It was a hedged bet on a return to the employed life that, despite my 400 applications, never did arrive before that crucial lifeline was severed forever.