It’s A Tough Economy!
[One part fantasy noir, one part all-too-real workers’ inquiry for the perennially underemployed, It’s A Tough Economy! plumbs the psychological depths of the current economic crisis through surrealist illustrations and claustrophobic prose. The following is a short excerpt from Jarrod Shanahan’s It’s a Tough Economy!]
It’s A Tough Economy!
by Jarrod Shanahan
The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of their own.
I. The Screen
My eyes flitter open to a dark Brooklyn apartment, a sink that never stops dripping, and a dull headache to match. The space is sparse but it will do, as it has done, as it must. Grubby naked walls frame a checkerboard of weathered linoleum tiles interspersed with the bare wooden squares left behind by others long come unstuck. Nicked and chipped sticks of creaky furniture dot the floor and line the walls as they once crowded curbs on my neighborhood trash day. A metal gate rusted firmly over my one window to the outside catches the street light and casts the shadow of interlocking bars across the entire room—hardly abating my gnawing claustrophobia, but at least lending it an air of poetic melodrama which is decidedly preferable to ordinary everyday hopelessness. This gate is firmly and irrevocably locked with a long-lost key, leaving me praying modestly for an apartment fire anywhere but the main doorway, my only route of escape. And this battered, world-worn, and barely fastened front door opens to a hallway of creaking and splintered boards poised to alert me to the approach of whatever misguided bastard decided this to be a good place to rob. The sink drips on, calmly, consistently, infuriatingly. Here I can come and go whenever I want and nobody cares, as long as I pay my rent. Nobody tells me what to do. Nobody owes me anything. I am completely and utterly free.
What time is it? How long have I been sleeping? The light makes me wince. I have such a headache my hair hurts. My mouth is parched, creaking open like a rusted hinge, and my hands feel caked in dry mud, splitting and flaking. At first my arms and legs refuse to leave the unfortunate position in which I fell asleep, melded around the hard contours of my couch like a wilted flower. They yield only with a wretched, painful fight. My sinuses throb, suspending everything around me in a fog.
Well, back to this.
After day after unemployed day of hour after uninspired hour of applying for job after unattainable job and hearing absolutely and remarkably consistently nothing back, I have begun to lose hope in the whole endeavor entirely. How is it, I can’t help but wonder, that am I less employable than I was when I was eighteen years old? Why is it that nowadays, nobody even wants to string me along with a prospective position in order to scam me? Why does nobody want me to wire them $500 in advance of an interview to be paid back with interest upon my arrival? Where is my hapless heiress embarked on a frantic blind-emailing search for her inheritance-rescuing prince charming? I haven’t even received a single request for my social security number in weeks and at this point I’m so lonely and defeated I’d probably give it up in full knowledge of the con. Maybe whomever steals my identity can do a better job with it than I’ve managed to all these years. Maybe they can get a nicer apartment. Maybe if they use my identity to get a job, I can do it part time, or go in when they’re not feeling well? Or take it over if they find a better one? I’d gladly pay a finder’s fee. I’ve flooded every corner of this immense city with cheerful, professional, visually-striking resumes on par with every tutorial I’ve suffered through and every template I’ve scoured for clues. And as I’ve continuously received nothing in return save an endless gaping silence as large and looming and ominously hollow as life’s greatest mysteries—less like the calm preceding a rainstorm than that of a lifeless body tumbling anonymously through empty space at the most remote and starless corner of the unknown universe—it has become impossible to even imagine anyone on the other end of my job applications. The specter of undeniable and utterly crippling futility, always nipping at my heels at even the best of times, has almost overcome me. And no sooner did I admit to myself that I’m almost ready to give up, that my body took the cue, and just went to sleep…
RING RING RING RING
There it goes again! I thought it was part of a dream I can no longer even recall. Don’t hang up! I don’t see the phone anywhere. In the fragmented street light this room looks utterly foreign, its every contour assuming a menacing grotesque shape. A fearsomedemonwith a horrid contorted visage springs from the shadow of my tattered overcoat slung over a wobbly old chair, which hardly of the netherworld, is sulfuric in odor alone. I shrink back at the sight of a ferocious beast of prey poised to tear me to shreds, until it scampers across the window sill and darts into an unseen mouse hole. These damned papers are all over the place. The phone could be anywhere…
RING RING RING RING
Why does the state send you a hundred pages in the mail when the only piece of information you need to know is that food stamp benefits are only available for people who already have a steady job and can provide their four most recent pay stubs ending with the previous week, so that if you’re completely out of luck, you’re completely out of luck…
RING RING RING RING
Of course, its under the classified pages. Since I feel about as necessary to the current job market as the printed classifieds, it made sense to pick up a copy. I figure we can at least keep each other company in our shared obsolescence, and at the very least, it matches my landline phone. Maybe I’ll buy a used boat while I’m looking for work, or go on a date with a sane, commitment-minded divorcee. Maybe I’ll adopt a lovable playful tabby cat in need of a good home and we can be lovably, playfully, unemployed, together.
