Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

Unemployment - Day 40 in Human Days; Day 29 in Business Days

It’s been 7 hours and 40 days…since they took my job away.

"I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan.  I'm going home to my city by the bay.  I left my heart in San Francisco..."

It is Valentine's Day in San Francisco and I can't get Tony Bennett out of my head.  No job, no Valentine, and a new city make for one contemplative gal.   While I may not have come to San Francisco with a Valentine, I am certainly leaving this city with one.

The love affair began as soon as I arrived on Wednesday night and has been hot and heavy since.  Well, more like cold and rainy, but you get the idea.  Nothing like 50 degrees with a 110% chance of showers to get you in the mood!  (Mental note: Bikini and sandals not required for next trip to San Francisco in February.  Heck, razor not required either.   The standard uniform seems to be a North Face vest.   Sigh.  What’s a NYC girl to do?  But as we say in the dating world, that’s “fixable.”   Like bad facial hair on an awesome guy – fixable.)

So I can get past your lackluster fashion.  Especially since it's been years since I've fallen this hard.  I know the makings of that uncontrollable ‘L’ word all too well.  I recognize this bud immediately for what it is.  Crap – I am falling in love yet again.  As I walk up your hills, in and out of your shops and down toward your bay, my heart swells.   My chest pounds with excitement as I turn each corner, wrapped in your arms of fog.   There’s something thrilling about only being able to see two feet in front of my face.  Anything can happen – good or bad – and I walk into you blindly.

You reveal yourself to me one fog-a-licious piece at a time.  City Lights, Chinatown, The Mission…all worth the burn in my thighs and damage to my new boots…the effects of navigating your steep streets.  Working this hard to get from one place to the next makes each destination that much more pleasurable.   Even Alcatraz adds to your allure…a bad boy side to your clean-cut, ever-recycling self.  Heart, have you met Sleeve?  Oh yes, says Heart.  I live on this gal’s Sleeve.

I imagine that I’m living here with you.  Spending every day with you.  I could do it.  I could just leave NYC.  Cara, my amazing friend and tour guide, tells me that in San Francisco, people don’t care if you’re an i-banker or a barista at Starbucks – everyone hangs out with everybody.  And it’s a rare thing for people to talk about their work when they’re being social. How delightfully European!   What a wonderful thing, I think, particularly since I don’t have any work to talk about these days.   My typical NYC conversation these days goes like this:

Potentially Awesome Guy with Soul Patch (fixable):  So what do you do for a living? I’m an i-banker who pulls in 200k before bonus.

Awesome Gal Who Has Taken Great Care to Remove Facial Hair:  I don’t do anything right now.  (awkward chuckle, flip of curls)

Potentially Awesome Guy with Soul Patch (fixable):  But what do you do for money?

Awesome Gal Who Has Taken Great Care to Remove Facial Hair:  I collect unemployment. For now. But I have great potential…um, as an earner. And as a creator. I think I’ve got a novel in me. And a film. It’s a post-apocalyptic comedy of errors.


Awesome Gal Who Has Taken Great Care to Remove Facial Hair:  And I’ve got birthing hips.


Awesome Gal Who Has Taken Great Care to Remove Facial Hair:  And a flat-screen TV. With HD.

Bueller? Potentially Awesome scratches his soul patch and checks Blackberry.   Not so awesome after all.

I think of Manhattan briefly and wonder if it’s thinking about me.  Does it miss me?  Does it even know I’m gone?  Will it accuse me upon my return of cheating on its mean streets?  Or does it barely notice I’m not there what with its 8 million other lovers?

My friend Cara volunteers at the Old First Church in San Francisco.  She goes there on Saturdays and serves dinner to the homeless.  Her friend Jeff and his dad cook this dinner for 150 people.  On Valentine’s Day, I went with her to serve dinner.   I was already in love with this city, but I wanted to see a side that tourists don’t see.   It’s easy to fall in love when all you see is a beautiful, cobble-stoned marina and a quaint farmer’s market with over-priced gourmet fig spreads (and chilaciles that makes you think you’ve died and gone to scrambled egg heaven).  I wanted to see all of San Francisco.   I’d rather know my lover’s idiosyncrasies and dirty little secrets sooner rather than suffer shock and disappointment later.  (Jaded?  Who, me?)

