Being Unemployed Makes Me Laugh

Finding humor in dark times

Since the company I worked for almost went bankrupt several months ago—hence its decision to shut down the magazine I was editing—I’ve been out of a job. And for the first time in my life, I’m on the dole. This fact—that I receive unemployment compensation—is something I’ve been hiding because I’ve been embarrassed. I thought it might hurt my chances with potential employers too. But as with most things that induce shame, it’s better to be honest about it—if only because, at least for a writer, it’s material.

Starting today and continuing every Tuesday, this space will be dedicated to humorous, ridiculous, ironic, oddly poignant or otherwise personally flavored stories about being unemployed and looking for work. I’ll start out by writing about my own experiences, but I really want submissions from readers.

Part of what inspired this is a desire to share the madness of job-searching and unemployment with others. Such funny, preposterous things happen, but you’re not in an office where you can turn to a co-worker and say, “Oh my god, you won’t believe this … ” For example, did you know that no one at the Department of Labor has ever heard the word “freelancer”? Sure, they all know it’s an English word because it’s composed of English-language parts, but it’s as if someone said they were a pricefencer or a coststabber. When I tried explaining freelance remuneration the first time, I was told two different things by two different employees:

1. It’s so little income, why are you calling us? You should have kept it on the DL.

2. It sounds like a lot of money. Say goodbye to your benefits.

This is how it always goes. After I have one conversation with one representative, I call back and have another version of the same conversation to see if I get different info. Then I call a third time for a tie-breaker, if necessary. One thing they all agree on: “Everything is up to the federal government.” How reassuring.

When my benefits were discontinued due to freelancing, I had to orally answer a 60-page questionnaire to get them reinstated. Some of the questions were from the point of view of a potential employer: “If a magazine hires you to write an article, will they file such-and-such tax documents related to your work?” Well, I can guess that the publications I write for will be good corporate citizens and file the appropriate documents, but can I really know? I think I was taking it too literally.

Until a few weeks ago, I was sending out rather standard cover letters, but now I’m just going for broke. My father has encouraged me; he once hired a guy who sent him a cover letter that had only four words: “I CAN FLAT WRITE.” So when I applied to be an editor at a weekly newspaper in Anchorage, Alaska, I wrote: “True, I’ve never been to Anchorage—nor to Alaska—but I’m a quick learner and I have a warm coat.” Ha ha. Didn’t get an interview for that one.

I did have a phone interview with Amazon, but I hadn’t applied there, so it was a shock. The interviewer fired questions at me: How would I transform the editorial content of each category on the website so more books would sell? Sweating profusely, and pacing frantically in my bedroom, I came up with some ideas but conceded I knew nothing about online book marketing. She was appalled, never having read my resume. The whole conversation was a mess. At some point, apropos of something (I swear), I said, “Hey, what about Friendster? What happened there?” and the chill on the other end of the line was Alaska-cold. Who wants to work with a low-rent Seinfeld who can’t sell anything?

A friend in Silicon Valley offered to help me network, but told me first to optimize my online persona—in particular, my YouTube channel, which shows me ranting and rending my garments in videos about suicide and shock treatments. Despite my 927 subscribers (not that I know the exact number), I took the channel down. Soon thereafter, I got an email from someone who said he wished the content was still up because it was helpful to him in his struggle with depression. And I had a realization: “What the hell am I thinking? Speaking out about mental illness is the one good thing I’ve done with my life and I’m willing to trash it so I can work at Twitter? I think not!” (I may have banged the table with my fist, I’m not sure.) I reinstated the channel, feeling quite self-righteous, and reinstated my joblessness.

But enough about me, dear readers. What about you? What changes are you making to your online profile? What strange cover letters have you sent? Have you spent hours on the phone with people at the Department of Labor trying to explain basic employment vocabulary? Let me know! Comment here or send me an email at