RING RING RING RING
Don’t hang up!
“This is Jarrod speaking.”
I drop this line exactly as prepared, but speaking rattles my sinuses. I can’t remember the last time I spoke out loud. In my endless rehearsals for this day, which I had begun to doubt would come, I have planned to sound professional with an underside of approachability; all business in the right places, but no stranger to good clean all-American horseplay; a real go-getter who can pithily wisecrack at the absolute right moment, like a Hollywood action hero strolling cavalierly from an explosion that nips his heels but leaves him unscathed. You know, the kind of guy you want on your side when the going gets tough, and to bullshit with in the time in between. Cool boss material. At once I’m glad I practiced this, because I think I nailed it. They’re on the hook now.
“I am wonderful, and you!… That is wonderful… Why yes, wonderful! I have read the job description thoroughly and I would say that I am interested. Of course I have other offers at the moment… Yes, of course… Wonderful!”
If only I had any clue to which position this is was in reference, out of the hundreds of applications I have sent out in a somnolent haze since losing my job who knows when. Why do they always assume you know exactly who they are? I could always ask, but I‘ve already lied, and now there’s no turning back. My head is throbbing. I venture a guess.
“As soon as I read the words ‘Innovative creative start-up seeking productive associate’, I knew my search was over… Oh no, yes, no I said ‘Seeking self-starting innovative associate for creative productions!’ Of course. Sorry, I just got out of an interview and the reception is bad here. Let me move to a different part of this lobby… There, can you hear me? Great… Describe myself? In a word, innovative. Another word? Creative. Most of all, I’m a leader. Not afraid to make the hard decisions. I’m most comfortable working independently. I’ve been called a… self-starter…. Sure, tell me about the position…”
I press my hand to my forehead. It’s burning hot. Is this natural? What is my temperature supposed to be, 125 degrees? No, that’s the temperature at which an egg cooks. When was the last time I ate anything? I wonder when I’m going to realize that I’m hungry… And then I do. Or had I already, prior to formulating the question? The voice on the other end drones on, firing off rhetorical questions and answering them in rapid succession before I get a chance to hazard a response. Eventually a prolonged silence hints that my turn to reply has come.
“Oh yes, I understand that this position is not directly creative. What I meant to say is that… I understand creativity to extend to… the smallest detail, that may seem mundane to most people but to me seems… creative. Take… tying your shoes… for instance! There are… infinitely… many ways that can be done. What if the rabbit runs up the tree… and runs around in tree for a while… and still gets to the hole… but even faster? Doing the everyday, in a creative way! That is how I define innovation. And what’s more, when I said that I like to work independently I meant of course, working within a team. So I’m one thing… and the team is another thing… but I am within the team… as my own thing… and within the team… as its own thing… as a team player. So we’re on the same page there! And of course this position isn’t for a team leader, I know that! I meant to say that… I am a leader… with regards to myself… in my position on the team… with regards to itself! In a word, I’m a real self-starting innovative independent team player. Or… that’s at least what I’ve been told. Yes I’ll hold…”
Fuck! Where did I get the idea that they wanted a team leader? What the hell was I even talking about? And how is it that ten minutes ago I didn’t even know this job existed but now I can’t imagine my life continuing without it? And I still have no idea what it is! I may as well hang up and go back to sleep. Maybe I’ll beat this headache once and for all.
