Meeting the Members

She stood above six feet in her stocking feet and had blonde hair cut stylishly short in the way of the upwardly-bound career woman. So carefully groomed from head to the manicured toenails visible through her open-toed shoes, Lisa Charles epitomized a sharp, professional woman of the last decade who was now meeting the new millennium head-on. The tailored, straight skirted suit was the required power dark blue — Probably by Ann Taylor of New York™, I thought, because it looked like those I’d often seen in their store windows near our offices — complete with high standup collar, long-sleeved white blouse, and burgundy print scarf arranged in the shape of a man’s tie. Understandably, then, she commanded attention wherever she went, and was certainly the center of attention in this room full of men and women who were mostly former middle managers and corporate execs.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to all our regulars, and a special welcome to those who are visiting our group for the first time.” Her voice was clear and confident, her words crisp and easy to absorb, demonstrating part of the several reasons why she had successfully moved to head public relations at Margo Technologies. All of those attributes and her outward demeanor were, however, masking the fear she shared with just about everybody else in the room. All felt the crush deep within themselves — that self-doubt borne by the prevailing sense that somehow losing their jobs marked them as failures. That was their common fellowship: the thing they didn’t really want to talk about outside these walls, because somehow, doing that required facing realities they felt they weren’t really strong enough to handle.

As we watched from the back of the auditorium, Dan quietly explained, “The group comes together like this every Tuesday and Thursday nights starting at 6:30 and continuing until around 8:00 or 8:30. Acting as though members of a large management group, they take turns giving reports of their job-hunting activities, offering copies of any job descriptions or news about openings they discovered since the last meeting. Not often, but occasionally, someone actually brings copies of their new employment papers to show the others their trophies.”

Dan would have continued, but just then the audience began applauding as a sandy-haired man who looked to be in his late thirties told of several new jobs about to become available. I later learned his name was Chris Green, age 40, who had spent more than fifteen years processing chemicals in the dye house of a textile manufacturer. His job had literally gone south — across the border into Mexico, leaving him with a master’s degree in chemistry and lots of experience, but nowhere locally to ply his trade. There was now no way for him to bring home the more than $100,000 annual income, plus benefits for which he had invested his early years to deliver to his family.

In an upbeat voice, he said that a large assisted living facility was due to open just a couple of miles away in a few weeks. “Though most of the jobs call for medical training, from licensed practical nurses to registered nurses, they will also need a couple of dozen orderlies to help with patients and to perform essential cleaning duties ’round the clock, everyday.” Referring to his notes, he continued with all eyes riveted to his face, “…and another eight or so will be hired to perform routine clerical duties in the accounting office and in medical records.”

From everything I’d heard before I knew this was certainly good news, and I found myself beginning to feel the excitement with them. When I heard his next statements, my stomach felt like it had suddenly been punched flat, removing my breath and along with it, the warm feeling of just an instant before.

“Now,” he continued, “the rates of pay range from $8.50 an hour at the low end to more than $25 an hour for experienced RNs. And, important for all of us is the health insurance and dental coverage that goes with every position.” Those most basic benefits each had always taken for granted in their previous lives were now sought-after luxuries for the families represented in that room. Never again would any one of them become so unmindfully spoiled.

“So I’ve brought plenty of applications for everybody that’s interested,” he said as he placed several on the front table. Several rose to claim a form, each saying a word of thanks for what they hoped would open the way for them to return to work. Seeing how genuinely glad they felt to have something new to pursue, I thought better of the emptiness in my stomach. My thoughts spoke to me as my mind sought to reason through it all. I looked deliberately into their faces as they returned to their seats, and the voice inside me said, “Okay, so that’s a lot less than many of them were making before, and those jobs aren’t the most desirable by any means . . . they look like they’ve swallowed their pride and are adjusting . . . maybe they’ll be even happier when they finally do land a new job of any kind and start putting themselves back to productive activity . . . .”

That was as far as my conversation with myself went before Dan’s voice returned me to the conscious world. Determined to continue his mission of getting me thoroughly immersed in the group, he nudged me and led me around the fellowship hall. “You take the case of Ann Gustavson over there,” he said, indicating an attractive brunette who looked to be in her mid-forties. “Now there’s another story unto itself. I mean she was the best there was at managing the installed equipment inventory and accounts receivable associated with the local office of a giant computer manufacturer …” His voice trailed off. Then, as if he’d just tuned back in, he said, “… we’ll hear from her soon at one of our meetings.”

Though he had witnessed these moments many times, Dan’s facial expressions showed distress as his normally calm demeanor showed signs of his pent-up frustrations. Trying to move him past his passions, it was my turn to nudge forward, so I led the way into the room.

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