A friend who lost his job in a newspaper washout some time ago said it made him feel alone and isolated in the city.
He was describing the intense feelings of rejection that accompany sudden unemployment. He was talking about the loneliness that an outcast feels.
I know that feeling.
I became like him on January 19th, my last day as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. It was the first time in a journalism career spanning more than half a century that I had been without a job. I joined 11 million others in America wandering Lonesome City like soldiers of a defeated army coming home to silence. No drums, no bugles, no crowds.
We occupy a landscape of spiritual desolation, and if that sounds excessive, you’ve never been there. As a child of the 1930s depression, when 25% of the workforce was on its ass, I saw our family break up from the pressures of need, and I saw a step-father turn brutal when his role as a provider failed. Whiskey became his only route to a parallel reality that offered if not peace at least oblivion. Rage was the mood of the day.
Even as a child I felt somehow abandoned, isolated by hunger, condemned by the crowds. It didn’t matter that there were many enduring the same bleak existence, and it doesn’t matter now. Failure, like death, is a walk we take alone.
Memories of those days without food or hope have haunted me since childhood, firing an almost abnormal instinct to provide for my family. It wasn’t enough to work a day job on a newspaper; I had to stay up half the night writing for magazines too and then for television. I turned to writing books along with everything else and still wasn’t satisfied.
I’ve never been sure if I did all of that for the love of writing or for the fear of failure, a condition heightened by the need never to return to my step-father’s world.
But then here I am.
We’re not in any kind of need. That’s not what I mean. And I’m not without family and friends. I’m talking about the icy chill of loneliness I’ve begun to experience in a culture that seems to be bustling on by, leaving me as more spectator than participant. I’m talking about the sudden need to put on a coat and tie and just go someplace! Anyplace!
I see the world shifting into new forms through a kaleidoscope of changes that don’t include me. I see newspapers I don’t recognize anymore and hear music that has turned atonal. I see entertainment posing as news and violence as entertainment. I see a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and the contempt of greed feasting on vulnerability.
I’m not sure that unemployment heightens the senses. I don’t know that being apart from the crowd allows any special perspective. But involvement takes time and attention while isolation demands no such effort. We have moments to think, hours to wonder and days to decide.
I have listened to the stories of many who have lost their jobs, their homes and their self-respect not due to their own malfeasance or indolence but to the billions of dollars demanded in assets and bonuses by the cheaters, liars and profiteers who rule Wall Street, and thus our lives.
While my situation is in no way as baleful as theirs, I am attached by both memory and circumstance to the feelings of disengagement that accompany us along the rutted sidewalks of Lonesome City, thinking, wondering and deciding.