I once had a boyfriend who dumped me for getting an $800 loan from my mother when I was laid-off. He sneered at me for filing for unemployment, which I collected for three soul-crushing months of job searching. In the late ‘80s, three months of looking for a job was nothing compared to how it is now, but I have seen that sneer again, this time among members of the GOP who think helping out the long term unemployed is an undeserved luxury. They seem to delight in treating the unfortunate with game dog cruelty, as if families deserve to suffer harder and starve more just because they are already suffering and starving. They already know how.
What I don’t understand is how a country this rich can be so poor in kindness? Why are we so mean and stingy when we have so much?
The political stage is a great place for Schadenfreude. In fact, a 2009 (Coombs et al.) study suggests that Schadenfreude lurks among those who identify closely with their political party. Schadenfreude shows up more when misfortune happens to those who are disliked or are considered to “deserve” their fate. To many Republicans, that’s obviously the poor – to start with.
This may explain some of the unsavory fervor exhibited by some of the GOP who want to deny help to those who have suffered the most from the recession instead of helping them to recover. Their propensity to not want to help reminds me of the Michael Moore film Sicko. Moore goes to Canada looking for their ghettos, only to find none. Apparently Canadians take care of each other. They don’t let each other starve or get thrown onto the street.
The night the lights went on at Wrigley Field in 1988 I moved into a small street-level apartment on Pine Grove. It was the end of a gentler era for the Friendly Confines as the park reluctantly entered the artificially-lit future of baseball. Unaware of the history unfolding just a few blocks away, I was unpacking clothes and swatting 4-inch centipedes off the walls with a shoe. Despite having no bed and no furniture, I did have the one thing necessary to survive my own future: a job.
Calling on Michigan Avenue ad agencies was not an intimidating prospect to me after being a media buyer and planner in Los Angeles. The typical agency media department back then was a thankless place. I was expected to sit at my desk for 12 hours a day like Bob Cratchit, muffled under a pile of demographic data, extracting meaningful nuggets and writing meaty recommendations for our clients.
Every day in my cube I met with well-dressed sales people and placed orders for hundreds of ads in hundreds of magazines and newspapers that totaled millions of dollars each year. This made the reps thousands in commissions and the agency millions in fees. I was nice when I could be nice and ruthless when I was forced to be. Once (and only once) I missed a deadline for an important ad. My supervisors made it very clear that mistakes were never my fault, they were the magazines’ fault or the newspapers’ fault. Media planners never make mistakes. We were infallible.
After LA, where it was considered a privilege to walk on the eggshells dropped by media supervisors and managers, my new job in advertising sales in Chicago was a comparative dream. Positioning myself on the other side of the media desk finally got me out of the office and in control of my own income. I was an account executive for a magazine rep firm, selling space in a sports magazine based in the Midwest.
Every industry has its own culture and in advertising you need to look polished and perfect or you might as well sell ads for the back of cash register tapes. My power outfit was a black wool Ann Taylor pencil skirt paired with a blinding white shirt and topped with an exquisite black leather jacket. It was my “LA Ad Girl Meets Chicago” outfit, good for lunches and cocktail parties. For once in my life I stood out in a crowd. For once my average frame and not-quite-blonde-enough-for-LA hair was enough to get me noticed. I had confidence – even if I was only wearing it from 9-6pm. One day I came out of an important sales call to find three women trying on my leather coat which I had hung in the hallway closet.
They were giggling like high-schoolers and I realized that was me just six months before.
All was good for a while. I watched summer brown into fall from my office in a drafty River North loft. It faced Cabrini Green, a crumble of violent gang-run projects at the edge of the gallery district. Despite the scary neighborhood that I walked through every day nothing bad ever happened to me. I was more fearful of the people I encountered at the office than anyone on the street.
For weeks that fall I was nurturing a big account- one that required feats of persuasion to maneuver around the flimsy audience research I had to sell with. It was an account that demanded all the forces of my intuition and media experience to know how to handle. This account could open doors for even bigger advertisers. It would let me breathe easier- if only for a month at a time.
I hit the mother-lode right after the holidays when a contract for this account, a liquor company, finally came through. Immediately the manager decided the account was “too big” for me to handle. The rules changed when he saw the potential for real money. Instead of thanking me for the business I brought him, he took it for himself and kept the commission.
A few weeks later I got a phone call at home that I was “laid-off.” Not even my boss had the guts to tell me to my face. It was my boyfriend who reminded me that getting “laid-off” really meant I was fired. Thanks for that. I had no idea.
And then it was deep winter. The Illinois unemployment office lost my file before I got a single check. I was forced to call my mom for the second time in my life and ask for money. After a soul deflating lecture about taking a good long look at the decisions I’m making in my life I got the money and paid the rent for two more months.
I was looking forward to a night out when we headed to a place my boyfriend liked but I despised. It was RJ Grunts, the kind of bar that always has sticky tables. An obnoxious place filled with young business people, many of them in advertising. To me it was a place that requires hand washing as soon as you walk in the door. In other words, it was an appropriately awful place to get dumped.
He told me I was weak and lazy and self-entitled for getting unemployment and especially for getting a loan from my mom. He had no respect for me and was embarrassed to have an unemployed girlfriend.
I looked into his eyes, staring dispassionately back at me through his square-framed accountant glasses. I finally saw him as the enormous jerk my subconscious had been telling me he was. I was so furious it was tempting to leave him sitting at the table while I snuck out and got a cab, but I had him drive me home instead to save the fare. He jabbered the whole way home, filling the air with his excuses for dumping me.
“I wouldn’t have married you anyway,” he assured me as he dropped me off into the slush on the wrong side of the street. As if he was doing me a favor by telling me. I was puzzled. Did the M-word ever cross my lips? Did I ever want anything more than an occasional date? Was I dying to marry a cold-hearted money-monger? Did I lose my mind and say I wanted short-legged, far-sighted children with him? No, no, no and god help me, no.
“I hope you find your marriage material,” I said as I slammed the door of his dented grey Bui-k with the missing ‘c’.
It was a door slam as hard as my weak, lazy arms could muster after one Miller Lite and no dinner. I was swinging that slab of Midwest steel for wronged women everywhere. It was a slam for every woman dumped by a hard-hearted idiot. It was a slam for all women dumped at RJ Grunts when clearly it’s punishment enough just to enter a place with a name like a hillbilly bowel movement. It was the Mother of All Door Slams barreling through infinite space for every woman who ever got screwed out of an account, a commission or her job by corner office weenies who hire them to do their work, and make money for them, only to steal it back later. It was a beautifully executed, estrogen-invigorating slam for all womankind.
As I think back on those bruising days that started my career and my current joblessness that could be the end of it, I hope that door slam is still vibrating out into the Universe somewhere, rattling the bones of corporate jerks, GOP tightwads and terrible boyfriends everywhere, unsettling them, forcing them to look over their shoulders.
There is only so much you can pilfer from others before there’s pushback. And I hear karma is a bitch.