“Come in right now? No problem! Well… I have another interview, but I suppose I can move some things around and come right in!” At once I notice that its pitch black outside. What time is it?
“That’s perfect, I’ll be right in. Thanks, me too. Thanks, you too.”
II. The Labor Market
I clean myself up as best I can and swallow a handful of aspirin. It’s the dead of night and a thick mist gives electric lights an ethereal presence in three-dimensional space. A pale yellow streetlamp projects its sad specter onto the concrete and at its center, a singular squalid pigeon, mottled and world-worn, writhes in its death throes, completely and utterly alone. Our eyes meet—mine are ashamed, and his, opaque, smog-fogged sheets of grubby glass, are all that stand between me and an unknown universe of untold pain and fear, which I dare not approach. Never mind that his scarcely perceptible spasms and pitiful attempts to flutter its wings, waged wanly and vainly and without any purpose, are a bit melodramatic, I have to say. Tragic and deeply profound, evoking sympathy, empathy, and everything else for sure; but overall, it’s just a bit much. SoI leave my compatriot to his own impossibility, focusing instead on my own.
As my forward footsteps accumulate on this quiet night’s street, hulking blocks of steel and concretehushedly rise and melt around me, ornate stone-works framing prewar apartment buildings assume manifold grotesque and frightening shapes in the sparse moonlight, and the entire ensemble envelopes me like a great fog. Windswept clouds punctuate the low light and bid these unmoving stone monsters to dance in stop-motion, reminiscent of cave paintings brought to life by flickering fires in the prehistory of cinema. Untold millennia later, and driven perhaps by the samemasochistic urge to envisage the fearsome and lend it poetic flair, I hurry forth harried by unseen horrors whose forms my imagination can scarcely contemplate. They congregate in the shadowy pockets of stately stone ledges, and, swooping downward with no warning just beyond the reach of my trembling eye’s periphery, they chase me along from all sides, always on my heels, ever quickening my pace. Thusly pursued, I huff for what seems like hours with only the vaguest inkling of where I’m headed that never completely enters conscious reflection. At last I follow President Street eastbound to what seems to be its conclusion, where it turns into a dark parking lot fenced in by an old rusted gate. The end.
It figures, I curse out loud to myself and whomever else, the address they gave me isn’t even real. Here it comes after all. Must be robbery. These folks are not very bright, scheming to mug an unemployed person. Don’t they know you can’t even get a food stamp card unless you have four valid pay stubs for the most recent four weeks? Nobody is that dumb, I rationalize, though I of course know better. Maybe it’s some kind of sexual deviancy, in addition to robbery, or excluding it altogether? Or maybe its plain old murder and nothing but. Why is that strangely comforting? To be realistic, though, its mostly likely the trifecta: one after another, in rapid succession—if I’m lucky, that is. That would make much more sense than simply robbing somebody so desperate for employment that they’re willing to meet on a dark street in the middle of the night. I realize that I can reasonably expect anything at this point, anything besides actually getting a job. Haven’t these people ever heard of robbing the pizza man? Maybe they couldn’t find one willing to deliver here. Maybe its too late for a pizza delivery. Come to think of it, have I applied for any jobs delivering pizza? That must be a recession-proof line of work. But then again there’s always the threat of bludgeoning… But here I am unemployed, exposing myself to that threat pro bono! As I imagine being struck bluntly in the head over and over, never a pleasant sensation even on a good day, my forehead throbs, inflaming veins I didn’t know it had. Those aspirin were no use, my head is burning up. But no matter how sorry my present condition, I’m not sticking around to find out what’s in store for me at the end of this street…
“Sorry I’m late!” huffs a gaunt sickly young man steaming toward me like a maniac, slinking like a hunchback and hobbling with a stilted gait. “You must be Jarrod? I’m Greg.”
