Although Artie felt like whistling, he thought he had better not because things had been rough at the plant lately. The layoffs, the rescinded annual cost-of-living increases and the move from full-time to part-time for the majority of the clerical positions had created a rather grim atmosphere, but Artie wanted to whistle.
The previous night, his daughter opened her college acceptance letter and realized her hard work had paid off. Her scholarships meant Artie's cost to send her to school would be less than half of what he had anticipated, and since he had saved for two years, he actually now had four years of tuition in the bank.
He wished his dad was alive to see this day. He'd learned all that was necessary to be a man from his steady, hardworking father. Truly, the old man was so right. Artie smiled and silently shook his head.
He walked through the dim loading dock past the forklift that he ran for years that still had the "A" and the "TIE" letters spackled on the side. Someone had removed the "R" years ago when the team Artie picked in the office Superbowl bet tied the game at the end of the fourth quarter and then lost. The workers teased old “A__TIE” about "a tie" game for years.
But they stopped teasing the day the foreman called Artie into his office to tell him he'd been promoted; he was to begin night school at the company's expense. Artie had worked the books just like he did the job, bettering himself at every turn. So when the layoffs came, Artie was secretly not worried. He knew how indispensable he was to the company. He was the ultimate "utility man" and could do a number of jobs if called upon. As his dad had taught him, he became the company’s ace in the hole. Loyalty had its rewards.
Turning On A Dime
So Artie suppressed his whistle and hid his smile. He climbed the stairs to his glass-enclosed office that overlooked the factory floor and walked in. He started to switch on the lights but then realized they were already on. Something in his gut lurched, and his hands began to tingle. On his desk was a large cardboard box. Two men from plant security were present. Artie paused and looked left where his supervisor sat at another desk, arms folded, staring at the floor.
“I’m sorry, Artie,” said Bill Hoffman, Artie’s supervisor for more than 11 years. “I wanted to tell you it was coming last month, but they told me not to. Clean out your desk, buddy.”
Artie cleared his throat. “Buddy? Billy, what’s going on?”
“Buyout, my friend,” Bill said. “We’re now part of a national conglomerate,” he continued.
“We?” asked Artie.
“Well … the company,” Bill stammered. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Pack up and be off the premises within the hour. These gentlemen will take your office and warehouse keys, company credit card, etc. Here’s your severance package.” Bill handed him a manila envelope thick with papers and his personnel files, and headed towards the door.
“Bill!” Artie demanded. “That’s it?”
Bill turned, sighed and shrugged, “That’s it, Artie, I gotta go. Oh, and since you pre-paid your fees for the company golf outing next week, you are still welcome to come. It’s your call.” The door slammed behind him.
Artie looked at the security guys, who seemed a little sympathetic. “Are you guys next?” Artie asked.
They looked at each other and said nothing but nodded discreetly, “We’ll need those keys first, sir.”
Artie, still numb, emptied his pockets and removed items from his desk. His wife’s picture was first. How was he going to tell Donna? Just then the phone rang. The security guys glanced at each other, and gave Artie room to answer the phone.
“Artie here,” he said as securely and confidently as he had for the last umpteen years.
“Oh, Art,” Donna responded. “I’m standing in a puddle in the kitchen! The fridge is shot and everything in it has turned to liquid. I’ll get this cleaned up now, but better plan on us going straight to the appliance store when you get home. Just honk when you pull in the driveway, OK?”
The lump in Artie’s throat began to tighten. “OK,” he managed and hung up. How nice. On top of a job loss, Artie now needed a major appliance and enough groceries to restock the darn thing. He inhaled, filled the box, and walked proudly to his car. He no longer wanted to whistle. No scene, no lashing out for the others to talk about once he was gone.
“If a man has nothing else,” his dad always said, “he has his dignity.”
He could feel the eyes staring at him from every window in the
building as his car left the lot and the plant came into full view in his mirror.
Around the corner from the plant was a small park with picnic tables and swing sets amid a grassy hill and a grove of trees. Artie often came here at lunch to dream. He dreamed about a quiet, relaxing future with his daughter working at a fine job. Someday she’d have a husband, a few kids--how he would love some grandkids someday! And he always though he would retire young enough to enjoy them. How blessed his family was!
Those dreams seemed far away as he parked the car and shut off the engine. It was very quiet now except for the birds singing and the hum of traffic faint in the distance. Life was going on, and Artie was unemployed.
But this was day one, he told himself, and he had become indispensable at one place and he could do the same at another, right? Of course. After all, the severance package was fairly good, unemployment benefits would get him through the next few months, and he had made a lot of contacts through his former company. This would be a minor setback--nothing more. He’d get another job in no time.
