Hope, Fear and Insomnia
Journey of a Jobless Man
The New York Times | September 2, 2011
ON JUNE 25, 2010, Frederick Deare punched out for the last time from his job driving a forklift at the Old London factory in the Bronx. That summer, everyone at the plant was being laid off: the oven operators, the assembly-line packers, the forklift drivers, the sanitation workers. Total jobs lost: 228. Old London, the snack manufacturer that invented the Cheez Doodle, was moving its operations to North Carolina. At 53, Mr. Deare, known as Freddy or Teddy Bear to his co-workers, would have to find a new job.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when the sound of factory whistles could be heard throughout the five boroughs. In the Bronx, there was Farberware, the pot manufacturer, which employed 700 people before shutting down its plant in 1996; Everlast, the boxing glove maker, which closed its operation in 2003; and Stella D’oro, the cookie-and-breadstick bakery that moved to Ohio in 2009. A. L. Bazzini Company, the peanut factory that supplies snacks to Yankee Stadium, will soon be leaving the city, too.
A century ago, about 40 percent of New York City workers held manufacturing jobs, according to Working-Class New York, by Joshua B. Freeman. As Labor Day rolls around again, that portion has shrunk to less than 4 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. And when Mr. Deare received his pink slip, he joined a growing army of the unemployed in a borough that has been hit hard by the nation’s financial turmoil. The Bronx has an unemployment rate of 12 percent, the highest in the state. For African-American men like Mr. Deare, the city’s unemployment rate is even more disturbing: nearly 20 percent.
If getting a job is hard enough for a white-collar worker armed with a college degree, then the challenge was even steeper for Mr. Deare, who has only a G.E.D., lost 15 years to drug addiction and did a brief stint in prison. He had reinvented himself at Old London, reporting to work day after day for a decade; by the end, he was earning $16.61 an hour with health insurance. How does someone with his background find a job in the new economy? Mr. Deare was about to find out.
IN THOSE FIRST WEEKS after he was laid off, Mr. Deare found that he liked staying home—hanging out with his fiancée, Annette Amaro; eating her cooking; zoning out in front of the television. With low rent and his three children all grown, Mr. Deare was in better financial shape than many of his former co-workers. And it helped that he had received a severance check of nearly $5,000.
As the end of summer neared, he threw himself into job-hunting. He put in applications everywhere he could think of, including Target and FedEx. He contacted his former union to see if it could help. He asked everyone he knew with a job to look out for him. The effort turned out to be an exercise in rejection. Nobody offered to hire him; they didn’t even bother calling back.
To keep up his spirits, he called each morning into a 6 o’clock prayer line run by his daughter, a minister in Massachusetts. Callers shared their worries, then prayed together; some mornings, Mr. Deare revealed his job woes.
“The hardest part for him is not working, not being in the game,” Ms. Amaro said. “He’s not a sit-around kind of guy.”
That fall, her mother came through with the best lead: somebody had told her there might be an opening at one of the meat markets at Hunts Point in the Bronx. Unsure which market needed help, Mr. Deare visited five or six. Most wouldn’t even let him fill out an application—“Sorry, we’re not hiring”—but he managed to leave his résumé at one place. When he returned the following week, he talked his way into a job.
He started in October, working the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift. The job required spending all night in frigid temperatures, moving in and out of freezers and refrigerators, lifting 70-pound boxes. “I’m 53 years old, and this is some strenuous work,” he said. “Everybody else is 23.”
When he got home in the morning, he would slide into a warm bath. The position paid $15 an hour, but if he could hold on to it for a few months, he would move up to $18 an hour, with benefits and a spot in the union.
REESE GROSETT AND IRAIDA RIVERA had been two of Mr. Deare’s closest friends at Old London. As of November, neither had a job, and one morning the two met up at a McDonald’s near the Bronx Zoo. Ms. Rivera confessed that while she had enjoyed her first five days out of work, Day 6 was different.
“I woke up in the morning, and when I looked at what time it was and I had nothing to do, I literally cried,” she recalled. “I said, ‘What am I going to do now?’”
