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Unemployment Online

Now that Silicon Alley has gone from Internet easy street to virtual skid row, what are all the Ivy League English Majors who used to have $90,000 marketing jobs going to do for an encore?

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A dark, downtown bar, eleven o'clock: young people are swigging Heinekens and shouting over the music at one another. "What do you do?" a blonde asks a 26-year-old with a goatee, leaning in to make herself heard. "Oh, you know," he says, dragging on a Marlboro red. "Crystal meth, angel dust, mushrooms."

Like nearly everyone else here on this rainy November night, Mr. Goatee doesn't have a job. He doesn't even have a name -- a nondisclosure agreement with his recently defunct Internet entertainment company prohibits him from talking to the media. And like the rest of the crowd at Rebar, an odd combination of Chelsea lounge and Irish sports bar, Mr. Goatee has come here for the cash-bar "Pink Slip" party, a monthly gathering for downsized dot-commers that started in July. The first party attracted 30 guests. Tonight there are 300.

By the door, there's a cardboard box with a sign -- drop-ski your tsktaskis here sic -- in which partygoers are placing knickknacks from their former Silicon Alley employers. So far, the donations include a Mail.com baseball cap, a Pets.com sock puppet, and a Kazootoys.com kazoo. There's also a battered copy of Patricia Cornwell's Cause of Death. A dozen or so journalists flutter around the box, fanning out to gather anecdotes. "Hey," says a bearded former dot-commer, raising his hand and bravely offering his name (Alan Cohen). "I haven't been interviewed yet."

"I didn't realize showering could take all day," Cohen says, laughing. "Shaving, too. Shaving can take all day."

"Right now, I'm networking, looking for new opportunities," he continues, nodding his head slowly, seriously, totally in control. "Right now, I'm freelancing."

"I'm freelancing," says Joshua Moss, a former senior producer at iCAST. "And I'm heavily medicated," he jokes.

"I'm freelancing," echoes a former employee of Luminant Worldwide, an Internet services company chronicled, partly fictitiously, in Rodney Rothman's piece for The New Yorker. "Why are you writing this down? Are you a recruiter?"

"I'm a recruiter," says a beefy guy in a blue-collared shirt, crossing his arms over a puffed-up chest. "I get attacked at these things." He introduces himself as Robert Jenkins, the e-business specialist at Management Recruiters of Nassau. A guy in a black suede jacket overhears and offers his hand: Joshua Siegel, former CEO of Warrantys Online.

"It was the coolest idea, man," says Siegel. "We processed warranty cards. You could even get instruction manuals if you'd lost them." He sighs. "Our funding was pulled October 30th. I dressed up as a doctor for Halloween, hoping I could resuscitate it."

Jenkins pats him on the back. "Give me your card, bro."

"Thanks," says Siegel, proffering his old business card with a weak smile. "All the numbers work."

In an attempt to be festive, Pink Slip party founder Allison Hemming (also head of an Internet consulting firm called the Hired Guns) has decided to create a "wall of blame" for the next Pink Slip party out of old business cards with numbers that don't work. The sign for this reads: john q. businessman, chief chief, pls forward mail to: my temporary sublet, phone: "the number you have reached . . .", fax: see phone, mobile: none (can't qualify for prepaid cell. credit cards are maxed). "Have you heard the latest?" asks Hemming. " 'B2B' now stands for 'Back to Banking,' and 'B2C' means 'Back to Consulting.' "

Rob Viola, a still-employed Web developer at Idealab!, snickers. "When the steel mills in Pennsylvania closed, do you think they were throwing Pink Slip parties at their locals?" he says under his breath. (Viola came tonight, he says, because he's "interested in pathos.")

Then there's the cake that Hemming bought, with white icing and raspberry cream. It's inscribed: now what?

"That is just sick," screams an ex-Priceliner.

"It's not as bad as the urinal," says Roger Kaplan, formerly of Kozmo. "A bunch of guys threw their business cards in there to piss on."

t's not as though dot-commers don't embrace risk: Start-up technology companies have been crashing long before the invention of the Internet. But when they did, there was always a better gig -- Higher salary! More options! Cooler perks! -- at another promising start-up. High-tech employees tend never to take their eyes off the job boards -- loyalty can only be bought with options if the IPO is on track -- and layoffs were always just an opportunity to negotiate a better deal.

Since April, though, finding a new job hasn't simply been a question of not dodging phone calls from recruiters. From start-ups like Modo, which burned through its capital before the L.A. launch party, to established companies like Razorfish and DoubleClick, each of which laid off more than a hundred employees, almost all the news from Silicon Alley has been bad. All of a sudden, people who once weighed potential employers on the basis of how quickly they might go public have started to worry whether they'll have a job at all. Many of them are getting bitter -- especially the barely-out-of-school rank and file who have never had a job that didn't come with Fresh Samantha and free massages.

"Yesterday I was a Yippie -- a young Internet professional -- and today I'm out of a job," e-mails a former content producer at iCAST. "Ever since I sat down in front of my first Apple IIe, my generation has been encouraged to look toward the Internet as the source for a better, brighter, smarter, more well-connected future. Graduating with an English degree from an Ivy League school, I was supposed to move to New York and get a dot-com position, begin building my connections and my 401(k). But my path has been paved with broken benefits and shattered stock options. I would become eligible for unemployment benefits within four short months, and all before my 22nd birthday."

What's an Ivy-educated English major to do? Especially when the jobs that are out there no longer come with company trips to Vegas, days at Great Adventure, or free beer every Friday? "When I first got to Urbanfetch, we had Champagne Tuesdays and Lobster Fridays," says Sudeshna Nayar, a British-accented 33-year-old, clutching a Zara shopping bag in Rebar's foyer. "By the end, we were having Pizza Tuesdays and Krispy Kreme Fridays." (Urbanfetch shut down October 13.)

Then there's the atmosphere. "At San Francisco Interactive, we'd have these cool brown-bag lunches on Fridays," says Trevor Brown, who got three weeks' severance when he was laid off from the New York office in the fall. "We'd get into these really intimate convos about abortion rights or transgendered people, pre-op, post-op stuff."

When their companies went belly-up, many were reminded that, never mind the Nerf toys all around the office, they still worked for a business that had an eye on the bottom line. "The last day of work, we had to wait for hours for our last checks," says Lou Charles, an ex-UBO.net producer who says that he was "living large on the corporate card" before the company closed. "It was like being on a cheese line, a welfare line, man. So degrading."

Until two months ago, Jeanne De Sanctis, a convivial brunette with a voice as deep as Angie Harmon's, was the director of music and content for SonicNet, a division of MTVi. Though she says her lawyer advised her not to say anything negative about her former company, she admits that her dot-com dream has died hard. "There was a little of 'I'm not going to be the "It" girl of the music biz anymore,' " says De Sanctis. "Once, I started crying on the subway, tears streaming down my face. But then I said to myself, 'Get it together! That job didn't own you, you owned it.' " She laughs. "The next day, I got comp tickets to Radiohead at Roseland, and I was like, 'This is okay -- cool things are still happening for me.' "

She frowns.

"You know, I had the director's share of options," says De Sanctis. "I mean, I had as much as you could have! Whatever. MTVi will never go public anyway." Her frown deepens. "But -- fuckin' A!"


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