Last Friday, I got word from the bus company that I will not be starting training on Monday. The reason is not because I failed as a candidate for the job, or that the conditional job offer got rescinded. No, it’s far more ridiculous than that. The reason I cannot start the job yet is because of a mandatory background check. Because I have lived across multiple states over the last five years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was handling my background and security check. Because of the recent government shut down, my background check was not completed in the time that is normally allowed for these things to happen. Because of this delay, I am still not a productive (and tax-paying) member of society. To the republicans who held up the entire show so they could have a little tantrum – and still get their paychecks in the process – you have shot at least one citizen in the foot.
This isn’t a political rant, though. This is far more involved than that.
I have been on the job market for now seven months. First, it all began with hunting, applying, nail-biting, and getting nowhere. I spent four months looking, four months putting my heart and mind on the line, hoping someone would find value in me, in my credentials, and in the vocation of teaching that brings me such joy. September 1 came and went, and still I had nothing. Still, I applied to teach as a substitute, only to be told, in no uncertain terms, and directly to my face by a human resources representative at the local public school offices, that Portland does not need any English teachers.
I will never forget going home, head slung low, and feeling about as worthless as I’ve ever felt. I’ve been rejected before, but to have the thing that gives me such joie de vive, the thing that is central to who and what I am kicked in the guts like that was a huge pill to swallow. I had my cry, had my little tantrum, and quickly proceeded to dust myself off and look around me for other options. Not having a job was not an option for me, and I knew it. I knew I had other skills, other qualifications, and could do a damn good job at just about anything I set my mind to, if someone would offer me the chance. I simply needed to look elsewhere.
I applied for multiple private industry jobs, only to find that their HR departments were a giant maw of nothing, with the constant refrain being they’ve got a billion applicants and zero time to sift through them. I knew from the experience that friends were reporting to me that the private employment world was a jungle of bullshit and resume building exercises. It all was soul-crushing, and something I would struggle at.
I began looking at government jobs because, as I found out, the hiring process seemed to make a lot more sense. In each step of the application process for those jobs, with the USPS, the Treasury Department, and any other number of federal and state opportunities, I would receive notification of the status of my application. I also found that I would have to take qualifying tests for each job, which meant that my actual skills would be tested, and regardless of who I knew, I could find a way to make those skills count above and beyond my contacts in the offices. I found, generally speaking, that applying for government jobs was far more egalitarian. Anyone can apply, and anyone can be brought into the hiring process, depending solely on their skill set. Not to mention the stability and security of these jobs, the empowerment they offer candidates looking for work – knowing future growth areas, pay increases, and the like – made applying and seeking out a public-sector job feel more natural, more humane to me.
This is how I ended up applying for and landing the job with TriMet, the bus company here in Portland, Oregon. They are funded through state and federal channels, and thus have a hiring process that mirrors those same techniques used by the government jobs. I was tested. I was interviewed. The process itself takes longer, but in the end, I felt I had the ability to speak to my strengths and skills in a far more balanced and honest way.
Throughout all of this, though, I have run out of money.
I have been subsisting on the food that my ex has brought into the house, and trying desperately not to eat too much, or be a burden on him in any way. The fact he’s allowed me to stay on in his house, use his resources here, and the like, speaks volumes to the kind of person he is. The relationship between us may have not worked out on one level, but that is nothing compared to his character and decency with regards to treating me with dignity and respect. It has been a struggle, though, for me, because I hate being this person. I hate being this kind of a charity case, who can only do things like tidy the house and attend to the dishes and the like because it’s all I have the resources for. I’d love nothing better than to take him out to dinner, to thank him properly for taking care of me, even though he doesn’t have to, nor has he ever had to.
Still, at the end of it all, I’ve got nothing in my bank account. I still have bills, and I still have responsibilities, and I have no means of meeting them.
What has happened, though, has been such an extraordinary thing for me. I have let it slip a couple of times to those who know me that I’m in dire straits with regards to this situation. Even letting that out of me, admitting my weakness, admitting my failure, has been such a challenge. Stiff upper lip and pragmatic New Englander that I am, I have found it so damn hard to even mention anything to anyone, let alone ask for help. When these contacts and friends have stepped up and actually done something to help me along, well, suffice to say I can feel myself imploding.
On one hand, I am overwhelmed by the generosity. I am totally and utterly blown away by the kindness, whether it’s taking me out for a coffee, all the way to helping me with a bill and lending money to me with the promise that I pay it forward rather than pay them back. I have never, ever had to ask for help like this, nor did I expect any sort of help when I’ve mentioned the predicament I’ve been in for some time now. I simply found myself letting off steam because, frankly, this situation is all that has consumed me as of late, and it’s all I can think about. Getting myself back into the workforce, out of this house, and on my feet again is all I want, and all I can focus on. All else simply falls to the wayside. So, when I’m out with friends or having a chat back and forth on any number of social networks, it’s inevitable that someone will ask how the job hunt is going, or how I’m doing, and I delicately and with this sort of nonchalance mention what I’m dealing with.
I find myself putting on such a good face with it all, making it all seem okay so as not to worry anyone, or upset anything. The last thing I want those I’m making connections with is to think I’m unable to keep my issues to myself, or that my life is as big of a mess as it truly is. It’s just not polite, nor is it the kind of light I want to be cast in when making a first impression. Which, in a way, leads me to my next point.
On the other hand, when I have received a gift from someone as an act of generosity and kindness, I find myself getting very, very upset. My defenses go flying high, and it’s all I can do not to simply refuse the generosity. What they have done is smack really hard and really fast right into the wall that is my pride. I am a man of independent means. I am a person who has spent his entire life being judged and being valued by my productivity and self-sustanance. There have been rare times, when I was much younger, where I would need someone’s help, but as I’ve grown older, I have prided myself on being able to figure my way out of a situation, regardless of how dire it is, and in the end, come out on top, with some sort of self-accomplishment. It has always filled me with pride to be like this, but as my pride has become weakened through an actual loss of nutrients to my body, as I’ve found myself dealing with the effects of malnutrition and anxiety, having that sort of martyrdom is a fool’s errand.
The fact is I have had to accept the help and generosity because I simply can not get sick. I can not hurt myself anymore simply because I’m too damn proud to accept the help.
This whole experience has awakened me to the plight of the homeless and jobless that seem to exist on every corner in this city that is now my home. I find myself avoiding contact with these people simply because it scares me how close I am to living just as they do. What if I had no home? What if I didn’t have the connections I have? It’s totally possible I could end up like them, and that fact scares me. Just how close I’ve been living to that line between myself and the homeless in this town is a huge wakeup call to me.
It also blows my mind to think I’m not the only one in this situation. I know I’m not. There are countless people here, in America, going day to day wondering about where their next meal is coming from. Some of them hold jobs. Some of them are productive members of our society. Some of them simply put on a good face and give off the vibe that they’ve got it all figured out when, like me, when you simply brush against the veneer, it becomes painfully clear that not all is right or okay in their world.
I will be okay. I will survive. I will move away from the very, very dark thoughts that have run through my mind time and time again over the past few weeks. I will land this job for real, begin my training, and finally get settled and established in this city on the Willamette. I won’t, however, forget this experience. I won’t forget just how dark this has all been. It still might get darker, and there may still be walls and barriers that I need to consider and find my way through. For now, though, my appreciation for the generosity, kindness, and honest concern for my well-being as seen through the connections and friends that I have made thus far is teaching me what it truly means to be a good human being. I need to find a way to square my pride, to stop putting on a show simply because it’s how I was raised and where I came from, and work harder at simply being Thom.