Of all the people Mr. Grosett and Ms. Rivera knew from Old London, Mr. Deare was one of the very few who had found work. He had become a source of hope to everyone else, his good fortune reminding them that even in these bleak times, it was still possible to find a decent job. But now, a month after he started work at Hunts Point, Mr. Deare’s fortunes had changed.
“Did he tell you?” Mr. Grosett asked, between sips of orange juice. “They laid him off.”
MR. DEARE HAD RECOUNTED to friends what the boss told him: “Business is very slow right now. If it picks up, I have your number.” This conversation took place at 5 a.m., and the boss asked if Mr. Deare could stay and finish his shift. He was tempted to storm off, but considering the state of the economy, it seemed a bad idea to anger any potential employer, even one who had just let him go. So he completed the shift.
In many ways, this second layoff stung even more than the first. “I thought I was on that track again to be a worker, and then—boom!—this happens,” he said. “It was a low blow.” He was back where he had started: phoning friends for job leads, filling out applications, waiting for calls. But by now his severance was gone. He would have to survive on his unemployment benefits: $353 a week.
Some nights, he couldn’t sleep. Other times, he woke at 4 a.m., reached for his cellphone and played video games for an hour or two, until he grew so tired that the phone fell from his hand and he was dozing once again. It was hard to say exactly what caused the insomnia—anxiety about unpaid bills, fear of never finding another job, an internal time clock accustomed to working the night shift—but it was a problem he shared with many of his former co-workers.
Once, he woke at 3 a.m. and groped in the dark for his phone. “Should be sleeping,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I guess there’s a lot on the mind.”
Dhyalma Diaz, a friend from Old London, responded, “Don’t worry teddy we all have a lot in our minds.”
THAT WINTER, Mr. Deare jumped on every lead that came his way. A friend told him about a laundry company looking for a truck driver. The job paid $10 an hour with no benefits, but Mr. Deare reasoned that he was in no position to be picky. So he pulled on his parka, headed over to the employment agency and spent an hour in the waiting room, only to learn that the company wanted someone with experience driving a truck, not a forklift.
Mr. Deare tried for months to get hired at a school for troubled children where his cousin works, in Westchester County. Finally, he managed to land an interview for a teacher’s aide position. It sounded as if the job was his, as long as he didn’t fail a drug test. He urinated into a cup, passed the test, then waited for the call. One week went by. Then two weeks. Then three weeks. He left messages, but nobody phoned back.
He was not one to complain, but the strain of not having a job was starting to show. His moods swung from frustration to depression to rage. To lift his spirits, his fiancée would tell him: “You know the kind of worker you are—and you know you’re out there putting in the applications; you’re doing the footwork. It’s not you. This is what the country is going through.” She made this point often, but it was hard not to take each rejection personally.
As week after week went by with no good news, his efforts became more scattershot. In March, he applied for a job at a shoe store. He also filled out forms for positions in health care and child care. At this point, he figured, he would take just about anything. It was the attitude of a desperate man: there was a certain logic to it, but, of course, finding a job in a field where you have no experience or personal contacts can be next to impossible.
MR. DEARE HAD KEPT in touch with about 25 co-workers from Old London, and by spring none had found new jobs. Still, he was determined to beat the odds. “Somebody is hiring somewhere, and I’m going to find that person,” he told himself.
He had stayed in touch with his former union, Local 1102 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. During one conversation with a contact there in late March, he heard about a job opening: forklift driver at a coffee warehouse in Yonkers.
He got an interview, and the supervisor he met with sounded optimistic about his chances of being hired. But there was no formal offer. Day after day went by. For three weeks the wait stretched on. This time, however, he got the job. And it was a union job, with benefits. He started on April 11—290 days after Old London laid him off.
“You’re speaking to a happy man,” he said after his first day. “I am in my glory. I mean, today was wonderful.”
There was only one downside: The work paid $10 an hour, 40 percent less than he had made at Old London. After taxes, his paycheck was even less than the unemployment benefits he had been collecting. But he tried not to dwell on this. “I don’t let it bother me that I’m getting less, because of the simple fact I have something, and a lot of people have nothing,” he said. “You have to crawl before you can walk.” Four and a half months later, he is still on the job.