January 7, 2007

The League of Drunken Men

I've known a lot of people over the years who take unemployment for granted. It's a whim to them. Eh, they lost their job, they get on unemployment for a few months, then start looking for a job again when it runs out. Of course most of them are half my age, and still maintain that kind of energy and carefree whatsit that comes with youth. And most of them, I need to keep in mind, also usually work as waiters.

     When you're old, and crippled and lost the job you had for the past 13 years, it's a different story. When I was unemployed at their age, yeah, I took it easy—slept late, drank my days away, watched cartoons. Now? Now I obsessively check the email to see if I've received any responses to all those resumes I've sent out. I usually haven't, and when I have, it's a rejection.

     The thing is, the rejections have all been very nice and personal. Two people even took me out to lunch at fancy-pants places to reject me. It's all very nice. Strangers write me nice notes about the things I've done. Yet here I sit, doing little now, growing bitter.

     Worse, I've become self-conscious of myself (more so) when I step outside. At least to a certain degree. Ignoring the fact that I change my clothes on a weekly basis and have given up on deodorant, I get the feeling that I'm being judged by every stroller-pushing cow who shoves me to the curb, every store owner, every old crone who pulls her blinds aside to scowl at me as I pass.

     I know better, of course. These people barely see me. They don't know that I exist, and didn't want to know. But then again, they tend to be a self-righteous lot who moved into the neighborhood ten years after me, yet were clearly unhappy there were people like me still around. But why should I care? I should wear that as a point of pride.

     But there's no denying there is a terrible confession, in doing your laundry on a weekday morning instead of the weekend the way you used to. Same with showing up at the deli at eight in the morning two or three times a week to buy beer and a bunch of two-for-one packs of smokes.

     This self-consciousness has even forced me to divide my beer purchases among four or five different neighborhood stores, in a cheap effort to, y'know, cover my tracks. It's awfully pathetic.

     The Asian lady at the deli on 7th Street doesn't seem to give a good goddamn. She's always very pleasant and knows what I want. My guess is she's quietly judging me, sure, but shoves that to the back. What matters is that cash in my grubby hand.

     It still bugs me, so I try to make it as quick as possible and get back to my apartment before the streets get bad, check the email again, then put on what I came to think of as my Unemployment Music. (Swans, Ennio Morricone, any song with “failure” in the title).

     But there was this one Wednesday when I had a few other errands I needed to run. I had to refill the prescription for my heart medication, needed (obviously) to get some more beer, and then get as many groceries as I could with whatever money was left over. There wouldn't be much, but priorities are priorities.

     After the drugstore and the deli, I stopped into the grocery store. I grabbed a basket and began picking the meager items I needed off the shelves, guessing at the prices and adding them up roughly. Then, when I was done, I realized that I had enough cash left to get another sixer. That was cool—a little backup never hurt. It might even save me making another trip to the deli the following morning, depending on the smoke situation.

     So I went back to the beer cooler, grabbed one, and walked to the checkout. I've been going to this store for 16 years now. I knew most of the checkout girls, and they knew me. This one was new, though.

     I pulled the objects out of the basket and laid them on the conveyor belt. Then the girl grabbed them and dragged them across the scanner.

     She said something that I only half registered.

     “Excuse me?” I asked.

     “It's before noon,” she said. “'Can't buy that.”

     Then I saw that she was pointing at the beer. What in the fuck was she talking about? But I held my tongue.

     “Yes...yes, I can,” I said, trying to force a pleasant smile. I knew I looked shabby, probably smelled a little off, that it was clear I was a loser, but nobody wants an unpleasant morning.

     “Not before noon you can't.”

     It didn't even occur to me that my left hand carried a bag full of beer from a store a block away.  But if she was right, I didn't want the Asians to get busted—I needed them to get my two-for-one smokes.

     “But it's Wednesday, “ I argued. (At least I hoped it was Wednesday—I'd kind of been losing track of the days of the week.) She didn't correct me, which was a relief. I would've been lost then. Instead, I decided to press on, in spite of the fact that a confrontation over beer was exactly what I'd been hoping to avoid.

     “The noon law only applies to—”

     “Saturdays,” a voice behind me said. I turned. It was a man about my age, who was buying bread. He was smiling too, and had a French accent, which could be a detriment here. “—he's right.”

     “Well, it's Sundays, actually, but whatever. And even that law was repealed a few weeks ago—” Then I stopped myself. No need to make things more complicated.

     The woman stared at us, and we stared back, a strange alliance between two men who knew the importance of being able to buy beer early in the morning, just so it's there. Isn't that what America was all about?

     Eventually she slid the beer across the scanner and punched some numbers into the register. She didn't say another word, except to tell me the final tab.

     After I handed the money over, I turned to the Frenchman. “Thank you,” I said. “A little back up always helps.”

     “No problem,” he said.

     And you know, things were a little brighter for about the next ten minutes.


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