(This article previously appeared on Cafe.com, a human-interest digital magazine.)
The spam arrived as most spam does, in an endless, fire-hose stream. Penis enlargements, Nigerians in financial straits, hardcore porn, escorts: We’ve become so inured to the influx of these titillating notices, we no longer notice. But something about this particular piece of spam from The Container Store caught my eye. “We’re hiring NOW for the holidays!” screamed its header.
You ARE? I thought. Huh. I hovered my mouse over the subject header, hesitating. And then, Reader, I clicked on it.
The Illusion of an Orderly Life
I’d been looking for a new job for months, the search wasn’t going as well as I’d planned, and The Container Store, let’s be honest, is my kind of porn. I literally cannot walk past it without popping in for a quick peep. Not that I’m actually dropping any quarters into those booths these days, but just knowing that all of those boxes, containers, baskets, and doohickeys are there, should the need arise, provides me with the comforting illusion that my life could one day look like my cereal shelf: sorted into clear bins, orderly, neat, contained.
The body of the email, once exposed, was even more enticing. “Seasonal positions in our stores from Coast to Coast,” it said. The editor in me wanted to change those capital C’s to lowercase, but never mind. As I was all-too-painfully finding out, no one wants to hire people like me to do that kind of work anymore. That same day, in fact, The New York Times announced that it was laying off a hundred people.
But it was what came after those uppercase C’s that was the money shot: “great benefits.” Great benefits? Say no more. I immediately filled out the online application to be a holiday greeter at the front of the store. So what if it wasn’t the perfect job in my chosen industry? These days, a job is a job, and a job with benefits is a unicorn. I could wave hello to customers and spot a thief entering The Container Store just as easily as the next casualty of the creative class could.
Yes, Reader, I was desperate.
My Annus Horribilis
Last year, during a 10-month period, the following happened in this exact order: I got separated from my husband of two decades, who, having lost his job to the recession, moved across the country to start a business, leaving me as sole provider and parent to our two children still at home; I abandoned the novel I was working on and found a job with benefits as an Executive Editor at a health and wellness website; I took a boarder into the room newly abandoned by my college freshman to help pay my rent, which the new owners had hiked up an extra $900 a month because they could; I was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer; I watched my company, which was preparing to go public, fire dozens of qualified people within my first month of work, after which I was informed that my job, too, was on the chopping block; I survived the cancer but was fired from my job. Then, unable to afford my rent any longer, I moved my remaining family into smaller digs.
During those first couple of months without a salary, before my small severance kicked in, I tried in vain to procure a contract to write a new book. I also received a bill from COBRA for $1,764.29 to cover my family of five for the month of April. I called ADP, the company managing our COBRA account, and asked if I could pay quarterly instead of monthly. No problem, said Christy, the nice woman manning the phone. I wrote down the reference number for our call: 2-7068130583. Then, well before the end of that quarter, I sent ADP a check for $5,292.87.
ADP cashed it. Then they immediately cancelled my COBRA coverage. “What? Why?” I asked the new person, not Christy, who answered the phone. He sounded as if he were in a call center in India. I explained I’d already visited the doctor with my three children for our annual physicals, assuming I was covered. Having to pay that bill alone would sink me.
“Because you needed to pay monthly,” he said, “like the letters we sent you said you had to do.” I told him about Christy and my reference number. He told me if I disagreed with this decision, I could write an appeal. I wrote an appeal. It was denied. Without any money to hire a lawyer or file a second appeal, that was the end of that. It took three months to get my $5,292.87 back. I had to call several times to remind the people at the call center in India to send the check. When they finally did send it, they sent it to my old address.
I tried applying for Obamacare immediately afterward, but because three months — the quarter during which I thought I was covered — had officially elapsed since my coverage was cancelled, I was not in the 60-day window required to apply. I could file for coverage during the next open enrollment, I was told. Meaning November 15th. Problem was, I had an appointment for an MRI at Sloan Kettering in August to make sure my mass hadn’t returned. Without insurance, the MRI alone would run me over $6,000. I pushed off the MRI until October and prayed for a break on the job front and good health.
