My Laid-Off Life

As told to Mara Altman

Photo: Marco Grob; Grooming: Losi/The Wall Group

No. 1: Max Perez
Age: 40
Job: IT director at a financial-services firm

I arrived at the office at 8 a.m. like every other morning, and I saw my boss in the hallway. He said an HR person had called him, and he was concerned. A half-hour later, he was laid off. Then an HR rep called me in. People around me noticed my body language; I was unable to speak. HR read the “laid-off script” to me. I’d worked with these people for eleven years. Some looked sad; they couldn’t make eye contact. I just sat there thinking of how to tell my wife the bad news and being scared of not having health insurance—we have two small children and one on the way.

Now my work is finding work. I sit at home, behind my computer. When I was first laid off, I would go to a chat room with all unemployed people. I thought, Wow, I’m not the only one, and it was comforting, but now, after two months, it’s just depressing.

Recruiters call about new positions, but it’s always the same old story. They say you are a great fit, and then you don’t hear from them for days. Nothing pans out. I feel helpless, like a failure. It’s your manhood, you know? I’m the only provider at home.

I’ve been anxious, so I scheduled a doctor’s appointment. He said, “Go to the gym, do yoga, meditate. Just relax; everything will be okay.” But it’s hard to relax. I go to the gym to try to clear my mind, but it makes me crazy. All the flat screens have talking heads reporting on the failures of the economy. There’s a church around the corner, and when the bells go off I imagine I’m in France. I’ve never been there, but I’ve seen enough movies to conjure a picture. I can almost forget about the mortgage and the $75,000 line of credit that my bank just closed on me. But then that dump truck rumbles past and spits me back into my reality.

I can’t believe how expensive everything is. A box of diapers is $45, but the little girl has to go, right? I used to buy my clothes in Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, but at Target I pay less than $100 for a suit. I tried to feed our dog the cheaper generic brand. He threw up; I guess you can’t go cheap on everything.

My wife is very supportive, but she’s not used to the fact that I’m home all the time. When she tells the kids to do something, they go, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” and run to me. She’s losing some of her grip on them, and it causes friction.

But the kids are like my therapy. I’m starting to realize the importance of health and family. I’m bonding with them more. They are so innocent. They don’t care if Daddy has a job or not. To them, I’m just Daddy.

Photo: Marco Grob; Grooming: Losi/The Wall Group

No. 2: Ross Tillman
Age: 24
Job: Recruiter at a head-hunting firm

I was let go over the phone. “You’re a luxury I can’t have,” my boss said.

A year ago, before I started my part-time graduate program at NYU, I had no loans or debt. Now I owe an outrageous amount. This is all a shot of reality, and I have to swallow my pride.

I applied to be a driver for someone. I wrote a long and groveling e-mail to a connection in Stamford, begging to get another interview for that Westport hedge fund that I blew off in the spring. My parents’ house in Westchester is a lot closer to Westport, but my girlfriend would kill me if I even mention sleeping at my folks’ house. I’m looking at blue-collar manufacturing jobs. What’s a TIG welder, anyway? I applied for a fish-delivery-driver position at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

My girlfriend goes to job one and job two every day; if only I had so much to pack into a day. I’ll contemplate shaving and getting dressed to go scope out a host position at a bistro, but then I’ll really like that I still have my plaid boxers on and I’ll tell myself I could always go tomorrow. I made sure that my dad deposited my car-lease money in my checking account—I think he is going to have to deposit rent money also. Using up your dad’s family-plan minutes sucks. Am I really 24 and still on the family plan? It’s embarrassing.

I’m too lazy to go to the gym, so I’ll take my Les Paul out of its case and stand in front of the mirror playing a John Mayer song. I’ve spent the past two weeks drinking and listening to music. And I spent my severance at a bar. I need to get good at that guitar so I can play at bars.

I wrote my dad a ranting e-mail filled with complaints about the current job market, and he called me and told me I’m nuts. This coming from a man who had steady work through every dip and recession of the last four decades, without really trying.

I think that my generation won’t have a crutch to lean on. When we’re 65, we’re not going to have pensions or 401(k)s. I passed the Triborough Bridge the other day—I heard they’re paying $4 million to change the signs to read RFK BRIDGE. How can they spend like that? Everything is falling apart, and they spend millions on signs? It’s bullshit! I think it’s everyone for themselves right now. I’m in survival mode.

Photo: Marco Grob; Grooming: Bryan Lynde/R.J. Bennett

No. 3: Denise Durham Williams
Age: 50
Job: Global director for diversity of the Global Consumer Group, Citigroup

I’d just gotten back from a cruise to the Riviera when I found out that I’d been laid off. The days of having vacations, I knew, would be over for a while. I’ve been in the finance business for almost 30 years, so I was a little shocked, very disappointed, but not completely surprised about the turn of events. I had to remind myself about two things: not to take it personally, and that I’m not alone.

