I admit: I thought briefly about going to the big job fair down on Vermont yesterday in South Central. Why not? I'm amongst the acutely recession-affected black unemployed, or to put it more accurately, underemployed. Freelance journalism has long been going the way of manufacturing; I still get paid doing it, but let's just say that it doesn't get the bills paid. Of course, I haven't really gotten a job I wanted by filling out an application since my college days. The idea of having to fill one out now was so discouraging--or humbling--that I stayed home. I'd rather sit on my couch believing that a major gig will come my way any day now.
What to do in the meantime? When the anemically employed get discouraged, the discouraged go shopping. Escapism, denial, hapless consumerism, counter-action, call it what you want, it's what I tend to do. I may only have ten dollars in my wallet instead of a hundred to spend these days, but that's okay, because this summer I've discovered a wonderful place right around the corner from my house (Walking distance! Talk about a score.), a thrift store that lets me escape for cheap. But ironically and more importantly, it's a store that reminds me of the essentialness and dignity of work every time I go in.
The Walk-In Closet on Crenshaw near 109th Street has been open a year and is staffed largely by developmentally disabled adults who are willing and eager to break into the ranks of the employable, to say nothing of the employed. First things first: this is not a usual Salvation Army mishmash. Veteran mall crawlers like me will be pleased by the Closet's airy but intimate loft vibe, its selectivity of goods, the boutique-y presentation, the separate room of evening wear, the fab dressing rooms. All of which make an interesting contrast to the staff. I have to confess, I did a few double takes on my first visit: most of the staff seem perfectly normal, some give you pause.
Executive director Renee Lawton understands that. She and manager Kevin Neely, who are not disabled, know that their workers are not the typical face of retail, especially fashion or specialty retail. Her staff come from Giant Steps, a lifeskills and vocational training center for the developmentally disabled located on Crenshaw near the 10 freeway, several miles north of the Walk-In's storefront in Inglewood. The store is actually a division of Giant Steps, the first of its kind. The distinct green sign and brick façade stands out on this rather nondescript stretch of Crenshaw that features a donut shop, hotel and liquor store.
But to Lawton, who fairly exudes optimism, it's Melrose Avenue. The 54-year-old describes herself as the Walk-In Closet's "buyer/beggar," always trolling for eye-catching donations from fashion-minded individuals and high-end organizations. The retail thing is not in her work history but it's in her blood: "I sew, I shop, I'm a magazine reader," she says. She's stylishly dressed in zebra-print shift, her graying hair pulled back with a wide headband. Before this gig she worked in insurance and had never had run a business before. She had never interacted with disabled folks before. But she needed a change, big time. "I was on a treadmill of work, and I wanted to get off," she explains. "I had never wanted to sell insurance. I wanted to work with young women."
Walk-In offers her that opportunity, plus a lot more. On a recent Saturday the store held a kind of open-house neighborhood party that featured a fashion show, gourmet taco plates and a DJ in the parking lot. This place isn't hiding. Walk-In also has a full e-Bay department, run by a staffer named Ryan who, in addition to working here, is learning how to fly planes. Lawton says the store is already looking to expand to other locations in Pasadena or Long Beach.
Yet she harbors no illusions about the ultimate, brass-ring goal of integrating her clients into the work force, such as it is. "Its very tough to get work in this economy," she says. "It's tough for everybody. But the clients are actually working. They take pride in their work, they look forward to coming. And I look forward to coming, too." Whether you apply for the job or not, that's pretty much what work is all about.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.