Later that month, after my severance ran out, I made a Hail Mary pass, flew out to LA on airline points, crashed with a friend, and left my eight-year-old in the care of his 17-year-old sister back in New York for three days so a colleague and I could pitch a TV pilot. A few weeks later, I collapsed on the kitchen floor of my new apartment when I heard we’d sold it. This meant, among other things, I’d get Writer’s Guild health benefits. But not until April 1st of next year.
The Container Store Posts a Job
The email from The Container Store asking for holiday help arrived a week before my rescheduled MRI. Of course I applied! You would have, too, if you had one kid paying his own way through college, another applying, no health coverage, a bum boob, a broken marriage and an empty bank account. There is no time for shame in a recession. You do what you have to do. There are worse ways to spend your day than greeting visitors at the front of a store run by a company whose products you actually use. A week later, I got an email from the Manhattan Loss Prevention department at The Container Store. Here’s what it said:
Hello Deborah —
Thank you for your interest in employment opportunities at The Container Store.
We carefully review all applications and consider each person for current or future opportunities. At this time, we are moving forward with other candidates for this position.
Again, we thank you for your interest in The Container Store. We wish you much success in your job search.
The Container Store
Manhattan Loss Prevention
Reader, first I laughed when I read this. Then I cried. Oh, Reader, I cried and I cried, long and deep and mournfully. I cried for me and my kids, then I cried for everyone else in my same boat, then I cried for everyone in far worse boats. Because seriously, if an Emmy Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author and Harvard grad cannot land a job as a greeter at The Container Store — or anywhere else for that matter, hard as I tried — we are all doomed.
For years, we Americans have been fed the convenient lie: study hard, work hard in your chosen field, work hard at your marriage, save money, organize your flour, salt, and sugar into labeled bins and you will be in control of your life and your destiny. But control is an illusion during the best of times.
One Job Loss Away From the Abyss
Now, in this new gilded age, where profit takes precedence over people, and commerce takes precedence over art; where a CEO earns 331 times the salary of the average worker and a company going public feels no compunction about ordering massive layoffs to appear lean in the eyes of investors; where a woman still earns only 78 cents to every man’s dollar and where access to health insurance — though much improved — still carries strange loopholes that leave some of us uncovered for months; where none of us is able to save nearly as much as we should, despite cutting back on everything, including necessities like food and shelter; where affordable childcare, universal daycare, and paid maternity leave are fantasies that only happen in other countries, not ours; where a college education requires our children to take on the kind of massive nooses of debt that will render them too cash-poor to have any future material goods in need of organizing and containing, most of us are just a single job loss, a single medical diagnosis, a single broken marriage removed from a swirling, chaotic, wholly uncontained abyss. Put all three of these stressors together, combined with a move, and you get a 48-year-old mother of three, sobbing at the sight of a rejection letter from The Container Store.
Thankfully, my own story has a happy ending. I just got hired as a staff writer at Café. I’m earning less than I earned at my previous job, but that’s okay, because the atmosphere here is let's-build-something-cool joyous instead of all-our-heads-are-on-the-chopping-block poisonous, and starting November 1st, I’ll finally have health insurance.
It’s the small mercies, really. I am grateful for them.
What Becomes of the Broke and Parted?
But what of the others? What of the others? I often wonder. I think about all those people laid off at my former company before it went public, the ones with plans and families and college-aged children and illnesses and ailing parents and rents and mortgages. One of them was a brilliant video producer who helped me navigate the complicated worlds of both a cancer diagnosis and a separation, both of which she’d been through as well. She was fired and summarily dismissed from the building before I even had the chance to say goodbye or to get her email address or phone number.
When was her last MRI? I wonder. And did she have the wherewithal to pay for it?
I just scheduled mine for Saturday, November 22nd, the first open appointment at Sloan Kettering. I’m hoping, for once, that the news is good. If you or anyone else you know is free that morning to take care of a well-mannered, Pokemon-obsessed eight-year-old, let me know. You could take him to The Container Store and set him loose. Let him believe that if he organizes his Pokemon cards just so, nothing bad will ever happen to him.
Deborah Copaken is The New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book, Between Here and April, Shutterbabe and Hell Is Other Parents. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Slate, and The Financial Times, among others.