I Don't Have to Dodge Bullets

— Robert S. (he wouldn't divulge his last name) stands in front of the Escondido Employment Development Department on Valley Parkway looking despondent. After losing a job he held for only 16 months, he is looking for another. What's different about Robert's job hunt is that even though his last job started in 2000, this is only the second time he has ever looked for work, and he's 46 years old. "I've been jobless for most of my life."

Robert isn't just looking for a new job, he's trying to maintain a new life. "I don't have much training at all. Before my last job, I was a criminal. Victimless crime -- I sold and did drugs.

"I wasn't the working type until I turned 40. It was simply a matter of coming out of that type of neighborhood. I'm from Buffalo, New York. If you don't have a lot of interest in school, and there's more interest in things outside, you tend to lean toward the stuff that goes on outside. The money was good, life was exciting, I traveled a lot. Then, at 40, I got arrested. It wasn't my first arrest, but it was my first conviction."

Being convicted proved to be the turning point for Robert. "I went into a recovery program. They told me to think about what it was like before I started getting high. Well, since I started getting high before I was seven, I couldn't relate. Then there was the thing, 'Well, try this for 90 days, and if you don't like it, go back to what you were doing.' I can't make an assessment of anything in 90 days, so I gave myself a year to stay clean. Being clean is no worse than getting high, it's just less exciting. At my age, I gotta think, when this is all said and done, what will I have to look back on? I feel like at least I'll have something to look back on at some point if I'm working. And now I don't have to duck and dodge the police or bullets or any of that stuff."

An Escondido resident since 1992, Robert's last job was as a janitor. "It was at ESI -- Electro Scientific Industries. It paid $17,000 a year. Sometimes we'd work 10, 12 hours a day. I was laid off, you know. There wasn't a lot of advance notice. They'd lost a whole bunch of sales, and the work just wasn't there."

Having never been laid off before, Robert was upset by the news. "I don't have a lot of experience working, and I felt I had found a job that I was going to be at for a while. For the company to lose jobs and me to lose my job as a result, it started looking pretty gloomy." Robert says he might have kept his job if he'd had more seniority. To make matters worse, he has no savings, and his car payment will be due soon. His bills, including rent and utilities, run about $1200 per month. He lives alone.

Although eligible for benefits, he has not yet received his first check. Robert says it is "not enough. They say about $200 a week, every two weeks. Then, instead of a check, they sent me a paper saying that I failed to answer a question or I answered a question twice. Whatever it was, they couldn't say, other than it could be one or the other, and I didn't get a check. I can't last long at all if I don't get a job. That's why I'm down here. I've got to get a work situation, and I've got to get it soon. The job market sucks.

"I'm here at the career center doing assessment right now, and I'll use their resources to get into some kind of training. As I don't have a lot of work history, I've got to get some sort of training, ideally in a field other than janitorial, but the way it looks, I may have to stick to the janitorial field to get a better shot at a job."

While he may look glum, Robert believes he is in a better place than he was before. "Even with the situation I'm faced with now -- before, I never had to worry about a car because they paid for the car, and I didn't have to work for the car. Now I've got to work to pay for this car, and that's not a bad thing. Right now I've got money issues. Before, I didn't have money issues, but now I don't have police and legal issues. I don't have paranoia issues or a whole lot of the various issues I had before. I still have issues, but they're of a different quality. When all is said and done, I'm going to feel a whole lot better about this than I felt about that."

That, his career in drugs, ended five and a half years ago in 1996. "I had been living here since 1992, when I moved down from San Francisco. The girlfriend I had at the time had a daughter, and my thoughts were, when you're trying to raise a kid, the big-city environment is not the best place -- and you can use me as an example of that. Escondido seemed like a small town without a whole lotta gangs. I couldn't see it being a gang town, even though it was. But it's a small town, you know what I mean? Staying actually turned out to be a good thing.

"One of the things about being a criminal, if you're going to be a criminal, wherever you go, the first thing you need to do is retain an attorney in case anything should go wrong. That way, if anything does go wrong, you won't have to spend a whole lot of time sitting [in jail] wondering what's going to happen. When I came here, I was lax in everything that I did. I didn't think I was ever going to need an attorney, so I never got one. When I first got here, I wasn't doing anything wrong, so that helped. Once I started doing wrong, I figured I wasn't going to slip. But I got lazy, and I slipped and paid the consequences."

Robert's vision is fixed on his long-term goals -- goals that he doesn't believe he will attain quickly. "Eventually, I want to run for political office because that's an extension of the law. I intend to do something in the law, and that would be the next step. The first would be to do the lawyer thing. The next thing is to try to help in creating laws. I don't want to go to law school, but I'm going to have to," he laughs. "I would like to avoid that. I got enough behind me to do the legal stuff, but paper-wise I'll have to go to school. But we're talking years and years away from now. Nobody has to worry about me being the mayor!

"As far as lifestyles go, if you're making a lot of money on the street, regardless of how good it looks, that's fleeting. One good case, and all your money is gone. They just busted a dude in Colombia, right? He's the kingpin of the world, making, what, $96 million a week? Now all his money is no good. He's going nowhere. His life is about to change drastically. In changing lifestyles, the money is hard, and everybody's struggling with this economy, but it's a much better feeling at the end of the day. I'm just a low man on the totem pole, but at the end of the day, that's all that matters. It's like being a cop: as long as you make it home at the end of the day, you should feel good about what you did. Things are hard, but I sleep all right. Things could be worse."

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