“So, there’s no salary, per se. It’s more of a… well, it depends on how hard you work.”
I was in a nigh-abandoned office building somewhere in some unknown corner of New Jersey, 2,000 miles from home, looking at this greasy fortysomething White man whose cheeks looked like they were full of yarn balls and who wore tiny, pointed bangs over his forehead trying to compensate for his bald spot. “This is it,” I thought. “Rock bottom.”
It was the summer of 2008. The Great Recession wouldn’t hit until August, but it was certainly looming large enough that by the time I’d graduated college in May, the phrase “hiring freeze” had become the most common response to a job application. Entire industries were falling apart, and it felt like I’d never have a job ever again. In fact, “hiring freeze” is how I’d ended up in New Jersey.
My dad was swimming in frequent flier miles — this was back before the airlines dried them up — so he hooked me up with a ticket to New York so I could go beg for a job from my dream company that had shown interest. Now, though: freeze city. The hiring manager ghosted me. While I was in the area, I figured I’d go to a job interview I’d landed after applying on Craigslist. The listing was for a “sports merchandising company” looking for some sort of “sales executive.” Or something like that. (Again, this was Craigslist; things were fuzzy.) I convinced a friend of mine to print out MapQuest pages and drive me around the smokestack-ridden suburbs of industrial Jersey to find an office building. This was how desperate I’d gotten for any job to even show a slight interest in me.
“Yeah we’re more of a door-to-door sales force,” said the dude with the pointy bangs and 49ers and Mets pennants and posters toppling over from a hastily stacked pile behind him. “We go around and ask people if they want to buy things like season tickets and memorabilia. The more we sell, the more you make. But no, there’s no salary. But you can earn as much as you like if you work hard enough!”
It was a scam. I went to Jersey and got fucking scammed. This was rock bottom.
As the embarrassment washed over me and I realized what I’d fallen victim to— I swear to God I’m not exaggerating — a 10-year-old kid walked into the office.
“How’d you do?” The man asked.
“Kind of a slow day, but there are some maybes,” the kid said. “Gonna definitely have some sales tomorrow, I think. Just coming to take a water break!”
The kid walked out of the office. I looked at the greasy-faced white man, his ear-to-ear grin never leaving his face.
“So whattaya say?” he asked me. “You can start today if you want!”
For most of my adult life, it’s felt almost impossible to explain exactly what it was like to graduate from college right as the recession hit. It felt like how Trevor must have felt as he was proposing to Hillary on Fresh Prince — to have both happiness and hope splattered against the pavement with bone-crushing suddenness. The recession felt like we’d never have jobs again. We were out of school for months without ever sniffing an interview. Unpaid internships were the norm, and they only created barriers of entry for people who either didn’t already live in a big city or couldn’t afford New York City apartments on exactly zero dollars salary.
I stayed out of trouble. I didn’t get shot when police pulled their guns on me. I got good grades and went to college. I had a diploma. I was supposed to enjoy the fruits of the American dream. I was a 22-year-old idiot.
Emotionally, it was devastating. As a Black man in America, I’d done all the things society told me I needed to do to improve my life. I stayed out of trouble. I didn’t get shot when police pulled their guns on me. I got good grades and went to college. I had a diploma. I was supposed to enjoy the fruits of the American dream.
I was a 22-year-old idiot.
All it took was mismanagement and corruption far out of my control to show that the so-called path to success didn’t mean anything. We became a doomed generation of deferred dreams. We were raisins with the sunbeams of a global-warning-initiated heatwave beating down on us. We were gaslit into believing we weren’t good enough even though we knew that our stagnation had nothing to do with our abilities.
Even if we never see another recession like the ones we saw in 2008 and whatever the disaster we’re in now ends up being, the residual trauma won’t ever leave us. I remember sitting in my then-girlfriend’s apartment in Boston the night Barack Obama was elected president. I remember wanting to feel as happy as my brain told me I should feel. I remember not wanting to feel worthless. I remember finding solace in the fact that as bad as things felt, there might be a future worth fighting to see. I remember thinking that if we could get through this, then we could get through anything.
I remember hoping.
My plan of survival was to wait it all out and go to graduate school for a year. By the time I got out, there would be jobs. It worked in that I was able to find a career on the other side of a master’s degree, but the tradeoff is a lifetime of student loan debt that won’t go away no matter how much I pay (or don’t pay) per month.
I’m still terrified of life during a recession. I remember the rejections, the penny-pinching, the fear, the expectation that the other shoe was going to drop and everything would fall to shit. I’ve spent a decade scared to turn down work, leave jobs, or even allow myself to think that I have any safety net — any amount of money that I won’t have to use when I’m suddenly unemployable again.
When Covid-19 hit and the “r-word” started getting tossed around again, I would feel the cold sweats come back. My palms would get balmy. The room would spin. And worse, I saw the college students I was teaching experience it. I was watching my trauma renewed through kids who had gotten their graduations canceled, their internships postponed, their job offers rescinded, and seen the return of the “hiring freeze.”
I wanted to tell them there was a light at the end of it, but financial recovery won’t replace the boogeyman of it all happening again. All the while I was fighting my own terror at losing what I’d used to think was impossible to gain in the first place: a family, a home, a belief that next month’s bills will be paid. An ability to tell my family that everything would be okay. Their faith that I had everything under control.
And wondering if losing it was worse than never having it in the first place.