I shake his hand apprehensively. Its cold and sweaty, and feels like its been popped clean out at the socket and just hangs there held in place by the surrounding skin. I instantly imagine my grandfathersadmonition “Put that fish back in your pocket!”, and fight to banish an encroaching smile as my calculatedly businesslike handshake, designed to highlight my definitively masculine yet non-threatening strength, dependability, and relatable, traditional values, almost rips his hand clean off. Greg emits a scarcely perceptible sigh akin to the last gasp from a dying animal, as sheepishly he withdraws his dead fish, the touch of which makes my stomach uneasy. And all this time, his eyes—sunken in atop puffy purple cushions on which they find no rest, and fortified defensively by thick smears of matted brown hairthat obscure them almost entirely—won’t meet mine.
Humming nervously Greg pats his pockets, front and back, over and over. He putters along obsessively, oblivious to me, murmuring chaste obscenities to himself and appending indecipherable emendations to inaudible internal interrogations. Is this really my would-be robber? He should be easy enough to repel, unless there are more. Perhaps he is just the decoy intended to lure me in to an ambush, I’ve heard of that. And if that’s the case, they picked the perfect guy. By the looks of him he couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag, as they say, and even in my condition I can repel him easily enough. As he searches himself vainly and I search him for clues with equal success, Greg abruptly reaches into the concealed inside pocket of his shabby denim jacket, and I tense up prepared to defend myself against every manner of improbableattack known to the male imagination. But ignoring me completely, he clumsily produces a set of keys numbering in the hundreds, and begins to bumble through them, mumbling familiar salutations to each key as he prepares to try it in the lock. It takes what could be minutes or hours for him to find the right key, and just as long for him to jiggle open the weathered old oversized lock, which at last falls open into three pieces, clanking in different directions on the cobblestone below. Unsurprised, Greg carefully collects these pieces, reassembles them methodically, and locks them back together.
With great effort Greg struggles to slide the hulking rusted gate along its warped weather-worn track. The gate’s frayed and broken chain links catch on the exterior fence and mesh with it impossibly as the frail man creaks and sputters along. I should probably help him, but I simply look on like a wilderness photographer who yearns with every shred of compassionate humanity to interfere in the soul-wrenching tragedy I behold, but must allow nature to take its course, lest I upset the balance of life in the universe, and ruin my shot in the process. Anyway, watching this disfigured man grapple with an equally maligned mess of rusted metal and do so with calm acceptance, I get the impression that this is a daily routine between two old friends, to which I am an unwelcome foreigner. After an incalculable time the gate screechingly jitters open sufficient to let us inside, which is to say all of two feet. Its operator exhales mightily—the loneliest, saddest sound I have ever heard—and beckons me to follow him inside. At once I notice that there’s a simple steel door next to the gate which also leads inside. He must not have the key.
Straining in the scant moonlight, my eyes at last drink this emaciated figure to the dregs, and quell any doubts I may have harbored about his intentions. He quivers subtly as if he conceals a great secret, but I get the impression that he’s just as timid when its his turn in line at the deli. In my wildest paranoid fantasies I cannot imagine this sad little man having any malevolent plans for me, or anyone for that matter, besides maybe himself, but that’s not my concern. Greg bids me to follow him into the dark parking lot and I do so without fear. It’s a graveyard for rusted metal hulks of every shape. We pass rows of junked cars, overturned dumpsters, and scrap metal twisted beyond all recognition, animated demonically by the inconsistent light of the moon. At first glance there appears an epic battle for supremacy among discarded machines fighting for the entertainment of their human masters. But in the next instant they appear have joined forces against the common enemy, the race that enslaved them, and these formless figures now combine under the fleeting moon into a wretched multiform golem bent on terrorizing the foolish mortals who called him into being to do their bidding. I try to imagine these monuments of gnarled metal in their original forms, useful and pleasing to the eye, but its impossible, unless they’re the centerpiece in a modern museum surrounded by pretentious throngs pretending to comprehend their profundity. And most likely that’s our relationship at this very moment.
