“I’d rather see you strip at Stilettos than take help from the government,” my dad once told me. According to him, the most disgraceful thing I could do was be on the dole. As the daughter of successful New York State Republicans, I was nurtured on the GOP gin ‘n’ juice. But apparently, the bottle was spiked because I grew up to be a gay-loving, liberal, struggling artist.
So, a year ago, when I was fired from my job as a copywriter at an ad agency after six years, due to layoffs, I was forced to register for unemployment. I wanted to find another job, yes, but unlike my Amex Gold Card Member Mama, I didn’t mind having to pay the angry Chinese food delivery man in dimes in the meantime. But I also knew that I’d have to go to great lengths not to let my parents know what was going on. My father, a Vietnam vet with a steel plate in his head, became a plumber when he returned to civilian life. He made six figures a year fixing toilets, so he’s always been underwhelmed by my inability to make a living. My Lexus-driving mother pushed me to be a doctor until age 11, when I still couldn’t tie my shoes. Then she said, “Marry a doctor instead.” Growing up comfortably middle-class made me take money for granted. As an adult, I had to make it on my own. After choosing to do stand-up and then becoming a writer, I became a First World tragedy.
While I looked for jobs in a tanking economy, unemployment saved me from an economic Babylon where I would have been forced to pack up my unicorn bookcases, leave New York City and move back in with my parents. Even though they live in a pretty English Tudor with an in-ground pool an hour north of Manhattan, I couldn’t go back there. I lived with them from 2004 to 2007, a period of time I refer to as “my poetry career.” Embarrassed, I told my gainfully employed and functionally artistic Brooklyn-based friends, “I’m living with an older married couple up the river to save cash.” This crowd I ran with managed to pay their rent selling cocktail rings sculpted from blown glass at street fairs and that only heightened my sense of inadequacy.
Fired, broke, and feeling alone in my tour de desperation, I spent hours watching movies about poverty and struggle. One afternoon, I stayed in bed watching “A Christmas Carol.” The overwhelming similarities between me, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim were startling. I started to cry. My father chose this moment to call my cell. “Is that a TV I hear in the middle of the day? Did you get canned?”
“Of course not,” I lied.
“I think that job put a sorry Charlie stamp on your ass!” he laughed. I hung up.
Two days later, my mother buzzed my BlackBerry. “Did you lose that job?” she asked. I was counting quarters at a thrift store to see if I could score a deck of 1985 Garbage Pail Kids to cheer me up.
“Why do you ask, Mom?” I said.
“Because, Lianne, a man named Michael Stevens is answering your extension. Please tell me you didn’t screw up again.” Mom and Dad never called me at work. Parent sonar had kicked in. I winked at the hipster who slipped me a free Smurf figurine with my purchase and went outside.
“They moved me down a floor. I’ll get you my new extension,” I lied. I wished I had the courage to tell her the truth, but we got along way better under the guise that I had it all together.
I’d racked up $2,000 on my credit card and a collection agent with a thick Texas accent chose to ring my father to inform him of my debt. My dad threatened her. That evening, he’d called me not to ask why I was in the hole, but to brag, “I told her I was going to come to Dallas and kick her butt!” The next day I set up a payment plan.
When I needed to borrow money for a plane ticket, I called mom. “You’re 31,” she said. “How could you not have money?”
“I’ve invested my savings in mutual funds,” I said, thinking that sounded responsible-ish. She seemed impressed.
“What’s the rate?” she pressed. I knew more about splitting atoms than finance.
“I have my paperwork at home. But I remember it being a steal.” I knew I didn’t have long with these excuses. Dad seemed to enjoy knowing that I was getting away with something, but Mom knew I was lying to her.
The evening the legendary Senator Robert Byrd passed away I knew the Democrats lost a much needed vote to pass the current stimulus bill. I went with my mom to her local Chili’s to drown my sorrows. Just when I thought we were having quite a lovely dinner, Mom confronted me. “I called that company you said you work at and their phone was disconnected,” she said. One month ago, she had asked where I was working so I made up a company. Nervous, I created a name on the fly that ended up a hybrid of Irish and Jewish surnames. “I’m working at McShwartz, Sullivanstein& Co.” It was so ridiculous-sounding I didn’t expect her to do recon. I took a giant sip of my Blue Moon and straightened my spine and attempted to answer.
“That’s because, Mother…” I didn’t know what I was about to say so I ate a nacho. She shot a look at me that said, “Bitch, please.” “They changed their name to The Prestige Group,” I said.
I was safe for a little while. But in early July, another issue kicked in—my benefits were about to run out. I had lots of time to watch the news, so I knew that Congress was about to vote on a benefits extension for an estimated two million Americans who have exhausted their unemployment aide just like me. I wasn’t confident benefits would be extended being that our deficit is mounting at a record speed and 49 out of 50 states are broke. But, as I read up on the issue online, it was heartbreaking to read about people in much worse spots than me: Baby Boomers who have depleted their retirement funds, students forced to drop out of college and people losing their homes. I prayed Congress would pass it. When they did, I celebrated by tapping the Rockies with two Coors Light forties.
A few days later, back at my apartment, I got an email from dad, the same man who got his first computer at 61. It takes him seven tries to type his password (his own name) into email. I had no idea that the one time I filed for weekly unemployment on his computer he would ever be able to tell I’d Googled, “New York State Department of Labor.” In all caps, misspellings and his own spin on grammar, he sent me the following e-mail:
WHY WERE YOU ON UNEMPLOYMENT SITE ON MY MAC ? ARE YOU FASHIONABLY UNEMPLOYED? ITS NOT A BIG DEAL. ONE DOOR CLOSES ANOTHER OPENS. TRY NOT TO BE SO SNEAKY.THE ONLY THING YOU HAVE IS THIS HIGHLY DISFUNTIALY FAMILY.LIFE IS A FORTUNE COOKIE, SO KEEP OPENING THEM TILL YOU SUCCED.
Maybe he was right. I just had to continue ordering Chinese and keep at my art.
That week, surrounded by empty boxes of chicken chow fun, I finished my memoir. So, to Capitol Hill, thanks for having a heart. But please don’t tell my parents.