The smell of despair

To collect unemployment benefits you have to agree to look for work every week, report any income you make in a week you collect, and attend a two-hour seminar on how to find a job. You might be able to fudge the first two but there’s no wiggling out of the third.

The address for the seminar closest to my home was a mall in Cambridge. Who knew there was anything other than retail there? But lo and behold, between Jack’s Smoke Shop and PetSmart, there was a doorway with a sign above it for the Career Source.

The door opened into a long corridor that reeked of stale smoke, the smell of despair. At the end was an elevator. I waited for what seemed like forever for the door to close for the short ride to the third floor. When I reached the office I struggled in vain to figure out where I was supposed to go until someone flapped her hand in the vague direction of the room. By the time I took my seat in the classroom I was more than a little irritable. Then we met our presenter.

This man, I’ll call him Peter, introduced himself as someone who could relate to our situation. He’d been let go from his job as a European History teacher at a parochial school several years before and that had led him to his current job preparing us to go out and find gainful employment. He was a soft-spoken, articulate man. He led us through a handful of predictably content-free PowerPoint slides with such sincerity and care that I found myself paying attention in spite of my resentment. And all the other attendees were too.

The class was filled with all manner of folk, our own little microcosm of society. There were women with manicured nails and guys with dirt under their nails. There were people with dyed hair, gray hair and no hair. There was a man with an earring in each ear and a woman with multiple earrings in one ear. There were watch caps and baseball caps and wool hats. There were band-aids and tattoos and canes. There were native English speakers, people who spoke English as a second language, and people whose Boston accents were so thick they sounded to me as if they came from a foreign country.

Sitting with these people was a humbling experience. For many of them what Peter was saying was going to make a huge difference in their lives. He was arming them with valuable information about how to approach a job search. He was explaining the free services and resources that were available to them through the Career Source. He was giving them hope.

I went in feeling put upon and annoyed that I had to sacrifice my time to be there. But I left grateful that such a place exists, knowing that for lots of people that compulsory seminar is as valuable as the unemployment payments themselves.

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One response to “The smell of despair

  1. What a vivid picture you paint. Reading this essay, for me, was like happening upon on a little emotional journey. Thank you for sharing it!

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