Arye Dworken has theories for just about everything. He has theories about the likelihood of a double-dip recession, about whether we’re witnessing the demise of industries like publishing and the music business. And if you’re inclined to ask, Dworken will also share his theories about proper gift-giving or constructing the perfect mix tape.
This is what happens when you’ve been laid off from three jobs in two years.
Dworken, 27, a freelance journalist and ad copywriter, is sharing one of his theories with me on a cold, blustery afternoon in February outside the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. “I’ve been thinking a lot about karma lately,” says Dworken, a diminutive guy with a scruffy beard and a nebbishy New York accent who is dressed in a black North Face ski jacket, blue jeans, and Nike high-tops. “I think there’s a reason that certain people get to the top.” And that is? “Good karma, not making people unhappy, being appreciative.”
Before I can debate this highly suspect theory, Dworken dashes off into the Virgin Megastore. The goal: find a present for Sarah, a Spin editor who helped Dworken to write a series of short pieces about musicians with day jobs. But perusing the new releases, Dworken quickly becomes frustrated. “What do you get someone at a music magazine who gets promos?” he asks. He picks up a CD by Zwan, ex–Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan’s new band. “I’m sure she has this,” Dworken says. He lets out an exasperated sigh, and then there is a theory: “When you’re unemployed, choosing gifts means so much more. I mean, every decision takes on this huge significance because you have so much time to make it.”
Dworken’s been laid off from positions at the Oxygen network, an ad agency that he’d rather not name, and, most recently, HBO. Each layoff had its own special misery, but the ad agency took the cake. “About 60 employees, including me, were brought into the company cafeteria,” Dworken explains, “and the CEO said, ‘We would’ve liked to lay you off individually, but that would have taken too much time.’ ”
Temp jobs—and the occasional freelance piece for magazines like Spin—have helped Dworken pay the bills on the four-bedroom apartment he shares with three roommates uptown. But even menial temp jobs—such as working in the basement of Sports Illustrated, bar-coding old photo negatives—have been hard to come by. And forget about jobs in industries that Dworken would like to work in, all of which, he says, feel impossibly out of reach. “The response is ‘Great résumé, we’d love to have you, but we have 400 résumés.’ Sometimes I feel like I have a better chance of becoming the CEO of Lehman Brothers,” he adds, “than getting some of the jobs I apply for.”
Arye Dworken is idiosyncratic enough to be a character from that defining cultural artifact of our last recession, Slacker. But somehow this economic downturn isn’t very funny. It isn’t just the looming war with Iraq (1991 had that, too). It’s the industries on life support—music, publishing, the Internet, take your pick—that cloud much of the optimism for the young and unemployed in New York. These are the jobs that shape our sense of possibility, our sense that what we’re doing can be done here and only here. And they’re fast disappearing from the city’s landscape.
“My mother calls them MTV jobs,” says 28-year-old music journalist Miranda Jane. “Jobs in the music business, publishing—these are the jobs that everyone wants. These are the jobs that thousands of people from all around the world come to New York for.” Jane should know: She moved to New York in January 2000 to take a senior-editor position at hip-hop magazine Complex, only to be laid off in August 2002.
Getting back one of those MTV jobs is proving to be more difficult than Jane ever imagined. “It’s shocking,” she says. “I’ve sent out hundreds of résumés, and I’ve only gotten one interview.” She’s far from alone. “Whenever I go down to the unemployment office,” Jane says, “I notice that a lot of people seem to be in the media.”
Jane is biding her time—and paying rent on her Williamsburg studio apartment—with freelance publicity jobs. “I’ve thrown morals and taste by the wayside,” she says with a laugh. “Right now I’m representing a hip-hop-porno DVD.”
The past few months in particular—which have been marked by everything from a broken laptop to a job at another hip-hop magazine that seemed to be hers but then went to an employee inside the company—have caused Jane to reexamine her career aspirations. “At this point, I feel like my focus on music or music journalism is hurting me,” she says. “The sense I get is that magazines will follow the trend of record labels. There will be fewer and fewer of them, and the staffs will become smaller and smaller.”
“A lot of things are happening at once: the economy, the war, all of these industries in flux,” agrees Lisa Garrett, a 29-year-old who is pursuing a career in the music business. Since moving to New York in 1997, Garrett has worked for—and been laid off from—defunct Avenue A rock club Brownie’s, independent rock label Matador Records, and downtown record store Other Music. “I think change is good in the end,” Garrett says. “It challenges people, makes them more creative. But I have a feeling that when things come back, they won’t come back in the same way.”
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Accepting difficult times ahead hardly makes the current moment any easier. “It’s very tough right now,” Garrett continues. “The few job interviews I’ve gone on, everyone seemed qualified or overqualified. And I’m talking about jobs that are very low-paying.” Laid off in August 2002, Garrett says that “there are good months and bad months; January, surprisingly enough, wasn’t too bad. I got temp jobs pretty consistently.” Sharing a small two-bedroom apartment with a friend in Williamsburg eases the financial burden, and hanging out with so many unemployed in the neighborhood helps salve the emotional one. But she says the ominous signs keep on coming: “In the past few weeks, four people I know were laid off.” She clears her throat. “It’s been more than a little alarming.”
Nevin Martell, a 28-year-old online producer and freelance journalist who was laid off from his senior-producer position at Getmusic.com in June 2002, eerily matches Garrett’s sentiments almost note for note. “I’m fighting harder and harder for jobs,” Martell says. “The competition is so fierce. I interviewed with one Website, and they said, ‘We can get a college grad to do this for $20,000 a year.’ I want to work, but I’m not willing to sign up for a job just to have a job.”
