One balmy evening last August, my husband Tom and I were sitting in our backyard under the big cedar tree, laughing with dear Southern Californian friends over Tanqueray and tonics and Dungeness-stuffed endive spears.
“How’s business?” I asked our friend, a real estate developer.
He paled, stopped laughing. “I had to lay off three people last week. Things feel…things feel ruined down there.” He’d had to let go a single mom, and was trying to connect her up with something else, anything. Nobody was hiring.
How wrenching, I thought as I rinsed the dishes. God bless Microsoft, I guess. And Boeing and Starbucks. I turned off the lights and went upstairs to bed.
Was it the next week? The next month? It’s hard to remember now exactly how long it took for the contagion to creep up the coast. Did WaMu tank before Boeing announced its 4,500 layoffs or was it the other way around? I do know that something tipped just as the postcard-pretty snows of Christmas were clotting into big dirty piles by the side of the road. That’s when the city stood stunned before news of the P-I’s imminent demise—news that for me conjured a horrifying picture of a suit with a gun methodically taking out every breathing human in the newsroom.
That’s when, in the wake of closing hundreds of stores, Starbucks announced its intention to lay off thousands.
That’s when Microsoft—layoff-proof Microsoft—announced its plan to cut 5,000 employees.
That’s when I began looking over my shoulder.
Paranoia doesn’t describe the feeling, because paranoia implies fear that’s irrational. There wasn’t a journalist in Seattle that didn’t feel the death sentence of the P-I as a blow to their own sternum. And it wasn’t just there-but-by-the-grace-of-God empathy for those—including more than one couple—who now had no idea how they would write their next mortgage check.
No, the P-I’s swan song rang like the death knell of print media itself. So a few weeks later when the email came around to our whole staff—“Company meeting, 11:30am, conference room”—every heart in the office stopped for two hours. Soberly we gathered, to be told that though the Seattle operation was holding its own, employees at our sister publication in Portland had moments earlier been laid off.
Against the sound of a pin dropping, I heard the reflexive exhale of relief. (Yep, God help me: relief first.) Followed by a loooong inhale of grief. And then, for me at least, a gush of guilt, flowing into the place my fear had been thriving like a well-nourished child.
“Is survivor guilt even an appropriate response?” Tom gently challenged after I staggered in the door that night. He looked up from the letter that arrived in the mail that day, from a luxury Bellevue realtor announcing his official certification as a specialist in foreclosures and distressed properties. “I am truly sorry for anyone who loses their livelihood,” Tom sympathized. “But how will your guilt help them?”
Well…my guilt could keep an ear to the ground for job opportunities, I countered lamely. It could clink more change into the Starbucks tip jar, as one friend now does. It could stop hitting up Microsoft friends for their software discounts at the company’s commissary and instead shell out for full price, as another friend has pledged to do (though she insists—with some merit—that she’ll be the only person in Seattle doing it). My guilt could support local boutiques rather than the off-price national chains I typically patronize. Of course, the day before I’d held off buying a $40 vase in a locally owned home furnishings boutique and heard myself reason: I haven’t seen a customer in here for so long, it’s probably just a matter of time until the thing is half price on a clearance table.
That night I lay awake a long time, trying to make sense of the new world we now inhabit. I may still be one of the lucky ones with a job—knock wood knock wood knock wood—but in lesser ways I feel unmoored, too, in a savage new sea. How to navigate this new boat? Are there new rules? The morning Microsoft handed around the pink slips I sat in my office stuck between potential responses: Call my friends there in a genuine show of concern? Don’t call to prove I wouldn’t even question their value to the company?
I’ve now been working long enough to have weathered two previous recessions—but this one feels like a different beast entirely. It’s the first time I know about equal numbers of the layers and the laid. Because of that, I now know it’s no picnic for either group, with bosses like my California friend internalizing a toxic blend of culpability and impotence. But for me the most striking thing about this recession is that so many of the new unemployed used to be the bosses. “Who’s Jobless: Older, Educated Men,” announced a Seattle Times headline in early February. White-collar middle- and upper-managers with advanced degrees and big fat houses and jumbo mortgages. And backyards where there would be no more Dungeness-stuffed endive spears, and certainly no more Tanqueray. And kitchens where there might not be much in the cupboards at all.
True, cuts at the top of the ladder are no sadder than cuts at the bottom. They just cause a bigger earthquake. A friend of mine is feeling the tremors as I write this. He’s a biggie in a high-tech firm with a few successful startups on his résumé: prominently affluent and a good guy to boot. A month or so ago an acquaintance of his from the neighborhood, someone he’d seen at his kid’s football games and made small talk with at parties, invited him to lunch. And there over club sandwiches and Amstel Lights the guy told my friend he’d been laid off…and could he spot him some cash? Just enough to get through the next three months of mortgage payments, utility bills, and food for his family?
My friend wasn’t entirely caught unawares. Two of his colleagues had recently fielded similar requests: one from a man who made it plain that if he were turned down, he would have no choice but to end his life.
“God, what do you do?” my friend said, shaking his head. “I mean, I’m someone who hasn’t yet worked out a satisfying personal response to the panhandler on the street. What do you do when a guy you used to talk finance with at cocktail parties asks you for money to live on?”
Unbidden, my imagination spun out visions of myself and my family on either side of that poor guy’s request. Me doing the asking? Unthinkable. Hands over ears, la la la la la.
But if someone were to ask me? What if the remaining success stories around here were to fail—Amazon, say, or every piggy-bank raider’s new best friend, Bellevue-based Coinstar—and suddenly folks of average income like me and Tom were the ones being hit up by friends in need. What then?
Man, I have no idea. But I’m afraid the time has come to get one. I still have that luxury real estate guy’s foreclosure flyer around somewhere—in case a friend needs it.
Something tells me I may need to dig deeper than that.