Instead of heading to a bar to drown his sorrows, he went straight to the copy center where he prepared a new resume, and had 50 copies made. Artie was always a guy quick to rebound, ready to roll with the punches.
Time Marches On
Eight months later Artie stared into the “new” refrigerator. He grabbed the other half of yesterday’s sub and began to eat it cold. It was hard as a rock, but he didn’t notice. He sat in the family room and turned on the television. He solved two puzzles on a game show, finished the sub, and walked to the back window.
Snow had piled high in front of the garage, but it seemed his wife had pushed her car through it, so why bother to shovel? She’d taken a job at the doughnut shop by the community college so she could both drive her daughter to class and work the opening shift five days a week.
The family had decided that the regular college tuition due, even with Keely’s scholarships, was just too extravagant for now. In fact, more than half that fund had been drained to put a new transmission in the car and repair the roof leak that had ruined the ceiling in the upstairs bathroom.
Keely had complied quietly with her parents’ decision, and was reminded constantly by her mother that in her day, kids were lucky to go to school at all, but Artie knew they both resented him for his job loss. Keely felt she had done her part and earned the grades and scholarships, so why couldn’t the old man hold up his end and keep his stupid job? What a loser.
Artie now began to agree with that opinion. His 50 resumes had become 150, and the contacts from the previous job had the same regretful story for him every time he called. “Nothing right now, Art, but you’re at the top of my list!”
He wandered throughout the house, keeping as few lights lit as possible and the heat turned low. The utility bills had become a nightmare. He stared at the unopened newspaper with the depressing want-ads inside, and let his gaze drift to the computer, where no one had responded to his many postings and applications.
He half-heartedly walked into the bathroom and shaved the five-day growth from his face. He then showered and stood in the remaining steam before the sink while brushing his teeth. As the haze disappeared from the mirror, Artie saw his reflection and stopped brushing mid-stroke. What had he become? The light in his eyes was a mere ember. His cheeks had grown puffy with junk food and inactivity. His increasing depression had put bags beneath his weary eyes, and the pallor of his skin was pale and unhealthy-looking. Thank God his dad wasn’t alive to see this.
Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off
“No retirement for me, Dad,” Artie said loudly. “Nope, no retirement, no savings, no career, no pride left,” he shouted. “No man,” he finished in a whisper.
He dressed, put on his coat, and walked two blocks down the street where the “Help Wanted” sign in the local fast food joint had been haunting him for months. He walked in and unfolded the application he’d filled out weeks ago, and handed it to the manager, a man 20 years his junior. The young man saw something in Artie’s eyes and put a hand on his shoulder.
“How soon can you start?” he asked.
Artie replied, “How about today?”
The manager smiled and said, “OK.” And as an afterthought he added, “You know, my folks always said there is no shame in a full day’s work, no matter what it is.”
Artie brightened at that with a tight, confident, nodding smile. Maybe this was going to work out after all. He followed the manager into the back where he was given his new uniform. He was introduced to a few of his co-workers and went to the bathroom to change.
Artie put on his uniform, looked in the mirror, and began sobbing. How did this happen? How? He pulled himself together and walked into the kitchen area. One of the other workers snickered. “Hey, old man, your hat’s on backwards.” Artie reached up and fixed his hat, his chest heaving with embarrassment.
A few hours later, his shift finished, and he walked to the doughnut shop where his wife would be finishing her day as well. He thought she would be happy to know he was at least going to contribute something. He saw her through the window wiping the counter, and his heart grew heavy. She deserved better than this. He had promised her better than this.
Picking up the coffee pot, she freshened the cup of a man in a fine, tailored suit sitting at the counter. Artie saw her smile at the man and blush, like she used to smile when Artie was her hero, when he was more of a man. Artie turned and walked home.
He placed two frozen pizzas in the oven for Keely’s dinner. On TV a spokesperson noted that anyone with more than $20,000 in credit-card debt could be helped by his company. Artie had now become comfortable with the idea that he would never have a job like the one he had before. That he would never again be the man he once was, that the respect from his daughter and wife would continue to diminish because his self-respect was at an all-time low.
Artie knew that not many 50-year-old men, having been out of work for a year or two, are hired at a salary anywhere near their previous one. Employers figure 50-year-olds must not be too valuable, no matter how true or untrue. This was a time to really test himself, maybe start a business of his own, or go off in a whole new direction. Or maybe … maybe be like everyone else and just kick back and “see what happens.” Heck, look where hard work got him, right?
It is that possibility, my friends, we have yet to fully realize. That is what is taking over this country like a blanket of invisible smoke, a type of “cloaked desperation” leading to a complete lack of enthusiasm. It is what makes our kids set their goals so low. They look at all we did and all our parents did, and they say, “Why bother?”
And the people who are asked the “why bother” question are people like Artie. And their answer is, “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org