I’m not gonna lie – homeless people smell.   Not good. But so many of the people I met on Valentine’s Day weren’t “bums.”  Many were just people down on their luck.  A job lost, some poor planning, and bam – you’re out on the street.  I talked to a man named Arthur.   That’s my dad’s name, I told him.  And I’m Barri.  Why’d your dad name such a pretty girl after a boy?, he asked.   He told me it was a shame for a beautiful woman like myself to only come to the church dinner once, but that he just might move to New York City to see me again.   I laughed.  To my surprise, it wasn’t a fake laugh.  He asked what I did for a living and I said that I’m out of work right now.  He looked at me and nodded.  That’s tough, he said.   It’s not easy.   But you’re a bright gal, you’ll get back on your feet…just don’t forget who you are.  He didn’t quite understand why I was serving dinner to a bunch of homeless men on a Saturday night, and Valentine’s Day to boot!  You could be out seeing the city, he said.   I think you’re out of your mind to be here.   But I thank you for it.

And so my love this Valentine’s Day is San Francisco.  My Valentines are my friend Cara and all of the lovely people she introduced to me…Arthur and all the other diners at the Old First Church…and the city of San Francisco itself.  But the next time I come home to you, San Francisco, it'd be swell if, as Tony says, “your golden sun would shine for me.”  In the meantime, I leave a piece of my heart with you.

Jobless City Adventure – Serve Homeless Dinner in San Francisco
Money Saved: Cost of Dinner, ~ $50. Experience: priceless

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Wheel Deal

Unemployment - Day 35 in Human Days; Day 25 in Business Days

It's been 7 hours and 35 days...since they took my job away.

I write today from Los Angeles, CA.  It's my birthday.  My 30th birthday.  On a fateful November day three months ago, while I still had a steady paycheck, I decided that I wanted to spend this momentous milestone somewhere other than New York City.  I had a broken heart and a chill in my bones, neither of which showed signs of departing anytime soon.  If they won't go away, I thought, I'll go away.  Two days later I booked my flight to LA.  

Even with a job I needed to do the trip on the cheap, so I arranged to stay with my stepbrother, who so far has turned out to be a host and playa of incomparable talent.  When I lost my job, I seriously considered canceling this entire trip.  But four of my friends had also booked flights to join me.  I couldn't be a no-show for my own birthday party.  Not to mention the fact that a refund for my flight was out of the question, especially now that airlines have begun charging fees every time you use extra oxygen to sneeze or burp.  The money was spent; the trip was on.  

Under better economic times, I would normally take a car service to the airport.  But I heard that it was possible to take the subway to JFK, and if I could do it without dying, I could potentially save forty bucks.  That's forty bucks that I could use to buy a plastic tarp and welcome mat for my cardboard box.  And so I hopped onto the MTA web site to search for this magical mystery route.  Turns out it wasn't just an urban legend.  From Brooklyn you can take the J/Z to the JFK Airtrain at Sutphin Blvd.  (The J/Z train is not to be confused with rapper Jay-Z, who according to wikipedia may or may not have gotten his name from the J/Z train lines when he had to take the subway to the airport in the days before he made it big.) 

And so, on the day of my departure, I applied a final coat of lip gloss, put on my indigo dress coat and caramel knee-high boots, heaved my laptop and oversized purse onto my shoulder, and ventured down the stairs of my building with a suitcase that had just made it into the next weight class with the three extra pairs of shoes that I shoved into it at the last minute.  (Mental note: In future, close suitcase at least two hours prior to departure and refuse to open it even when last-minute packing urges reach unbearable heights.  Also, stop writing run-on sentences.)

In retrospect, maybe I should've done a dry run the day beforehand of the icy walk from my apartment to the J/Z subway.  I would never produce a show without a dress rehearsal, so I don't know why I choose to embark on my endeavors off of the stage without rehearsing.  Must be all my improv haphazardly imitating art.  The 10-block walk over patches of salty ice with my 50-pound suitcase in tow was far from pleasant.  Especially when one of the suitcase wheels broke.  But the little voice in my head kept pushing me forward...forty bucks forty bucks forty bucks.  I turned a muddy corner and the green awning of the Hewes Street station appeared in the distance like the Emerald Palace.  There's no place like LA, there's no place like LA, there's no place like LA.

