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Quixotically Tilting At The Windmill Of Unemployment

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The bus ride down Telegraph took a nightmare of effort that I felt in my bones would never help me. Simply heading from the too-tidy streets of Berkeley into the dingy, never- remodeled, flaking-paint storefronts defining the border of Oakland sank me deeper into the hopeless feeling of the go- nowhere towns I had tried to escape. I looked around at what was written on every face on the bus. None of these people, who'd lived here all their lives and actually knew one neighborhood from the next, had a job that didn't make them wince-- what the fuck was I going to do?

I painstakingly followed Daya's directions east from the appointed bus stop to the cafe whose ad I would answer, each step of my feet and each intersection of streets confusing and pointless, like a punishment I had invented for myself.

But true despair didn't really settle on me, like bored picnicking houseflies, until I had a blank application staring condescendingly back at me. Lacking any convincing or recent experience, I lied on the dates, and then, gathering momentum, even the names of my previous food-themed employments, which made me feel all the more miserable and hopeless. The very best of my references would probably say, 'Who's calling? What's he applying to-- a restaurant? Sure, sure, he can cook.' No good. I handed the application over the counter, a coerced confession I'd just signed, grinning a sick approximation of competence or tranquility, and opened the door onto the jumbled street of faces and noises and blurred moving cars.

I wandered around in a near convulsion of anxiety and helplessness, searching among the disgusting fairyland facades of the Oakland yuppie coffee and dessert boutiques lining the street. I put in other applications with at least two other places that actually had help wanted signs posted, and at each of them I lied reasonably well, but both times I suspected I had been sniffed out as someone who was desperate for a paycheck, and did not, in fact, cheerfully look forward to pampering the effete yahoos who consistently had money to waste in these places. This particular fact seemed tattooed on me somewhere I couldn't see.

A day or two later, I did actually call all three places back, but the managers had wiped themselves with the counter-people's brains so often, getting a coherent answer about my prospects was somewhat difficult. When I did hear some spark of life on the other end of the line, there was the unmistakable sense that a friend of the counterperson was going to end up with the job in question.

After much angst, inventive self-torture, worry, doubt, general misery, and calls to every feasible ad in the local papers, I finally gritted my teeth and called up the environmental group.

There are always ads for canvassers to perform door-to- door fundraising, primarily because this line of work has a higher turnover rate than even human crash-test dummy. Canvassing combines the least desirable elements of telemarketing, evangelism, door-to-door sales, and con artistry. Since canvassing requires the fervent conviction of snake-handling and the moral relativism of advertising-- except it doesn't pay as well as either one-- the most successful canvassers are either totally committed to the issues and convinced their actions will have some impact on the future of the world, or shameless pathological liars.

I'd spent a couple of summers doing such work before, which is something like a century or two in canvasser-years, and survived as long as I had by combining both strategies. I approved of the cause, deep down under my cynicism about its chances, but learned quickly that the prime directive at the door was to get pen and checkbook together in the minds, and shortly thereafter, the hands, of Jane Q. Public-- men being usually too inherently stupid to be interested in their own fate, much less that of anyone else.

To maintain that success I needed to continually convince myself, and thereby the person at the door, that industry executives could ever be coerced into giving a quick fuck about anyone living next to their shiny corporate smokestacks and discharge pipes. Most people understand intuitively the spiteful misanthropy, not to mention myopic willpower, necessary to blow one's whole life oozing up the power pyramid at a corporation whose major by-products are cancer and birth defects.

I canvassed in the same spirit with which you might approach a wishing well, and give a quarter to an empty- handed kid peering down into the darkness, or toss one in yourself to ward off an intricate fatal illness. Some small and worthless gesture, just in case the dryads were watching you, or the unborn rug-rats who'd be getting those extra cases of skin cancer in fifty years.

So now I had a job. Since my state of mind was-- I would cheerfully admit-- sort of precarious already, doing a job whose tasks ranged from worming money out of airhead republican wives who asked, "Well, my husband feeds plutonium to pre-schoolers for a living-- do you think he'd mind if I made a five-dollar donation?" to extracting it from weary democrats who wanted to know, "Is this twenty dollars going to stop that smokestack down the road?" or worse, chipper progressives who enthused "I'm so glad every penny of this thirty bucks is going to help you change the world," reduced me to just barely resisting the urge to chew someone's head off and spit it out into their cute-little-windmill mailbox.

I did manage however, to savor each moment of time I'd borrowed, long enough, at least, to live and die somewhere other than where I'd been born, and with the thin man over one shoulder I sucked each necessary, gorgeous, silent uphill minute between the houses in the dark exclusive hills of Marin County.

My co-workers included disheveled hippie college students, blissfully stoned pot dealers in yellow shades, and speed-freak punk guitarists moonlighting between shows. My own mental stability followed the contours of the shadowy hillsides, and I wondered often whether I was one of the least or most sane members of the crew.

For comfort, unable to afford even a joint, I indulged in a ritual few repetitions of 'cortez the killer' and 'pets' every afternoon on my headphones before I ventured out through the twisted black-gray trees and trickling stream of the campus to the waiting neighborhoods, lying wrung-out on the pale gray carpet of Daya's apartment, my eyes wet, saturated in the loss we had taken into our mouths like a gift.

...what just happened again?...
...section six...
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