A La Recherche du Layoff Perdu

Thursday, June 1st, 2006, 12:22 pm

It’s hard for me to believe that it was two years ago I was laid off from my previous job. Doesn’t seem possible that 730 days and nights have passed since the last time I made the 50-minute drive out to Coraopolis, which is, uh, 50 minutes from my house. Before I started working out there a trip to Robinson (which is this massive, sprawling shopping/retail/whatever complex) was a destination you set on the calendar weeks ahead of time. Then all of a sudden I was driving it every day. And then, even more suddenly, I wasn’t.

It is perhaps the central irony of my life that every serious decision of my life, decisions made only after careful analysis, logical deconstruction, and serene contemplation, have turned out to be disasters, while I keep blundering into good situations almost despite myself. For example, getting laid off two years ago. My job was becoming intolerable, I was horribly depressed, I go to work one day and, voila! Problem solved! Of course, another problem was created, namely, how was I going to keep my cats in cream and anchovy without a job? No matter, I just called the temp place I used before, and after a month of collecting unemployment and the sun’s rays I got a job closer to home making more money. I ended up getting hired full time a year later making about 60% more than I did at my last job, with a company I admire, working with people I think are fantastic. Blundering indeed.

I remember the day when me and about 40 of my co-workers got canned. The Friday before we’d had our Memorial Day picnic, everyone outside having a good time, eating burgers and dogs and hanging out in the sunshine playing picnic games. While I was inside getting killed because our clients were calling and couldn’t get through to anyone. I left that day seething, absolutely seething. I had a manager from the company I dealt with call me three times in a half-hour looking for my boss, who was in a meeting. She was a sharpish sort, and after her second call made some cutting remarks about it being odd that I lacked the wherewithal to communicate a simple message. Butter wouldn’t have melted in my mouth as I replied that I was perfectly capable of relaying a message, bitch, but he was in a meeting and I didn’t know where the fuck he was. After the third call the threat became more general–maybe my company didn’t want her client’s business anymore, and if I couldn’t get my boss (or his boss) on the phone in ten minutes that might be the result, with me of course getting a nice helping of blame because I didn’t appreciate the urgency of the matter.

I hunted all over the building for my company’s brain trust, finally finding them huddled in a conference room on a different floor. I had to peek in a narrow window, verify my boss was in there, knock politely, and stick my head inside. It was obvious from everyone’s expression that I wasn’t welcome, and when I told my bosses who was calling and why and what the consequences might be, my boss said peevishly, “Gene, can’t you see we’re busy?”. I can usually handle slights like that without too much trouble, but this time it tilted me so much I should’ve walked away on my hands. My credo for the rest of the day (and, as it turned out, my career with that company) was, “OK, I don’t give a fuck.”

I wonder if my interruption is what doomed me, because in retrospect it’s obvious that the meeting was about who was going to get cut. Probably not, no one in that room would’ve missed me that much. I remember going back to my desk and not answering the phone the last 30 minutes of my shift. I’d done my duty, I’d passed the message up the chain of command. My conscience was clear. I went downstairs to where the picnic was winding down, ate a deviled egg, snagged a brownie, and went back to my desk to see if my boss would return before I left. He didn’t, and when I left at six I was dragging pretty bad. I knew that when I returned after the holiday I’d be in for a really lousy day. It pretty much ruined my whole Memorial Day weekend.

When I did walk into the office that day I noticed something odd–quite a few desks were empty. Maybe they took an extra day off, maybe they were just running late. Didn’t know, didn’t think too much about it. I did have one little ray of sunshine to brighten my day. I’d been working on a problem for a customer for nearly a year. It wasn’t my problem–wasn’t even my company’s problem. I’d gotten involved by accident and because the customer had my name and number, she MADE it my problem. After nearly a full year of chopping through another company’s bureaucracy, I’d finally gotten it resolved. All I had to do was make a phone call, confirm things were copacetic, and shrug that goddam piano off my back once and for all.

Never made that call. I got my coffee, went back to my desk, and my phone rang and I saw in the caller ID window that it was our HR person. And I knew. I knew what was about to happen. Though I didn’t know if I was being laid off (recent rumors had been denied without inspiring much confidence) or fired for any number of petty reasons. I went into her office and our department head was there, he gave a little spiel about the changing market and interest rates and orders being down, and that while they really didn’t want to do it, they had to let me go.