I’m a workaholic, so it’s a little hard to step back and enjoy this free time. I’m going back to things that I enjoyed when I was younger. I’ve been cooking up a storm. I’ve been really diligent with Pilates and have taken up knitting again. I’m almost done with a little blanket for my cat.

I actually don’t talk about it that much with my family. I’ve been looking at a job in Boston. As stressful as it is to relocate, my husband is supportive and willing to do so. The more troubling thing for me is that my stock at Citi took such a dive. We lost a lot of money—that was our child’s education. My daughter goes to Smith, which is an expensive school. Now I think, “How do I make sure her future is well established?”

We’ve definitely put ourselves on a budget. I’m a shopaholic, but now I don’t go into stores. No more Neiman or Saks. The only thing I’ve purchased is a new interview outfit. We are eating leftovers—we never did that before. If we want to see friends, we have potlucks. We even implemented Christmas limitations. We have a specific dollar amount that we can’t go over. It’s much less than we usually spend.

You have to maintain a positive attitude. I’ve been through something like this before. It does pass, but it takes time. Many people who were laid off from the big banks may never go back to the financial industry; they just don’t realize that yet. You have to ask yourself, “What is the talent that I offer, and where can I put that to use?” I’m reinventing myself. I want to go into the not-for-profit sector and do something more meaningful with my life. I want to work with disadvantaged women and children. In my mind, as of that day, I retired from the investment services. It just wasn’t satisfying as far as giving back to people, and the current system is not the industry I remember. I’m looking for more now.

Photo: Marco Grob; Grooming: Losi/The Wall Group

No. 4: Michael Roston
Age: 31
Job: Online editor, the New York

If I could just get back into an office, any office, I wouldn’t be worrying about my daily existence. I also probably wouldn’t be downing shots of whiskey on Wednesday nights. I rouse myself from severance-inflicted post-drunk slumber and head out into the world. I regret feeling so sick and failing to get anything done; but what have I failed to get done? It’s these nihilistic thoughts I’m getting tired of.

A job I had applied for disappeared off a job-listing site. I was bummed. I didn’t even get an interview. I’m trying to get myself into the right people’s in-boxes, but I don’t want to be a wretch who reeks of desperation.

My former co-worker and I applied for the same job. He got called in for an interview, and I did not. I keep reminding myself that I’m on my own path and I’ve got to find my own way to the right thing for me. I’m my only competitor, right? I recently clicked on the second Website in a row that I’ve seen encouraging people to watch the film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. If I see someone reading it on the subway, I’ll be pretty sure we’ve officially entered Phil Gramm’s “mental recession.”

My family likes to joke about “my vacation.” “How’s the vacation going?” Not really funny. I fell asleep for 30 minutes the other day and wished it could be like some Rip van Winkle thing, except instead of waking up 30 years later, I’d wake up and have a new job. Walking past the day laborers hanging out near the paint store on Broadway, I’m thankful that I hunt for work while gazing into a computer screen rather than through the rolled-down window of some shady contractor’s car.

Perry Farrell in that great poem asked, “What is going to bring me around?” Me, I admit it: Cycling through various Websites, I feel like I’m waiting for a sign. I can’t bear to turn on the TV or listen to music. All I see is the sun from my window, and I think that I should get out in the park, like a friend had suggested; I had joked, “Yeah, I should get to know the place better where I’ll soon be living.”

Photo: Marco Grob; Grooming: Bryan Lynde/R.J. Bennett

No. 5: Marc Thomas
Age: 44
Job: Personal assistant at an architectural firm

My company combined three jobs into one. I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. I was there for three years and six weeks. I felt secure. I looked for signs in some photos I’d taken a couple weeks before—I wanted to see if I had had any innate anticipation about the fact that I would be soon unemployed. There was nothing.

Things happen for a reason, though. That’s what I’m thinking now. I was unhappy in that job; it was bad for my spirit. I had just pushed that down because of all the benefits: vacations, travel, and bonuses two times a year.

I moved here in 1988 in pursuit of my dream to become part of the New York theater community—being laid off made me realize that two decades have passed and I’ve moved no closer to that goal. Now that I have some time, I volunteer-usher at many Off Broadway theaters, so I get to see tons of free theater. I also get to watch a lot of TV. It’s great to watch Lipstick Jungle because I love to see Brooke Shields working again. It gives me hope. And then there’s Stylista—it’s like The Devil Wears Prada in TV format. I teared up during that movie. I totally identified with Anne Hathaway. I know what it does to your spirit when no one gives you the benefit of the doubt. I like Ugly Betty, because I feel like I’ve been Ugly Betty so many times in my life. I’m watching all these reality shows now, too. It doesn’t matter if it’s Survivor in Africa, Top Model in Los Angeles, or Top Design—they are all really about surviving. Survival, survival, survival! I think that’s why I’m watching them.

