It's the day after Thanksgiving and I'm standing in line at the unemployment office. I'm near the end of my line, and I have a kind of quivering pain in my stomach which kept me from eating breakfast this morning and has been making me wonder lately if maybe I have an ulcer.
Nearly everyone else here is paired up with someone else, talking about their last job, their cars, their children, anything. I prefer to stand alone. In fact, I avoid these people. They're crazy.
Some guy behind me taps me on the shoulder and says, "Hey, you ever imagine you're on TV?"
I ignore him.
"I do. Alla time.... I'm always on the 'What's My Line Show.' I'm the guest. Kitty Carlisle asks me, 'Are you in the entertainment business?' 'No I'm not.' I tell her. Then Arlene Francis asks me, 'Do you provide some kind of professional service?' 'No I don't,' I tell her. And then Soupy Sales - he's my favorite - says, 'Hm, this is a real stumper. Are you self-employed?' And I have to look over to Gary Moore for this one, to see what he says, but he shakes his head no. So I answer, 'No I'm not.' then Orson Bean asks me, 'Are you independently wealthy?' And I have to laugh and say, 'No I'm not.' But finally time runs out, and Gary Moore has me stand up and tell them who I am and what I really do. And know what I say?"
I don't answer.
"I tell them my name is Ernie Klein, I'm 42 years old, and I'm unemployed."
He scratches his elbow and waits for the impact of what he just told me to sink in. But it never does, so he looks around for someone else to bear his fantasies.
Standing in front of me is a short, stout lady with arms like hamhocks. Her nose and chin point to each other. I'm casually interested in a large, dark mole (cancer?) under her ear. A young man, clearly her son, is standing beside her. It's obvious by his short hair and sunglasses that he's home on leave from the service.
"There was these ol boys from a infantry in Frisco," he's telling his mother, "say it tookem twelve hours jesta ketcha flight outa Tokyo. So I askem how cummit tookem so long jesta ketcha flight, and they said cuz there wasn't no flight outa Tokyo. Well know what Mama? When ar outfit pulled inta Tokyo, why they called upa flight rightnow jesta git us out .... is the lines ahways like this?"
She nods that they are.
"When I starta draw I I don hafta stand in no lines, I jest go ta one place an they gimme the money right there."
She smiles warmly at this, as if she knows well enough that her son's an idiot, but loves him anyway.
"I'm going back outa the car ta wait, Mama."
She nods and watches him walk away. She's free now to worry.
Behind me somewhere an older Japanese guy is delivering a lecture on the state of the economy: ... so much money nobody knows how to spend it all ... so pretty soon everybody quits spending it ... and then it's all gone ... no money anywhere ... "He's not making any sense, and anyway nobody's really listening, so he finally gets embarrassed and shuts up.
Farther up in the line there's a grayhaired woman standing with her feet wide apart, and with her large purse held firmly in front of her with both hands as if it weighed a lot. This seems to be a kind of stance acquired from standing in many, many lines. Every now and then, her husband, a perfect little man with a white mustache and a gray stetson, totters up to her and they chat. It seems that she, the stronger of the two, is keeping his place in line while he rests. It seems impossible that this shaky little man could be drawing unemployment, simply because it's impossible to imagine him working in the recent past. Nevertheless, here he is.
I'm starting to get restless standing here. I shift my weight from one foot to the other and take a few gulping breaths. I notice for the first time that the walls in here are painted a brilliant orange with yellow trim. It annoys me, and I resist the invitation to be cheerful --- just give me my money and I'll process my own state of mind.
Finally I get to the head of the line and hand the girl there my booklet. She looks at the name and draws my packet from a huge drawerful of identical packets. She seems so patient and unrattled. It amazes me. She isn't pretty, her eyes are puffy and red, and she's clearly overworked, but I have the sudden, sentimental notion that she's some sort of saint, bending the cold and hopelessly clumsy machine into something sensitive and human.
"Yes," I answered, recognizing my name.
