Part Three: On Earth as it is in Heaven.
I couldn’t sleep last night, so I crept into the bathroom and opened my Bible to the page I had marked in Jeremiah. In my experience, insomnia and the Old Testament go together like acid and Dungeons & Dragons; it’s the perfect combination for all the wrong reasons. In chapter twenty, verse seven, I found this nugget, “O Lord, you deceived me and I was deceived! You overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord brought me insult and reproach all day long.”
It’s depressing stuff. Later in the same chapter, Jeremiah laments the fact that he wasn’t murdered in the womb. It’s pretty much how I’ve been feeling about my facebook posts for the past month or so. The time that I haven’t spent cradling the vomit can in the throes of a seemingly incurable illness I’ve been spreading the bad news about the economic outlook for the working class and generally trying to bum everybody out.
Here’s how it lines up: Unemployment was up again last month, back up to 9.2% after reaching a “low” of 8.8% back in March. But these official figures only account for those actively looking for work who qualify for unemployment benefits. This is the first time in my life that I, personally have ever met the qualifications for benefits, but it certainly isn’t the first time I’ve been out of work. Counting all those who need a job, the number is 12.9% unemployed and who knows how many underemployed. Put in practical terms, that’s a hundred jerk-offs with exactly my qualifications lining up to fill out applications every time a pizza place is hiring. Meanwhile, governments are slashing jobs and wages are going down as the only economic strategy our politicians can agree on is a continued cash giveaway for corporations and the rich.
Such was the economic picture last week as I rose from my sickbed long enough to drive down to the Cleveland Avenue CVS to fill my prescriptions. By the register, I saw the Columbus Dispatch sporting a front-page story about unemployment fraud. The article claimed that one dollar in nine paid out in unemployment benefits is currently being paid fraudulently. I couldn’t find a link to the Dispatch article, but this one from the ever-vigilant Fox News makes basically the same case. Clearly, Freddie the Freeloader and Wilma the Welfare Queen are back in the habit, sucking off the ample teat of government largess and dragging the economy with them into a pit of idleness and depravity. The article struck a chord with me because portions of it actually described my personal situation. And so, in flat defiance of good common sense, I present to you The Absolutely True Story of How I Became an Unemployment Cheat.
It all started in June. The summer was just starting to get hot and it was clear that I was living in some mad, dystopian, vision of the End Times. I was unemployed and had taken to spending portions of my afternoons watching the police helicopters circle my neighborhood. How long, I wondered, until it would be my turn. Of course, it wasn’t at all clear whether I should be concerned about the police watching from above or about the criminals they chased, but it was certain that both sides were armed to the teeth, so I decided that I should be, too. I found myself living hand to mouth, attaching my resume to increasingly needy sounding emails in replies to Craigslist ads while a clip full of 7.62x39mm hollow points nestled with each other in my rifle. Dark times.
A shaft of light broke into this darkness in the form of a long-awaited call from a temp agency I had signed on with weeks earlier. They offered me a job at an injection molding plant for eight bucks an hour. When I asked how long the assignment would last, the woman on the phone told me that they would probably keep me on as long as I kept showing up for work. That, at least, sounded good, even if the pay seemed unrealistic. Light industrial work was definitely something I could handle. I told them I would be there at seven the next morning.
I worked at that job for one full day. The work wasn’t bad. The medium-fast pace helped the day pass quickly. It was the kind of mindless, boring labor that really tests your ability to press two buttons at the same time. The worst part about it was tying the finished parts up in bags of plastic mesh that tore my fingernails up and kept getting caught on the button of my Dickies workshirt. The stuff was impossible to work with and kept slowing me down. It was noisy and dirty, but it still beat telemarketing.
Going in for the second day of a job is always a nauseating experience. Even when I like the job, on day two I find myself remembering the worst parts of the job, a cartoon devil on my shoulder saying, “You’red not going back to that, are you? Don’t you have any respect for yourself?” That devil tends to overestimate my self-respect by a wide margin. But going in for the second day of work in June, I felt a tempest in my stomach that had little or nothing to do with workplace angst. The Gatorade and store-brand Apple Jacks I had for breakfast that morning were plotting an attack. I didn’t last an hour. Before eight o’clock I had left the hot, injection-molded pieces of duct work to pile up where they fell under the press and trotted off to the bathroom with a blanched, worried face. By nine I was going back to the toilet at ten minute intervals, heaving neon yellow acid from deep in the pit of my stomach, knowing from months of nasty experience that this was the start of a cycle that wouldn’t end for at least the next two weeks. I paced the tile floor, rereading the “Lavase los manos antes de regresar a trabajo” sign over and over again to give myself something other than intestinal distress to focus on, trying to overpower my wimpy stomach with my powerful mind and force myself back to work. I thought about the embarrassment of going home sick on my second day. Most of all, I thought about how much I needed this lousy job, no matter how sick I was, no matter how little above minimum wage they paid.
I went home at around ten in the morning. I pulled off the freeway once on the way to spew yellow bile on the side of the offramp.
The next three weeks were a nightmare of vomiting and trashing in bed. On my repeated trips to the emergency room I would get the uninsured special; a day or two’s worth of IV fluids that I can never dream of being able to pay for to get my fluids and electrolytes up to normal before they sent me out the door with another prescription for another expensive anti-nausea pill.
Thinking that the day and a half of work would void my unemployment, I decided not to claim it when it came time to file again. After the stress and expense of being sick and buying medicine, I needed the government dole money more than ever. Sure, I know that legitimate freeloaders are out there, but when I hear the scapegoating statistics about unemployment fraud I can’t help but imagine that most of those people are in situations like mine, unable to count on the income from their inadequate, poorly paid jobs with nowhere else to turn.
Following the simple maxim of loving your neighbor as yourself would logically lead one to the conclusion that we should do more, not less, to help the unemployed, that perhaps we should even (hold onto something here) spend government money to create jobs and a healthcare system that didn’t endlessly punish the poor in order to protect the profits of the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations. The idea that we should enact the Kingdom of God, creating conditions on earth as we imagine they would be in heaven would lead one to the we should alter this corrupt system based on exploitation in even more fundamental ways than that. But such moral considerations don’t trouble our corporate-funded lawmakers. Republicans, with the Christian Right in their pockets, push forward an agenda that is homicidaly obsessed with making the poor pay for the crimes of the rich (see Kasich’s twisted unemployment scheme, just Voldemort level evil), while democrats agree with them on all the major points.
Austerity is the watchword in Washington, which means that both sides of the aisle are united in their resolve to push the cost of the bailouts and the economic collapse onto the working people and those most vulnerable. They got us into this fix by giving the corporations, the banks and the rich whatever they wanted for three decades, and they’re shit scared not to give them what they want now. It’s time we made them afraid of us instead. We need a workers’ movement that raises the specter of that thing they fear most, real workers’ democracy. Something like an occupation of Washington would be a good place to start. After all, we don’t have jobs, so we don’t have anywhere to go. If they can’t guarantee us such a simple, reasonable thing as employment, then they don’t deserve the wealth and power we’ve given them. It’s time to move. Our only other option is to let the bosses keep blasting away out our wages and living standards until things are so low that business becomes profitable again. Or to clutch our bibles to our hearts, turn our faces to the sky and wait for the rapture that never comes.