"Welcome to the Federal Job Information Center," says the muffled, monotone male voice coming from the speaker mounted near George Bush's head.
Tom told me about this place. As he sliced up his hot turkey sandwich, he told me his job search had hit an all-time low in degradation. He said it with a laugh, a high-pitched, crackling laugh that I'd heard before when he surrendered to the absurd--like when we were watching a Cubs game and the opposing pitcher hit a grand slam.
Tom was laid off six months ago. Ten years on the job. College degree. He's been looking hard, but the audiovisual field is pretty much dead. Still, he's really getting a grasp on the nuances of being unemployed, enough to write a handbook. He now knows, for instance, that hot turkey sandwiches are a good staple--big portions and pretty cheap.
He was getting desperate last week when the notice that his unemployment benefits were running out arrived. He'd heard more than once about the Federal Job Information Center at 175 W. Jackson. Its name made it sound pretty impressive, like a bustling board-of-trade pit with bureaucrats, a phone to each ear, shouting out the latest openings and packs of unemployed elbowing for position in front of television monitors listing myriad opportunities.
Tom got cleaned up and went downtown. "Fifth floor," the guard in the lobby told him. "But there's nobody up there. Some people come down mad, and some people come down happy."
The drab little room, about six feet wide and ten feet long, looks like it might have been full of vending machines until the recession hit, when the machines were hurriedly replaced by bulletin boards in glass cases and a glossy portrait of a smiling Bush, a limp American flag behind his shoulder.
The portrait was the first thing Tom saw as he walked in the door. He laughed. "It was this existential thing. Like Sartre's Nausea. You're looking for human contact--and it's this perfect bureaucratic thing. Usually they make you run a gauntlet. Miss Smith gives you a number to take to Miss Jones. They make you stand behind a red line. This was the perfect extension of that."
Tom thought maybe he'd hear Bush's voice: "So you're looking for a job. Waters are murky." He was nearly overcome by an urge to draw a mustache on the portrait. Then he heard the voice.
When I go there a couple of days later I watch a lot of people pause when they enter the room, go back outside, and look around as if they're not sure they're in the right place. Protruding from the wall beneath the bulletin boards are chest-high counters that are bare except for some mailing labels. When you see a job you want, you're supposed to fill out a label with your name and address and drop it in the slot in the door that says NO ADMITTANCE in big gold letters. Construction-paper arrows point to the slot. Behind the locked door you can hear humans typing, phones ringing.
"Welcome to the Federal Job Information Center," the voice says. "This is a self-service job-information center."
A worried-looking blond woman in her late 40s with half-moon glasses on the tip of her nose listens intently as the voice says that information on how to figure this place out can be found on the first bulletin board.
"What did he say?" the woman asks a balding black man who's leaning on the counter absorbed in reading a bulletin board. "Is there something else on the first floor?"
"I'm sorry," the man says. "I wasn't listening."
"Thank you for your interest in federal jobs," says the voice.
The place empties out fast. Then in walks a tall man, probably in his 50s, wearing jogging pants. He looks like he might have been an executive. The voice recites a toll-free number for listings of federal jobs in "Illinoiz."
"Hah!" the man says. "Just try it. The line's always busy. Oh, well. Shouldn't have gotten fired from my last one. Had a falling out. It happens."
A young woman wearing a lacy white blouse, high heels, and lots of pink lipstick walks in next. She looks confused, so the man becomes chivalrous, explaining how everything works. She groans and says, "Well thank you. It would have taken me quite a little while to figure out this madness."
She looks at the bulletin boards for a while and says, "If I had these skills I wouldn't be here."
He fills out a label and says, "I shouldn't have pissed the boss off." Then he shakes his head just like Tom did when he told me, "I should have drawn a mustache on it! I'm kicking myself that I didn't!"