[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.”