The Hewes Street J/Z subway station is elevated, which was highly convenient for my situation.  I stood at the bottom of the steps and looked up at the staircase before me.  I made it through a half mile of ice and hidden puddles through the depths of Mordor...I could make it up these steps.  I dragged the suitcase one step at a time.  I think sometime halfway up I even began muttering "heave ho, heave ho, heave ho."  It's hard to say for sure -- there wasn't much oxygen reaching my brain at that point.  I just want to take a moment to point out that three Hasidic men passed me on the way up the steps and not one offered to assist me.  One even bumped into me and then gave me a dirty look as if I was some vile pest who owed him an apology.  This is not the first time I've encountered rudeness from the men of this community in my neighborhood.  But I'm here to tell stories, not pass judgement, so I'll get on with the story.  

I wouldn't be able to get my suitcase past the normal entrance, so I made my way to the black metal emergency door.  I turned toward the booth and made eye contact with the husky woman perched inside.  (She was no Barb.)  I pulled out my Metrocard, pointed to my luggage, and smiled a smile that if it could talk would say, "Hi there, kind MTA woman!  I am just a poor, lonely traveler who seeks your kind assistance on my arduous journey.  Please, dear lady, recognize my need, accept my tole, and let me pass."  Smile smile smile.  I swiped my Metrocard and turned back to the booth.  Smile smile smile.  I tried to open the large metal door, but it was still locked.  I turned to the booth once again.  Smile smile smile.  She just stared at me.  I flashed my pearly whites again and pointed to the door.  Smile smile smile.  Nothing.

The booth woman began shouting at me and motioning with both her arms.  "Girl, you gotta turn da wheel!"  Ohhhhh, a wheel.  I have to turn a wheel.  Of course.  How silly of me to just expect doors to magically open.  My journey would be long and hard, and I would have to pass many challenges along the way if I were to save forty dollars.  A wheel challenge made complete sense.  I went back to the metal door and looked for the wheel.  I didn't see it.  I looked back at the woman.  "Girl, turn da wheel!"  Alright, okay!  Hmmm, maybe if I outstretch my arms in the 10 and 2 position as if my hands are on a steering wheel, the wheel will materialize and show itself to me, I thought.  I put my hands up and began to drive.  No wheel.  I looked at the woman again.  I'm sorry, I said, I don't see the wheel.  Could you come out here and show me the wheel?  Or maybe give me a hint on how to find it?  A riddle maybe?  Do I have to pull a sword out of stone to activate the wheel mechanism?  Put a wooden stake through the eye of Cyclops?

"Jesus Christ, girl!  What's wrong with you?!  Turn da wheel!"

I looked back at the door.  I'm thinking too big a picture, I thought.  It must be a little wheel.  One that's opened with just two fingers.  I focused my energy on the door knob, trying to discover the tiny wheel that must surely be nearby.  But I would still need more information if I was to win this challenge, make it through the door and save forty dollars.  I shouted to the booth woman again.  "Seriously, I don't see the wheel.  I'm trying very hard to find it.  Could you give me more specific instructions?  Is there a diagram?"

"Girl!  You gotta turn da wheel!  How do I know you paid if you don't turn da wheel?!  Turn da wheel!  TURN DA WHEEL!  TURN. DA. WHEEL!"

Finally a man standing nearby came over to me, looked at me as though I belonged in Creedmoor, and turned the turnstile next to me. 

"Ohhhh," I said.  "You meant the turnstile.  It's a TURNSTILE."  Smile smile smile.

As I waited for the J/Z train to arrive, I thought of the new word I just learned.  Wheel.  Employed people call it a turnstile.  They ride the subway to get to their jobs.  They don't have to use the emergency door to make way for unwieldy bags.  I am no longer employed.  I now ride the subway with baggage to get to places other than the place of my employment.  Turnstile is dead to me.  It is now a Wheel.

There are sure to be many more challenges in my future as I undertake city life without a job. But I know that if Jay-Z can rise to the top, so can I.  The band Journey once said, "the wheel in the sky keeps on turnin'."  Yes, it does.  But who turns that wheel?  We have to turn da wheel.

Jobless City Challenge #1 - J/Z Subway to Airtrain - Money Saved: $40!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

All U2 Ipods Go to Heaven

Unemployment - Day 30 in Human Days; Day 22 in Business Days

It's been 7 hours and 30 days...since they took my job away.

David Byrne of The Talking Heads said that "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."  Most days I agree with him.  It's not that I'm a pessimist.  It's more that I prefer to live in the present here on earth rather than focusing on what may or may not exist for me after my time on earth.  But my experience at the Apple Store today has got me believing that sometimes things do happen in Heaven.  Big things.  Things between me and U2.