"This is your last check. Before we can authorize you for an extended benefit, you'll have to answer a few questions about your efforts to find work."
"My efforts to find work?" I repeat stupidly, wondering if maybe she isn't joking. But then I realize that she (like all saints?) hasn't got time to joke.
"That's right. Will you have a seat in waiting section 'M' please, until your name is called."
"Uhm," I mumble to myself as I shove the last check into my coat pocket and look around for waiting section 'M.'
While I sit there waiting for my name to be called. I nervously rehearse my lies to myself. Names. Places I've looked for work. Sad stories about getting there an hour too late ... Finally I grow confident in my ability to lie my way into an extended benefit, and I relax a little. All around me people are rehearsing their lies, although none, I'm sure, can lie as well as I.
It's a long time I have to wait, and after awhile I lose interest in what's around me. This waiting and these people seem so insignificant. I'm sort of lulling myself into a stupor, when I become aware of the strangest odor. It's a kind of soury, stale smell. A rankness. Like an old mop. I'm repulsed by the smell, yet curious. I start wondering where the hell it's coming from ... and then I begin to realize ... it's been here the whole time. In fact, it's here every time I come. Only I was never exactly aware of it before. What it is, is the smell of these people. People who are out of work ... and maybe even like it that way. It's the smell of people who don't eat breakfast. Who drink beer all day long. Drink coffee all day long. Drink wine all night long. Maybe it's even the smell of someone who has a house full of kids in underwear drinking Pepsi all day. Maybe it's the smell of someone who has two dead cars parked on the front lawn. One dead dog on the back lawn. One half-dead body under them. Maybe it's the smell of someone who has yellow teeth. Rotten teeth. No teeth.
I'm getting nauseous.
It's the smell of the appliance salesman who stammers. The janitor who's indifferent to filth. The mechanic who stammers. The farmworker who can't get up early. The beautician with split-ends and bad skin. The teacher who's ignorant. The carpenter without a pickup. The lineman with a potbelly. The student who's learned nothing afterall. The South Viet Namese in America.
I laugh out loud when I see that it's the smell of every useless mutation. It's an appendix. Tonsils. A rooster's comb. A mule's sex. A bat's eyes. It's a dog's thumb, and a cat with six toes. It's a woman's mustache. It's the World Football League. Any Buick!
Just then my name is called and it startles me. A plain, middle-aged woman --- anyone's mother --- leads me back through a maze of desks to her own desk, and asks me to sit down. She pulls several mysterious, multi-colored cards from my packet, and studies them with arched brows and pursed lips.
"College graduate, I see."
"Yes," I say quietly, not knowing if that required an answer or not.
"Last employed as a logger for American Forest Products."
"Yes," I answer again, but really thinking she doesn't want an answer, and on the next one I'll just keep quiet.
"Also unemployed part of '74, '73, '72 and ... '71."
I have the peculiar and uneasy notion that this woman knows things about me I scarcely know myself --- or worse, don't know at all --- and that she's about to tell me these things at any moment.
Finally, after tapping her forehead with a pencil and then looking through a pile of papers on her desk, she says, "I have a pretty good opening for a shoe salesman. Would you accept that?"
I know she can't make me take it, so I say, "I don't think so, no."
"You look like you could sell shoes."
I'm not sure if that's a compliment or an insult, so I just let it slide by.
"Well, it isn't really your line of work, and we can't force you to accept it ... but just the same..." She looks at me sadly, as if I'd disappointed her. But I knew I had her beat. She hands me back my booklet stands up and says, "Come back in two weeks at your regular hour." And the interview is over.
I get up and leave, feeling victorious.
Outside it's cloudy and cold. I go to my car and start the engine. I feel my appetite returning and start thinking about having a late breakfast, but then ... it's that smell again ... it's with me. At first I think it's just in my clothes, but no. It's wafting out of me like smudge from a smudge pot. It's all around me. It's coming from me. The smell is me.