I’m just trying to move on, you see. I’m cleaning out all the clutter in my life—it’s amazing what you accumulate in twenty years. I’m going to give it all away. I think you have to get rid of stuff in order to have space in your life for new things.

Photo: Marco Grob; Grooming: Bryan Lynde/R.J. Bennett

No. 6: Cadden Jones
Age: 26
Job: Actress

I’m going on week three of no bookings or auditions. I used to have five commercial auditions a day that would have me flitting all over the island. Now I have no reason to set the alarm. All auditions have stopped. I know you can’t really get laid off as a freelance actor, but it feels like I was. It’s absolutely dead.

I’m going to be broke. I live off residuals from when work was good, like it’s my severance pay. I’ve considered selling a lot of my jewelry. I have to figure out the stuff that wouldn’t piss off my mom. A lot of it’s heirloom. Maybe she wouldn’t notice.

I don’t have to dress any particular way for any particular role anymore. No “young mom” or “businesswoman.” Just me. I open my closet and realize, My God, I have no clothing to wear that actually fits my personal style. I don’t have to wear makeup, but I put it on anyway. Somehow mascara always makes me feel better.

I’m taking a lot of yoga classes these days. I resent them the whole way through. I can’t relax. I miss my busy routine. I miss my adrenaline. Now, instead of racing off to five auditions, I sit cross-legged, chanting “Om” with a bunch of middle-aged women who probably haven’t had a job since their wedding day.

I started dating a guy at exactly the same time the shit hit the fan with regard to the economy and my career. I can safely say my sex life is the one thing that’s been benefiting from all of this. We even ordered pizza one night at two in the morning. Eating right before going to bed? I would never have done that before. Maybe I’m living more. He’s paying for our dinners, not to mention the opera, Broadway, concerts, movies, and cab rides. The other night, he took me on a surprise date to South Pacific. It was kind of depressing, though. Sitting there in Lincoln Center, all dressed up, with this guy who took me there—well, that is a really easy role to slip into. Am I going to forgo my acting career to become one of those yoga wives?

I went shopping today. I needed the perfect skirt because I didn’t have the perfect skirt. Plus I’ve got this new guy, and we go out to nice places. He deserves a me in cuter outfits. But I also got $900 worth of clothes that I didn’t need. I used my credit card—I don’t usually do that. But I’m done stressing. No auditions? No work coming in? As Miss Scarlett would say, “I’ll worry about that tomorrow.”

Photo: Marco Grob; Grooming: Bryan Lynde/R.J. Bennett

No. 7: Igor Gavrilov
Age: 30
Job: Fixed-income salesperson, Citigroup

As soon as I got a tap on my shoulder from my boss, I knew it was coming. He took me off to the conference room. They tell you that it’s not something that they want to do, that it’s something that’s handed down to them. We knew there would be layoffs in November. We don’t call it layoffs; we call it a “reduction in force” because it sounds better. It’s usually only to lose the deadweight, but this year it was a mixture of everything. Even though I knew that one in seven people were going, I didn’t think it was going to be me; I’d been with Citi for nine years. I have nothing but good memories from the job—that’s why I was there for so long. At some point, though, none of that matters. It’s your time to go.

My wife was incredibly upset. “How are we going to move on? How are you going to be able to find a job?” I thought she was going to take it better than that. The first couple of days were pretty bad—she was in shock—but then she realized that I could cook. I’ve been making anything with fish, anything that requires you to put actual work into it. I almost burned down the kitchen last week; the dish didn’t go as planned. There was scalding oil on the walls, the ceiling, the floor, everywhere. I learned from my mistakes; I won’t do that again.

There are other people who’ve been let go, and they’ve learned to cope with it. They get up in the morning and move on. But after I left the conference room, the realization hit me that there’d be no paycheck coming in.

We’ve become more aware of what we spend. We looked at our cable bill to see if we could cut something, but you can get one channel for $30 and you get the whole package for $40, so it didn’t make sense to cut there. We’ve stopped going out to eat as much. I was taking classes at NYU for an M.B.A. in quantitative finance—Citi helped by offering tuition reimbursement. I may cut back on classes now. NYU is a very expensive university—it’s something like $5,000 a class.

But overall, I’m comfortable with the way things are. Getting laid off was not my best-case scenario, but there’ve been some great things that have come out of it. I can pick my son up from school in the afternoon, play with my 1-year-old daughter, and have breakfast with my wife. I’ve had the chance to unwind. We may be in uncharted waters as far as the economy goes, but I’m not getting desperate. Given my qualifications and my experience, I think I’ll be able to get back into it.

My Laid-Off Life