It was officially confirmed this afternoon by a "Genius" at the Apple Store: My U2 Ipod has passed away.  (In lieu of flowers, please send checks made out to cash.) I knew deep down my U2 Ipod had departed two weeks ago when the sad little man with the cross eyes and frighteningly disproportionate frown appeared on my Ipod.  In order for you to grasp the gravity of this most grievous situation, I must tell you the origin story of my U2 Ipod.  All great super heroes have an origin story.  My U2 Ipod is no different...

The year was 2004 and I received the brand new U2 Ipod for Christmas from The Artist Formerly Known As My Husband.  That very night Bono visited me in a dream.  He told me that my U2 Ipod was actually a magical radar that would always point me in his direction.  Over the next year I met Bono in the flesh twice, so clearly my subconscious dreamscape wasn't deceiving me.  I possessed the one and only Bono Radar in the universe.  Through the years the Bono Radar has served me well, with music-playing as the front operation and Irish-rockstar-tracking-abilities in the back room.  

But like the 80s, all good things must come to an end.   And being the graceful klutz that I am, I dropped my Ipod onto the subway tracks last month.  Awesome.  However, miracles never cease when it comes to me and U2, and after a day of tears, a battle with the MTA, and one lesbian date with an MTA worker named Barb, I got my Ipod back.  And it worked!  Well...for a couple of weeks it worked.  Then came the sad little Mac man with the scary crossed out eyes.  I spent the past 13 days music-less and radar-less, both of which have been slowly stripping me from the core of my essence.  I avoided going to the Apple store as long as I did for two reasons -- denial and fear.  I kept thinking that one morning the sad scary little Mac man wouldn't be there.  I also knew deep down inside that he'd always be there, haunting my playlists and heart, and I was afraid to hear it directly from an Apple Genius.  Cause they're always right.  I think they all sprung from the head of Steve Wozniak.  I read that on Wikipedia.

The purchase of a new Ipod would be a large purchase for me even when I was employed.  So springing for one while jobless seemed desperate and stupid.  I mean, it's not a really smart thing to do, to buy a new Ipod when you think you might be couch surfing and eating squirrels for dinner next month.  But I'm desperate and stupid, so in the end I opted for the hot pink Nano.  When I got to the register, an Apple Genius demi-god made me an offer:  If I handed over my old Ipod to be recycled, I would get 10% off the purchase of my new Ipod.  The battle that ensued between my brain and heart is comparable to the Battle for Middle-earth.  (But the Bono-Radar is my precious, I can't live without it!  No, the Bono-Radar betrayed you and totally crapped out!  But the Bono Radar loves me!  It doesn't love you!  But it lead me to Bono!  There is no Bono, only Zuul!)

In the end my brain won.  With tears in my eyes, I held my precious Bono Radar out to the Genius.  Wait! I sobbed, let me get one last shot of it.  I took my camera out, positioned the Bono Radar delicately before me, and took one final photo of it.  My Genius pointed out that there was a line behind me, so I turned my head away and handed her my credit card.  And that's the last I'll ever see of the Bono Radar.

I slumped to the subway, weeping the entire way.  I was so sad that I gave up something that was so special to me just to save 20 bucks.  I considered running back for it.  Then I thought of all of the other material sacrifices I may have to make in the near future.  I'd have to get used to simplifying my life if I ever planned on achieving my dreams.  I didn't run back.

I arrived home an hour later to a series of mini miracles.  Two phone calls and three emails regarding job leads.  My eyes welled up again.  Somewhere up there in Heaven, I thought, an angel just got a U2 Ipod.  An angel got a U2 Ipod and is one step closer to musical salvation and Bono.  My guardian angel.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Unemployment Office

Unemployment - Day 28 in Human Days; Day 20 in Business Days

It's been 7 hours and 28 days...since they took my job away.

Today I visited the NYS Unemployment Office in downtown Brooklyn for my mandatory appointment.  Few things get me onto the G train, but the ability to hold onto my $405 a week mandates G train terrain.  I sat in the waiting room surrounded by dozens of others who are out of work.  On the day I was laid off I knew I was not alone in my joblessness.  I live in Brooklyn, not a bubble.  Even weeks and months before my company's culling, I knew that the unemployment numbers throughout the country and right in NYC were skyrocketing.  But until it happened to me, it was all just numbers.  Today in the unemployment office, though, I looked around me and put faces to some of those numbers.  Not many attractive faces -- I clearly upped the hotness factor in the Brooklyn unemployment office -- but faces nonetheless.  And not merely faces...hearts and brains behind those faces.  Some even began to speak to one another while we waited, which is a rare thing in New York.  One guy cracked wise about how maybe he shoulda worn a tie.  I wondered whether a tie would've hindered or enhanced his professional, employment-seeking attire of timberlands and a backwards Mets cap, sweat stains and all. 

