Friday, October 15, 2010
Right there on the edge
I ran into a friend of mine the other day. The light in the October afternoon was thin; the sun shone gently, like a benevolent, old uncle, biding his time.
My friend was sitting outside Bagdad Theater, having a pint. I came upon him from behind, so he didn't see me. He was talking on his cell phone when I announced myself. He ended his call and invited me to sit with him.
"Are you working?" I asked. The last time I'd seen him, he had been looking for work.
"No, I'm not," he said. For an instant, the words hung in the air, uncomfortably. "But I've got a lot of irons in the fire," he quickly continued. "Something will break loose before the end of the year." The last part didn't seem to have the weight of conviction. His face was drawn, the corners of his mouth were tight. As he spoke, he set his elbows on the table, hands clasped below his chin almost as if in supplication.
My friend is about my age. He's a colleague from a job in my past. He's a proud and intelligent man, a man of refined tastes. I've known him and his wife for perhaps 15 years.
We spent a few minutes sipping the McMenamin's seasonal, shooting the breeze. We talked about a lot of things, just as we always have: politics, history, mutual acquaintances. As our talk wended this way and that, bits of information, offered up casually, painted a stark portrait. My friend has been looking for work seriously for about a year. He wants to sell his house and move away from Portland, but finds that the real estate market won't bear the sale price he feels he needs. His straits caused him to plunder his 401K account, leaving his house as his only real asset.
We both acknowledged that unemployment in Oregon (10.3%) is a dire thing.
I finished my beer, shook my friend's hand, and let him know that I stood ready to help him if I might. His cell phone rang as I walked away.
That was a few days back.
Tonight, I walked past the Bagdad as darkness fell. No one was sitting under the space heaters. People hurried along the sidewalks, eyes fixed inwardly, care written on their faces.
The signal said "Wait" when I reached 37th. I stood on the corner and thought about the way things stand in my world. My employer gave me a paltry 1% pay raise this year. Shortly after I learned of my increase, I was also notified that my personal share of the cost of my employer-provided health insurance was increasing, too. My "raise" is entombed in a shuffle of payroll deductions.
So, what of it? I count myself lucky to have a job. My employment status could change at any time, with no warning. That's the game we've got today, right here on the edge.
While I was waiting for the walk signal, two young women came to the corner. They seemed little more than teenagers. One of them was pushing a pram with a baby. The signal was against us, but they gave a look both ways and forged out into the intersection, baby and all.
For no reason I could name, I felt foolish. Then, I followed the young women across the intersection, against the signal. I was tired of waiting.