I asked if I was being laid off or fired, just to make sure, and after I was told it was the former I was handed info about my benefits and filing for unemployment and other fun stuff. I guess I was in shock, but I was also oddly elated. I didn’t have to go back upstairs. I didn’t have to do this job anymore. I wouldn’t be on the phone all day. It was over.

My boss came downstairs with my bag, and he escorted me from the building. He wasn’t a bad guy, or a bad boss, and he said he was sorry and shook my hand and wished me luck. And there I was, standing outside on what was a beautiful day, sunny and cool and the sky so richly blue I felt like I could reach up and dip my finger in it. I called my wife to tell her the news, and as she’d gone through similar trauma herself a year before she was full of good advice. “Take some time, go have a cup of coffee, let your mind calm down.”

That’s what I did. I drove to Barnes and Noble, ordered a Java Chip frozen drink (a small, as I had to economize now) and sat down with a book. Don’t remember which book. I still couldn’t believe it. I wanted to laugh, to jump up and down, to whoop with delight. But the future was too uncertain and unsettled for me to do that. I called my temp place, told them what had happened, and after accepting their condolences was told they’d start looking for me that very day. In a strange coincidence a bank in that development was having a career day, and I happened to have a copy of my resume with me. I went in, smiled a lot, told them about my morning, and had an impromptu interview. I actually wasn’t interested in the jobs they were hiring for, especially all the way out there, but it made me feel like I’d done something productive. I’d only been laid off for 90 minutes and I’d had a job interview and had headhunters scouring the Greater Pittsburgh area for me. Time for a nap!

I wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye to some of the folks I worked with. Had some friends there I never saw again, people I liked working with. The last few months our department had been increasingly stressful, and I felt bad that those who remained would have to pick up the slack now that I (and others) were gone. They were gonna have a hellish time of it. In fact, I bumped into two guys I worked with a few months later and learned that my desk sat there untouched for over a month. Every file, every piece of paper that I’d shuffled and pushed with all my might, just sat there collecting dust. I lost sleep over those pieces of paper. The absurd things we worry about.

I saw some people at an Oktoberfest celebration, a few of them were still with the company. A girl who had been hired at the same time as me was a supervisor now. When I saw her and the other people I started wondering about other folks. My friend Matt, who joined me in playing in a poker tournament held at a local country club. Every so often I look to see if there’s a major motion picture coming out with him credited as director. Just a matter of time.

A few months ago I had a Saturday without anything scheduled, and I said, what the hell? I drove out to where I used to work. I took a pit stop and stopped at Ikea to look at things Swedish, but then I continued on and visited my old building, just to see it. I hadn’t driven the Parkway West in 2 years, and I couldn’t believe some of the construction that was completed in that time. The weird thing is that it seemed like it’d only been a few weeks since I’d made that drive, not two years. It wasn’t that the surroundings seemed familiar–they seemed immediate. Like the last two years had just been a dream, that I still drove this road every day and worked the job I imagined I’d lost.

I drove through the office complex, parked in my old spot, took a little walk. I couldn’t go inside of course, but I walked around to the rear entrance, looked in the window at the break room where I used to eat lunch. At the bottom of the hill is a rather large pond, which was teeming with bright goldfish when I left. It was still cold out and lidded with ice, but the sun cut a few windows and I could see the odd squiggle of orange under the water. Nothing had changed.

I walked back to my car feeling pretty stupid. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to accomplish. To disprove Thomas Wolfe’s statement that, “You can’t go home again”? Well, of course you can, if you’ve got a friggin’ car. You just drive.

So why was I there? Perhaps to show myself that two years might seem an impossibly long stretch of time, but the past two years slipped by so quickly my mind rebelled at the fact. These last two years–well, three years–well, five years–have been rough ones, for a number of reasons. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it seems like no matter how fast I run toward it, it never gets any closer, and I just hang in limbo. But maybe it’ll just take a little bit more time. Just a little bit. If two years can pass in what seems like two weeks, I guess I can wait a little bit longer.

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3 Responses to “A La Recherche du Layoff Perdu”

  1. The Litvak Says:

    Come for the poker, stay for the awful layoff memories…
    Great post!

  2. Falstaff Says:

    Nicely said, Gene. Good stuff.

  3. Josh Says:

    As an employee of your former company and an avid reader of your blog, I promise that if I get laid off today I am returning on monday with a raft and a cooler of beer. You’ll find me sauced up, floating on the pond, working on my tan.

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