But those of us around him laughed.  And not just at him.  There was a charm to his self-deprecating, gold-chain wearin' manner.  And a charm to the tragically mustached woman with kind eyes who assisted the Eastern European man with page 3 of the redundant paperwork.  A stray hipster lending his pencil to an Asian man.  An Asian man saying thank you, wide smiling, at a loss for words and teeth. Two young women exchanging resume tips and phone numbers.  A tense-faced woman looking up from her blackberry long enough to take her coat off the seat next to her and offer it to the newest addition to the room.  So when the Hassidic man to my left who smelled of urine and Corn Flakes sneezed, I decided to bite the bullet: God Bless you, I said.  And when the man to my right kept stealing glances at my clipboard, trying to cheat off of my resume, I let him.  I may not have all the right answers, but okay, I'm willing to share 'em.  Gosh darnit...We are a community, I thought.  Different strokes, different folks, yes.  But we are all now a part of this same crisis.   Not a personal crisis.  A community crisis.  We are a community and we are all going through losses and we can either choose to suffer them alone or together.  I choose together.  And so I write.

I realized almost immediately that I didn't need to wear my pearls.  A camouflaged hoodie or chartreuse one-piece jumper would've sufficed.  But dress for the job you want, not the job you have, right?  Not that any of us there had jobs.  We could all be up for the same jobs, suit or hoodie.  (Mental note: re-evaluate willingness to purchase chartreuse one-piece jumper if given the opportunity.)  This is a whole new era of my life.  I can wear anything I want.  There are clearly no rules in the unemployment office.   I may as well rock it out while I can.

Despite the togetherness I was feeling, the conditions of the unemployment office were not kind.  It was hot.  Inhumanely hot.  I would've stripped down to a wife beater if I had one.  (Mental note: Purchase wife beater.  Being unemployed is a whole new ball game with new wardrobe requirements.)  Why is the government trying to sweat us out?  Are we not worth a fan?  Is this survival of the fittest?  The coolest?  We're jobless, but still human.  If you prick us, do we not bleed?  And if we bleed, do we not ask how much cash you'll take for our blood?!

Eventually the waiting room was broken up into groups and sent to smaller, hotter rooms.  I found myself in room 2 with roughly thirty of my new friends overflowing the space, breathing hotness in and out.  The case worker entered and explained that we would each be taken to meet with a supervisor, but in a specific order.  Union workers got to go first.  Then she asked if there were any actors in the room.  A highly attractive humanoid raised his toned arm.  I considered raising mine.  By actors, she said, I mean people who are in SAG and AFTRA.  My hand fell to my side, my heart to the floor.  So this shitty sweatbox of a government office won't even recognize that I'm an actress.  An aspiring actress.  A potentially Tony and Oscar Award-winning star of magnanimous but yet undiscovered and unaffiliated talent.  Fine.  The one actor, who'd clearly been laid off from his role as Buff Deli Clerk #4 on Passions, left the room.     

Next group I'm looking for, said the case worker, is anyone who was making sixty thousand dollars or over.  Raise your hand if you were making sixty thousand dollars or over.  I slowly raised my hand.  I could feel the eyes on me.  Almost hear the thoughts...Sugar Mama, Sugar Mama, Sugar Mama.  I quickly made my way to the case worker with my paperwork.  Can I use your stapler? I asked.  I'm sorry, dear, staplers are considered weapons by the State of New York.  She took my paperwork and stapled it herself.  Where are those people going?, one man asked.  I dunno, said the woman beside him.  Wherever they take the rich people.

Before the richies got to leave the room, our case worker answered some questions from the audience:

Jobless #1: Can I claim for benefits for a past week?

Case worker: I suggest you stay under the radar.  

Jobless #2:  Can I claim unemployment benefits while I'm on vacation?

Case worker: If you have access to a phone and a computer, are you really on vacation?  Stay under the radar.

Jobless #3:  What should I do while I'm not working?

Case worker:  Use this time to nurture yourself.  And stay under the radar.

I'm going to take the case worker's advice.  It's time I nurture myself.  It's been a while.