Bernice, screaming hysterically into the phone, finally had to give way and allow her sister to explain that Alfred had driven his car into an abutment. A driver with an excellent record, Alfreds death surely could have been considered an accident, but none of the Syres friends could conclude anything other than that he had killed himself. The death had come without warning, without the slightest hint that he was depressed. When she got back on the phone, Bernice, barely able to calm herself, said she was convinced that Alfred had given up from the despair of being unemployed.
It was the first time Bernice had ever spoken in this manner. She honestly believed Alfred had moved beyond it. He had never lied to her, and she always had been on target when reading his emotions. Besides, she said, apologizing for awakening me, How could this unemployment thing keep eating away at him? Its already more than two and half years! But we both knew it had. We both believed not working had taken bites out of Alfreds intestine and bladder. All three of us, perhaps, had denied the toll unemployment had taken on him. Beneath the occasional good cheer and expressed optimism, Alfred was a broken man. If nothing else, his illness revealed that much. Neither Bernice nor I spoke for long minutes. Then suddenly I heard her cry out for her husband, and the phone went dead.
It was during the weeks following the funeral of Alfred Harris Syre, a ceremony attended by hundreds of mourners, that I made plans to focus on long term unemployed men and women, people out of work for longer than six months, the term officially demarcating what is called very long term unemployment, or the period following the cessation of unemployment insurance compensation. Alfred and Bernice Syres history consequent to Alfreds layoff from a Midwestern corporation that had closed its only New England factory, reminded me that the stories of these men and women rarely get told. In most instances, no one but their families and closest friends know the stories, or care to hear them. For six months following the loss of a job, a person stays on the rolls, and thus remains as part of the countrys official unemployment statistics. After six months of being out of work, with benefits terminated, the person may no longer believe that he is even a statistic, and in fact, he isnt.
Unemployment stories touched me for another reason. Many years ago when I was very young and just beginning to understand what my own father, a physician, did for a living, I came to believe that if ones work didnt deal somehow with life and death issues, it couldnt be considered all that important. Childish of course, I imagine that more than a few doctors children develop this opinion that mothers or father gets paid for saving lives.
Not all social science enterprises, obviously, focus on life and death issues, nor should they. But unemployment appears to have a different quality of life and death import to it. Unless one confronts it directly, it is difficult to observe how powerfully it hits a man or woman, and how it can take a person to the brink, and then shove him over. For many people, long term unemployment truly constitutes the hardest times. There is of course, mystery to unemployment stories, which no one told better than James Agree and Walker Evans in Let us All Now Praise Famous Men. No one knows for certain how a particular man or woman will respond to being fired, they themselves cannot predict with certainty how they will react. No one can say, moreover, how stripping a person from his job begins to affect his body or mind. Why, for example, would unemployment make people contemplate suicide, or cause them to run away from their spouses and children? Watching cases of unemployed workers play out, one often imagines he is witnessing a persons spirit being shredded. Jack Blum, a thirty eight year old man the reader will meet in Chapter 7, once remarked, Im alive but Im not living. Im going nowhere so fast you cant even see me move. But Im moving. To nowhere.
I have focused attention in this volume on stories of men out of work. This focus should not be interpreted, however, as a disinterest in the stories of long term unemployed women and the profound meanings unemployment has for them as well. If work is a central feature in the development of a mans identity and sense of personal satisfaction, a theme we will be exploring later on, then it is for women as well, but this exploration is reserved for another book.
In the following chapters, none of the stories has been dramatically contrived, all events have been recorded as accurately as possible. From the outset the families understand their roles in this research and acknowledge that should I witness some scene, I may well include it in the final account if it seems relevant and appropriate. These moments, along with all the other material appearing in the book, are approved for publication by the families.
Throughout the years, I have assisted the unemployed in landing jobs, any jobs they believe will pull them out of what they deem their dangerous circumstances. I have worked as well to locate support groups and when appropriate, psychological counseling. In some cases we have met with some success. The following chapters include accounts, however, of efforts with workers undertaken over years, whic, to say the least, have proved profoundly discouraging.
The present state of the social sciences is such that in undertaking research, one must, I think, be especially careful to select areas of inquiry that possess intellectual substance and merit, and at the same time relevance to the well being of women and men. The promise of the social sciences always has been the investigation of crucial aspects of the human condition, both contemporary and historical, in an effort to inform a society and ideally, to enhance the members of that society. If the stories collected in this book are successful, they should not only inform, they should remind us that life and death are the foundations of the humanistic inquiry. They should help us as well to understand and appreciate the society and culture which we ourselves construct, perpetuate, and hold in our minds, and make us wonder whether we have done all that we can for ourselves and for one another.
In this context, Billy Librandt, a sixty year old laborer our of work for more than three years, once remarked: You keep asking whether Im sick of talking about being unemployed. Well, sometimes I am and sometimes Im not. Sometimes I think Im getting adjusted to the whole thing, which bothers me no end. But then you come along and I sort of have to unadjust, if you know what I mean. You make me think about it. Its painful, but its something I gotta do. I cant sit still. I gotta fight it.
But now, if you could pull a few strings, I think I could also get myself adjusted to working again too. Fact is, if you could do that for me, or put me in touch with someone who might help, I think I could tell you a couple of things I never told anyone about these last years. Set me up. It doesnt have to be a great deal, and Ill feel more like a man on his feet, which will make it easier for me to sound, you know, not so strong, but not all that bad. I dont mean this as a bribe, its no deal Im cooking up here. Id just like to be a man again, and let you see the devil in me, knowing I wouldnt be less in anyones eyes, yours or mine. Well, I guess especially mine.