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Notes From A Polite New Yorker: Sword Of Damocles

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If you have a job today, you are lucky. If you can still afford your mortgage or the rent on your apartment, you are lucky.

At work this past week, my coworkers and I were having a meeting with some visiting financial people. As I mentioned last month, I work as a financial journalist. Part of my job means meeting with financial people for friendly chats that will hopefully in some way lead to good information or at lease well-spoken quotes.  

What made this meeting different was that we had to do extra planning for this meeting. This is the first meeting that we had in our office since our company eliminated coffee cups. You read that right. The company I work for is penny-pinching to the extent that they are no longer buying coffee cups. They issued everyone a plastic-encased metal cup. We could not brew a pot of coffee for our visitors. Instead my editor got a to-go pot of coffee from Starbucks and I brought in doughnuts. This all seemed easy enough when we discussed it the day before.  

Our guests arrived early before my editor arrived with the coffee. I tried to buy bottled water out of a vending machine to give to the people we were meeting with, but the vending machines were out of commission. I had no cups to serve them coffee or water. My editor arrived with the Starbucks coffee, but the plastic cup of milk for the coffee had opened in transit, soaking the cardboard coffee container all the way through, so pouring coffee meant wrestling with the silver innards of the soggy cardboard container. It was a comedy of errors. Years from now it will be a lot more hilarious, but it was a sign that things are so bad right now that our company can’t afford coffee cups (I was told that there is a secret stash of coffee cups for when we have meetings, but I learned this too late).  

And those insulated tin cups may be used to beg for change, if things keep going the way they are. In the financial district where I work, the packs of swaggering young men who filled the sidewalks after the trading day a year and a half ago are gone. The ranks of financial professionals have been decimated, and so have the ranks of everyone else involved in that world, including financial journalists.   

If you have a job today, you are lucky. If you can still afford your mortgage or the rent on your apartment, you are lucky.  

Those of us who still have jobs live in constant fear of losing them. We’re scrambling to save money and cut our expenses any way we can. Like a comedian on the king’s throne, we suddenly know the fear of having our future dangling by a thin hair.  

I was laid off from my very first paying journalism job in October of 2001 after a year and eight months on the job. The first wave of layoffs, which were two weeks to the day after the September 11 attacks, eliminated about a third of the staff. The round of layoffs one month later cut half of us that were left.  

At first, being unemployed was fun. I had a bit of money saved and an unemployment check came every week and I searched for work but didn’t worry that much. I was smart with my money and didn’t spend foolishly. Then unemployment benefits stopped. A few under-the-table jobs came next: I helped paint my uncle's house and spent a month working for a traveling poster sale.  

In desperation, I took a job as a $100-a-week intern with another financial publisher in hopes that it would lead to a paying job. Over a month later it did, but it paid so little that at one point I found myself with only $5 in the bank. The company published a magazine that had been the chief chronicler of New York’s “Silicon Alley,” and its fortunes had followed the dot-com bubble. We were working in a building that housed mostly sweat shops for the garment district. We shared floor space with people that ran shady offshore Internet gambling operations. All the while I was interviewing for jobs everywhere I could. I finally found another real job that would pay enough to live on. It was a little less than I had been making but I was overjoyed. When I gave my two weeks notice I was pretty much fired on the spot for quitting. “Why don’t you make today your last day,” said the owner. I had to persist to get my last paycheck.  

I’m prepared to get by again by the skin of my teeth, to roll spare change to buy Christmas presents or cancel most of Christmas and cancel vacations, cable TV or beer. And I will be lucky if that’s the extent of it for me.  

A lot of my friends have lost their jobs. One friend was laid off a few weeks after his wife had their first baby. Another had just come off a long spell of unemployment, worked long hours, and was laid off when new management took over the non-profit she had slaved away for. They are getting by, for now.   

There are people living in tent cities in California. There are people struggling to pay mortgages and feed children. My problems may get bad, but I am very lucky. And not a day goes by that I don’t remember that.

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