James Tehrani's shift at the assisted-living residence was over. He'd made it through his eight hours at the front desk--answering the telephone, making copies, greeting new residents. Now he was sitting in a bar in downtown Skokie, waiting for a cheeseburger.
"It's nice working with the older people," Tehrani said. "Some of them come in because they're so excited about where they're going to live. I've seen one guy three times. But I'm only making about 35 percent of what I was making at the dot-com. What I'm making now is what I was making at my first job out of college. I'm back to 1995."
Two summers ago, Tehrani was a senior copy editor at ChinaOnline.com, a digest of Chinese news aimed at the Western business market. He thought it was the best job ever. The offices on the 28th floor of the Bloomingdale's building were extravagant, with ergonomic chairs and brand-new Dell computers. Free snacks were delivered daily by an Internet shopping service, Tehrani didn't have to wear a tie, and he got to concoct punning headlines like "Hens-Forth" for a story about chickens. His previous employer, Electronic Media magazine, had never let him get away with that stuff.
Tehrani was making so much money he bought tickets to The Producers, and he went house hunting in the suburbs with his wife, Robin. But around the end of 2000, Tehrani began to suspect that ChinaOnline.com was living beyond its means. The first hint came when management canceled the office Christmas party, telling the staff, "We're going to have a Chinese New Year party instead, because we're ChinaOnline." But February passed without a party too.
In April the clothing store Robin managed went out of business. But Tehrani still had a job, so they bought a house in Skokie. The next month, he got his one-year review. He was promoted to senior editor, and promised more money.
The raise never came, and pretty soon the salary stopped coming too: ChinaOnline.com could no longer meet its payroll. The workers went weeks without checks. Tehrani was scared--he had a mortgage now. Finally he told his boss he couldn't hold out any longer. He wanted to be laid off. Ever since he'd graduated from college he'd been able to find a good new job by mailing out a few dozen resumes.
Tehrani still needed his back pay, though. In mid-September he heard a rumor the company would hand out checks, so he took the el downtown, arriving at the office around quarter to nine, just in time to watch two planes crash into the World Trade Center. The Bloomingdale's building is very tall, and there was a mad rush for the elevators. The check didn't come until the end of the month.
That winter Tehrani sat in the spare bedroom of his new house, printing out resumes, logging on to job search sites, trying to file the first response to every new posting. The room was like a cell, but he felt guilty about leaving the house during working hours. He was so anxious he often woke up in the middle of the night and paced around the bedroom. At least Robin had found a job managing a bank. And when he was bleakly discouraged she told him, "You must be very talented at what you do, because your bosses always rave about you. You know you can do your job well, and eventually someone's going to see that."
At the end of 2001, Arthur Andersen had already been linked to the Enron scandal, but that didn't deter 500 people from applying for an editing position with the firm. On the day of Tehrani's interview, as he sat in the lobby of the Monroe Street offices, he noticed a Sun-Times headline about Andersen's links to Enron. He flipped it over. All his friends had told him Andersen was a great company, and he wanted to believe it.
Tehrani was put to work editing accounting manuals. Two weeks later the federal government indicted Andersen for shredding documents related to the Enron investigation. The head of Tehrani's department gathered all her workers for a pep talk. Andersen was a powerhouse in the accounting world, she told them. Things seem a bit grim now, but if everyone stuck together as a team, they could fight it out to the end. The 40 workers in the room were completely silent. Tehrani's heart sank into his guts. He'd heard this speech before.
Still, he tried to have faith in his new employer. He marched in a rally at the Dirksen Federal Building, joining the chants of "We are Andersen!" to let the Justice Department know that 99 percent of Andersen's workers were honest, and shouldn't be punished because one percent might be crooks.
The job lasted six weeks. On his final Friday, Tehrani went to see his boss's boss.
"I'm feeling uneasy," he said. "Am I at any more risk than anyone else because I'm the new person around here?"
The manager tried to tell Tehrani he didn't know who would get laid off, but eventually, he tipped his hand. "When we hired you," he said, "we didn't know things were going to be like this."
Tehrani felt pretty low all weekend. He'd worked so hard to get this job. What had he done to deserve another layoff? Monday morning he got a message on his voice mail informing him of a "special meeting." Seven other workers were invited. As they filed into the room, Tehrani couldn't make eye contact with any of them. He knew what was about to happen. The department head was there--the same woman who'd given the pep talk.
"Well, you know what's going on," she said. "This is breaking my heart to do this, but I'm going to have to let you go."
It didn't take Tehrani long to clean out his cubicle. On the way out the door he met an employee who'd been with Andersen for 40 years; he'd been laid off twice before, but hired back both times. He looked at Tehrani and said, "This time, I know they're not going to rehire me."
ChinaOnline.com is still up and running, though there are fewer employees in the office. Arthur Andersen is--well, someone is still answering the phone there. And Tehrani is still working. A temp agency found him jobs handing out free Cokes on LaSalle Street and shagging rebounds in a three-point shooting contest. Three weeks ago he started at the assisted-living residence. They're still paying the mortgage, but he and Robin aren't seeing Broadway plays, dining out in the city, or spending weekends at bed-and-breakfasts. They've also decided to put off starting a family.
By nine o'clock the cheeseburger was gone, the bill was on the table, and Tehrani was ready to leave the bar. He hadn't seen Robin all evening, and tomorrow was a workday for both of them.
"The way I would describe the last 12 to 15 months is like this," he said. "It feels like you're a pinball in a giant pinball machine, and it feels like someone is bumping the bumpers as hard as they can. I thought that I found a way out of the pinball machine, but I ended up back in the lane that takes you to the top."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.