Greg comes to a stop in front of a tall building in the back of the lot fronted with a metal roll-gate powered by an old rusted chain, scarcely decipherable from the discarded scrap which surrounds it in every direction. The smooth stone warehouse emerging from the wretched mass of metal looms nondescript and impenetrable save for its small rusted-toothed entryway, no doubt concealing the path the great metallic monster’s digestional track. Yes, we’ve reached the gaping iron maw of this great beast, this insatiable eyeless moloch, ever hungry for blood and bones. What better a place for tender flesh to go? Inhaling sharply, I’m overcome at once by a repellant smell which I can’t immediately correspond to any known disgusting thing. But of course, the answer is: all of the above! The eternally bubbling sulfur pits of the most pious zealot’s Hell have nothing on Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, the most polluted body of water in the entire city, a mess of toxic waste, human feces, and a century’s worth of garbage. If a human being comes into contact with the water of the Gowanus Canal, they are supposed to immediately go to the emergency room. The stench is otherworldly, or more precisely, the horrific outcome of our world at present, and a glimpse of its future. And this fetid foreshadowing of the bad new days to come cuts right through backyard of this ungodly office.
“After a while you don’t even notice the smell!” Greg pipes up cheerfully, and as he steps into the sparse moonlight I notice that his hunched posture is not due to any physical deformity, but the mere habit of a timid man seeking to reduce his presence in space to the absolute minimum. This is a survival tactic well known to animals in the wild, and is likewise deployed by human animals in their own unforgiving wildernesses. Straining and struggling and trying not to show it, Greg slowly jerks the rusted chain and raises the roll-gate, unveiling the interior of a sparse garage lit only by a faint red light. The dingy gray space is empty except for a long, weathered dining-room table at the center, with mismatched folding chairs at either end.
Could this actually be a job interview?
Greg gestures me to sit and I oblige. I attempt an affable smile but the smell of the toxic canal pours relentlessly through the open roll-gate and makes me grimace involuntarily. The invasive vapors stoke my smoldering sinuses and at once my head is aflame. My eyes water and my vision blurs. Greg seems genuinely oblivious to it. This odor must be ingrained indelibly in the very fiber of his life, clinging to his bed sheets, nesting in his hair alongside who knows what else, and recycled and replenished through his every breath. At once I imagine Greg as a broken shell of the great Poseidon, exiled from all corners of the Earth by unbelief, save only for this one fetid river which science has forsaken and happily returned to the jurisdiction of myth. Here in the Gowanus Canal, with dirty diapers and black plastic bodega bags enmeshed in the blunted forks of his flaccid trident, the defeated sea deity plots quixotically his impossible recapture of the nautical world, and has now enlisted my aid in this futile endeavor through a help wanted ad. Humming quietly to himself, he methodically removes a manilla folder from under his shirt, opens it, and considers the papers inside for a long time. He seems to be enjoying himself. “Very interesting” he remarks at last. “Lots of experience.”
My resume! I don’t even remember what I wrote. Probably some cocktail of sparse truth, generous bullshit, and a healthy dose of ambiguity. My resume has evolved over time from a factual representation of my employment history to a piece of visionary science fiction. It has been recopied, repurposed, and rewritten so much over time it makes The King James Bible look like primary source material. Not to mention there are approximately ten different versions floating around,across which I am a lifelong practitioner of just about every conceivable trade: a baron of finance, a technological whiz kid, a dedicated barista capable of conjuring those little leaves in espresso foam. I try to recall which one I sent to these folks but its pointless; I don’t even know who they are. I’ll just follow Greg’s lead. He closes the folder, sets it down, and slides it to one side.
“Now, where do you see yourself in five years?”
I struggle with this question as I not only did not anticipate it, but I have not had the luxury of thinking that far ahead in quite some time. I’ve been concerned with the coming weeks, the coming days, sometimes the coming hours, and that has been enough to terrify me sufficiently without daring to conjure up what tragicomic horrors lay beyond. My imagination races desperately in every direction for an answer to his question, but with every creatively-innovative-productively-associated neuron firing, I can only picture myself endlessly adrift on an perennial job hunt, following dead leads to their absurd conclusions out of sheer desperation, cursing in vain absent addressees in eloquent admonitions to which I receive no reply, finding respite only in nonsensical dreams, and waking time and again to the scorching light of a merciless reality in daily reenactments of the trauma of birth which lead ceaselessly and with increasing brutality toward my day of death, and eternal rest at long last.