And like Garrett, Martell is resigned to a not-so-bright immediate future. “I have had to say to myself, ‘It’s gonna be a really tough five or six years,’ ” he says with a sigh. “Right now, most people don’t have high-speed Internet access, so transmitting video content just isn’t viable. That’s definitely going to change, but it’s going to be several years from now, if not longer.” He’s equally bearish about the music industry. “This is an industry,” he says angrily, “that is just not conforming to what people want.”
Martell says that it helps to surround yourself with like-minded friends: “A lot of people are treading water right now. I think we’ve all realized that it’s okay to postpone happiness for a while.” He and his friends, however, are careful not to drown their sorrows in vice. “Going out for a few drinks costs like $100,” Martell says, “and forget about drugs. Half the people I know have quit smoking dope. Unemployment, bad movies, a couch, and a bong all go hand-in-hand, unfortunately.”
Robert samsel took his post-9/11 layoff from a fashion-design firm in stride. “Everyone was getting laid off from the company,” Samsel says, “the part-timers, the full-timers; there wasn’t anyone who didn’t take a hit.” Back then, it was easy for the 22-year-old, who had come to New York just two months earlier from Poland with dreams of starting his own line, to chalk up the ordeal to the sort of tough breaks newcomers experience. But then something alarming happened: “I couldn’t find a design job anywhere,” he says, “so I did freelance stylist work—all for free.”
By September 2002, his patience—and his bank account—was running low. “So I took a retail job at Zara,” Samsel says, “which wasn’t the worst thing in the world, because at least I had a job. The scariest thing about Zara, though, was meeting co-workers who’d been laid off from senior design positions. I couldn’t believe it.” Last month, Samsel was laid off from Zara. “Somewhere inside, I had a feeling it would happen,” he says, “because so many things are working against retail now: a terrible economy, a harsh winter, the war, you name it. The atmosphere is unforgiving.”
“A lot of people are treading water right now,” says one out-of-work 28-year-old.“I think we’ve all realized that it’s okay topostpone happiness for a while.”
Now Samsel finds himself searching for even an entry-level retail job—and contemplating a move back to Europe. “It’s crazy because I’m out here desperately looking for a job that I really don’t want,” he says.
Piotr Orlov should be the most satisfied of the bunch: Since falling victim to a round of post-9/11 cutbacks at CMJ Network, a music company, he’s freelanced for Fox News; a club-world freebie, Flyer; and VH1. “Relatively speaking, I have a lot going on,” Orlov says, “but somehow it’s still not enough, because I’ve got a mortgage to pay.”
In his few spare moments, Orlov often contemplates the fates of his chosen industries. The music business gets the lowest marks. “I have no idea how they’re going to come out the other side,” Orlov says. He’s slightly more hopeful about print media: “There will always be media of some kind, whether it’s a lad mag or whatever.”
Back at the Virgin Megastore, Arye Dworken gets a call from MTV. “Put the CDs down,” he commands. “We’ve got to make it to MTV in five minutes.” Does a job interview with Viacom await? “No,” Dworken says sheepishly, “my friend at MTV wants me to upload some music onto his iPod.” We wait for Dworken’s friend at security, and minutes later he comes out of an elevator toting an iPod in a plastic bag. “What are you doing this week?” he asks. “Not much,” Dworken replies.
As we head for the escalator, Dworken mumbles, “One unit” under his breath. Excuse me? “Picking up the iPod was one unit,” he says impatiently, as if I should know better. “Didn’t you see About a Boy? Nick Hornby had the Hugh Grant character divide his life into units. You know, like one unit for a haircut. Since I’ve been unemployed, I divide these little errands into units. So picking up the iPod equals one unit.”
Our next destination is Midtown Comics, on Seventh Avenue and 40th Street. When we arrive, Dworken ducks his head as we pass the cash register. “It’s getting embarrassing,” he says in a whisper. “I think everyone knows me here.” Dworken lets me in on a secret: We’re here not only to pick out a gift for Sarah, the Spin editor, but to examine the store’s new comics, which arrive today. Another confession from the unemployed: Dworken knows when just about every store in town receives its new stock—from Barnes & Noble (Mondays) to Other Music (Tuesdays). “Since I’ve been unemployed, I’ve gotten this weird anxiety about going places,” he says, “so I feel better knowing what’s going to be there in advance.”
The stock at Midtown Comics is of a distinctly male variety—Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, dolls of the Osbourne family—so Dworken decides against buying anything.
Back outside on Seventh Avenue, we hit present paydirt: a bootlegger selling new CDs. “Oh, man, he’s got 50 Cent,” Dworken says excitedly. “This is going to be great.” He hands the bootlegger $5. “In my neighborhood, I can get them down to $4, but whatever.” He gives a thoughtful look. “You know, some people would say that buying a CD, even a bootlegged one, is an extravagance. But to me, it’s sort of like buying a big, expensive lunch. It may cost $15, but it’s going to be enough for dinner, too, so it’s more like $7 a pop.”
It’s becoming dark now, and Dworken has to get back uptown for his nightly ritual: writing on his laptop at the West 102nd Street Starbucks. As we head for the subway, he lets loose with another theory. “It’s the Flaming Lips theory,” he says, referring to the outré alt-rock band that formed in Oklahoma in 1983 but found its biggest success in 2002. “If you stay true to yourself and refine your art, in ten or fifteen years someone’s bound to notice.”