ON THE PHONE, EDITH, my re-employment dominatrix, was emphatic: “Wear a tie, Mr. Looper, and don’t be late.”
Let go, and “out-placed” as a senior design engineer at 58 years of age, I am about to enter a building that resembles a tall, mirrored box. I walk past a fountain that sprays streams of water into the breeze of a Southern California afternoon. The spring poppies, our official state flower, stand golden on green stems as they wave in the roiling Pacific air. Eucalyptus trees partially hide the large chrome numbers of what I will call “University Colony Court,” “colony” being a favored real estate descriptor here on the West Coast — it sounds exclusive yet cohesive —denial in the face of a substantially fragmented society.
This building is to be the locus penitentia of my out-placement, my halfway house to poverty. I have never been out-placed before. I am that strange mixture of humiliation and curiosity characteristic of all cooperating victims. Will the out-placers ask me to remove my clothes? Will aliens appear and probe my nasal passages with fiber-optic wands? My speculations are cut short, as an elevator, its interior stainless steel scratched with graffiti and smelling of stale perfume, decants me on the second-floor landing opposite my destination, which I will incorrectly name here as Pacific Career Strategies. I have been told to arrive promptly at 2:00 p.m. for my intake session.
I push down on the brass offset handles of paneled doors that open inward. And there, in the marble-floored nave of this mighty out-placement service, stands Edith, amid a background of brocade drapes and Louis XIV wing chairs, upholstered in moiré silk.
With age, I am learning to pay attention to my gut: our first impressions are not just important, they may be crucial. With heightened perception I see that Edith is hard in the face, and her hair is dyed. She looks like the product of a hostile makeover. But beneath the slick professional façade is a middle-aged woman, sagging beneath her makeup, one quite properly mad as hell about having to stand on hard floors all day and fake enthusiasm.
Edith tells me that my first objective of the day is a “personal inventory.” This takes two hours and consists of a large battery of written tests with hundreds of Procrustean choices such as “I have occasionally wanted to strike a child — (yes) or (no).” Where are the pseudo-scientists who devise this junk? Here is a better query: “I have occasionally wanted to strike a smart-ass psychologist — (yes) or (yes).”
After my inventory, I am coached by Edith in her office. We discuss the tactical fundamentals of re-employment for aging males in a collapsing world economy. I can see that to Edith, rhetoric is important. I am a “job candidate,” not an unemployed engineer who is ready for the immense bone pile created by the surgical removal of middle-class workers from the 21st-century corporate body. I attempt humor, but Edith is not amused when I inquire if, as a candidate, I will be required to shake a lot of hands and kiss babies.
Business activity, ultimately derived from prehistoric hunting, has retained the metaphors of hunters, stalkers, and warriors. Edith is at some pains to educate me in the vocabulary. On the one hand I am to “penetrate” the corporate culture; on the other hand I am to (ominously) “reposition” myself for, uh, re-employment. Question, readers: Exactly what “position” is this? Am I, in street metaphor, being asked to “assume the position”? Further, I am to “target” potential employers and to “impact” (now a transitive commercial verb) them. I am to “attack” my midcareer deficits with extensive retraining, which is, regrettably, not offered by Edith or her organization.
Edith appears serious about all of this. In her let’s-pretend atmosphere, I am to arrive on site every morning wearing a coat and tie, since “getting re-employed is your new job, Mr. Looper.” I am to sign in — and out — at the front desk, as if I were the CEO of some mega-corporation, so that the front-office secretary can keep track of me in my important comings and goings. Yeah, I can see that this regimen is to accommodate those frantic potential employers who, calling in, have just seen my résumé on the Internet and are doubtless fretting at the likelihood that I may already have been snapped up by a competitor!
After my coaching by Edith, she takes me on a tour of the facilities. Like Galileo under house arrest, I am shown the instruments of torture. My office is a small cubicle holding only a telephone on the faux-grained veneer of a Fourier desk with scrolled feet. I berate myself silently and can hear the Psalmist softly proclaim in my head, “Behold how the mighty are fallen!”
But, good news — my phone is my own private line to the world, not an extension of the company phone line. Wilma, our solitary girl Friday at the front desk, will answer my incoming calls as I sit at my particle-board desk. She will say something like “I’m sorry, Mr. Looper is in conference now, can I schedule a time for him to return your call?”
Edith sells intangibles, and I have noticed that people who sell intangibles love words like “resources” and “tools” — anything that sounds materially substantial in their smoke-and-mirrors world of hand-waving and endless, endless talk. The mouth must be the most overused organ in America.
Edith next takes me to the cerebral cortex of our facility, the all-important Communications Center, a kind of Enron-style war room, utilized, I see, by a few of those faithful re-employment candidates.
The balding pates of older men predominate here in the Communications Center, reflecting the glare from fluorescent lights, as they fax and email résumés to employment databases that few employers actually search. These older job candidates are clearly in denial. I see men in their late 50s or early 60s who are essentially the managerial Living Dead, who just don’t have the good Darwinian sense to lie down. They are evincing instead, to quote our previous Great Father at the Federal Reserve, “irrational exuberance.” There is one pathetic fellow, in frayed Armani slacks and polished Gucci loafers, who has that same skin-taut, manic look on his face as those desperate people on crutches who attend tent revivals. They want to believe. They stay busy. There is no fanatic like a convert.