But this is probably not the answer he is looking for.
Since I have nothing to say, I begin to speak with no plan whatsoever and see where that gets me. “I’d like to be… engaged… creatively… producing… innovative… enterprising… stimulating… work.”
Greg nods, satisfied. Well done.
“Believe it or not,” he beams, “I was in your seat not too long ago. And I remember how it feels.”
I find this hard to believe.
“And like you, I never even dreamed that after a mere five years this could be my office. But it could, and it can.”
I nod along dutifully, trying to restrain the terror which threatens to creep across my face.
“Listen, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. This may seem like a dream job, I know. But things aren’t perfect here. Sometimes we have to wait a few weeks for our paychecks to clear, but you know what? We do it as a team, right alongside each other. Nobody gets paid until we all can get paid. You’re not going to find that kind of camaraderie anywhere else.”
“Wait…” I nervously interject.
“Sometimes the boss vanishes for a few days and nobody can get in touch with him,” he continues, ignoring me, “and we have to just work things out on our own. But we improvise, as a team, and it always gets done. And when he comes back, he’s proud of us, even if he doesn’t ever say so.”
“Where does he go?” I ask, attempting to seem engaged. Greg shoots me a brief, scorching glare, and continues.
“Our camaraderie is unmatched anywhere. So is our teamwork.When things get tough, we all hang in there together.”
“So its co-operatively owned?” I ask.
I almost interpret the abnormal silence that follows as a cue to continue, but it seems deployed for dramatic effect. Accordingly, Greg soon resumes:
“Oh, we cooperate. No, its not cooperatively owned, technically, but we have something better than cooperative ownership. We have cooperative… passion. Ownership is such a shallow concept compared to the love we have for our work. Anyway, we like to think of ourselves as a collective. We support each other collectively. All our work is collected to contribute to the greater good. Every single member of our team is a part of the team. If something goes wrong we call each other day, or night. Nowhere else will you find that kind of team spirit.”
“But who collects all the profit?” I blurt out before I can stop myself.
A long silence hangs in the air. Greg breaks it at last. “Do you have any other questions?”
“Yes, actually. What exactly is…”
“I’m so sorry” Greg interrupts, patting his countless pockets in rapid succession. “I have to take an important call from the boss himself. Not to brag, but he calls me all the time, even on my days off.” He shows me out the roll gate and points out my path through the darkness.
“Somebody will be in touch with you soon. Thanks for your time!” We shake on it, and his clammy boneless hand makes me shiver. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this feeling. And I’m sure I don’t want to.
To order a copy of this slick little 100pp illustrated novella, paypal $12.50 ppd to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a shipping address.
This marks the sophomore collaboration of Brooklyn author Jarrod Shanahan and Pittsburgh artist Nate McDonough, whose “Satan Was So Over It” combined prose and the graphic novel to tell the tale of a bummed out Lucifer and the chance encounter in a Brooklyn bar that gave him a new lease on life.
Jarrod Shanahan is a writer, truck driver, political activist, and general eccentric living in Brooklyn. He is the founder of Death Panel Press, curator of Brooklyn’s Death Panel Reading Series, and a contributor to Vice, Gothamist, The New Inquiry, Death Panel Literary Digest, Keep This Bag Away From Children, and other notable cultural outlets. Jarrod released his first prose chapbook “Shh… It’s A Secret” on Death Panel Press in 2011, and his second, “Satan Was So Over It”, in 2013 on Grixly.
Nate McDonough is an illustrator living in Pittsburgh, where he has released dozens of zines, comics, and books on the Grixly imprint, and the graphic novelDon’t Come Back, on Six Gallery Press. He is a permanent resident at Cyberpunk Apocalypse writers’ house.
fuck a copyright in 2014