To draw on unemployment benefits in the state of Massachusetts, claimants are required to attend a Career Center Seminar (CCS) at one of several One-Stop Career Centers scattered throughout the state. My Career Center is on the third floor of a shopping mall near Fresh Pond, in Cambridge. The instructions on the Center’s website instruct me to enter the building “between Olympia Sports and the smoke shop” and take the elevator to the third floor. There’s the strangeness of being in the business concourse of a shopping center—law offices instead of stores, grim wood paneling in the hallways alternating with ribbed concrete. The Center’s waiting area is vast, with fluorescent light panels set in a water-stained drop ceiling, banks of computers for the registered public’s use, and surprisingly tasteful artwork on the walls; abstract acrylics, oil paintings in a series depicting either closed doors or open windows, which has a certain subtext here. On a bulletin board, blue index cards celebrate “Recent Hires!” and one boasts: “John got a job as a pipefitter in construction for $46.00/hour.”
After a brief wait, a man named Patrick, who has a grey beard and a mild, professorial bearing, brings the twenty of us into a small conference room. We fill out sheets with information about our recent employment histories, and Patrick takes an interest in me because he, too, was a teacher before he was laid off and decided to change fields. Before the formal presentation gets underway, he brings me a packet of resource materials specifically designed for teachers who have decided to “leave the classroom,” as he puts it. This is something he’s assuming about me, and wrongly, that I no longer want to be a teacher.
On one of the sheets, we’re asked to circle our area of specialization from a list: Manual Labor, Business, Communication, etc. “Education” isn’t included, but “Educational Services” is, so I circle it.
On a projection screen at the head of the conference room, a quote from Albert Einstein: “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”
The people at the seminar are mostly middle-aged, and quite a few look elderly. There’s one girl who might be twenty-five. Most of us are white, for whatever reason—probably none. A woman with silvery-blonde hair wears her glasses pushed up on her forehead, and she has an animated facial response to everything Patrick says. Her smile looks more sad than cheerful, and she trembles her head as she listens, perhaps in feeble resistance.
Patrick pronounces the word “last” lahst, and I love this. I want to start doing it too.
There’s a Korean man with a square-shaped jaw who looks pissed-off to be here. His severe expression changes only once, when he nods in satisfaction at the news that we’re not obligated to use the sample work search logs included with our forms. Then there’s a pale, white-haired man wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt with a word over the left breast. From my angle, I can only make out part of it, “MA,” and when he finally shifts his position at the end of the two-hour session, I can see that the word is “MAINE,” and this is so, so disappointing.
Throughout the presentation, it’s clear from Patrick’s comments that the Career Center is going through some financial stress. Unrelated pieces of information are grouped together on the same sheet of paper “to save on photocopying.” Free faxes are available but only to local numbers (“We got a big bill once.”) When Patrick tells the class that the fax machine does not offer printed receipts, the woman next to me exhales in what sounds like genuine despair and says, “No…”
Patrick takes his time going through the material. It’s all a bit oddly structured. He doesn’t bring up the subject of class etiquette—cellphone policies, food in the classroom—until the meeting is nearly over. At the start of the session, we’re given a checklist of self-evaluating questions such as “Are you having trouble getting started or staying motivated?” and asked to check the boxes next to each question—presumably to indicate some affirmative response—but then there’s also a place to circle “Yes” or “No” to each question, which would seem to render the check-boxes superfluous… and then, about an hour into the presentation, Patrick begins periodically asking us to check off the boxes as he gets to each related topic, and it’s never clear a.) why it’s important for us to keep track of Patrick’s own talking points with checkmarks as he plows through his speech, and b.) what’s the deal, because we already checked these boxes an hour ago.
At one point, he pulls up a slide that reads “Special Benefits for Veterans.” He asks if any of us are veterans, and no one raises their hand, so he just fucking skips it.
Facial expressions in the room: bored, interested, annoyed, hopeful, dubious, overwhelmed, stressed, neutral. Mostly neutral.
Flipping through his PowerPoint, he puts up a slide to introduce the topic of “Coping with Stress.” It’s a picture of a sun peeking through gray clouds, and since there’s no actual text on the slide beyond the topic heading, and since the slide serves no instructional purpose, he blows right past it.
Throughout all this, a bandsaw in the next room rages at maximum, barn-shredding volume. Not once does it cease in two hours—it’s sawing through a board the size of Nebraska.
Patrick asks us questions. How many of us are hoping to start our own business? One woman raises—not a hand, but a single finger, held chest-high. He asks if anyone has experienced long hold-times on the phone with the unemployment office, and the woman next to me, the one who said “No…” about the fax machines, now says, “Yes…”
After Patrick, a woman named Doris enters the room. She has short, scissor-trim hair and speaks in a honking voice. She’s the Center’s computer skills person, and she makes a presentation so brief—maybe eight seconds, even after a full formal introduction—that one wonders why she bothered.
Lastly there’s Rick, who’s here to schedule our follow-up appointments. Rick uses finger-quotes a lot, makes jokes that have victims, expresses unfiltered frustration with us when we don’t understand him or we need to use the bathroom. He does a recurring impression of a character-type whom he thinks is too smart for their own good: We-ll, I work with enzymes and proteins in the la-bor-a-tory, and I’ve been a rocket scientist at Harvard for eighteen years, so why would I ever network with my mailman? He’s not in my field! “Enzymes and proteins” in finger-quotes, and “rocket scientist,” and “not in my field.”
On the subject of people being narrow-minded when approaching the job market, he explains, “People do this-” (hands narrow together in front of his face) “-and they never do this-” (hands wide at his cheeks).
Rick tells us that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as “unemployed.” Unemployed is a negative word; it’s self-defeating. We should think of ourselves as small business owners with a service to provide to employers. The woman next to me, the one who first said “No…” and then “Yes…” now says “Yay!”
Finally it’s time to schedule our follow-ups. There’s one more form to fill out; some people need to be told to do it multiple times, and even then they’ll try to hand it back with half of the questions left blank. I make my appointment and ride the elevator back down to the first floor by the smoke shop and the Olympia Sports—construction guys on scaffoldings and UPS drivers pulling up in their vans and Radio Shack clerks outside on break and people doing their jobs.