Brother, Can You Spare...?

My husband and I just had our taxes done, and boy, are my arms tired. For the last few years, tax season has been a humbling, occasionally agonizing reminder of how little money I make as a freelance journalist these days, and how much I used to make as a staffer and freelancer when I wasn't even trying. I do the self-empowerment thing by telling myself that it's not my fault. I'm hardly alone in this ongoing freefall of print journalism. Plenty of talented colleagues have lost their gigs mid-career and are struggling to get another or reinvent themselves altogether. The economy continues to stagger along with no prospects of new jobs in sight; college grads with degrees in microbiology are working at T-Mobile stores. And so on.

Drill down a little into the grim stats and you see that black Americans--that would be me--are faring worst of all. I'm not just talking about ghettoes here. The vaunted black middle class that was supposed to permanently cancel out, or at least balance the poverty-generating effects of racism--that would be me, too--is unraveling at an alarming rate in this recession. Let's be honest, if I didn't have a working spouse, I'd be another one of those grim statistics.

As you might imagine, none of this context makes me feel any better or less frustrated. But once in a while something jolts me out of the creeping fog of where-the-hell-am-I panic and into a perspective that's neither entirely political or personal, but some important, illuminated place inbetween. Recently I was sitting in the lobby at my vet's in Inglewood, waiting to pick up my dog. I was the only client there. A man who was clearly applying for a job sat across from me with a clipboard. He was black, casually but impeccably dressed down to a jaunty cap and loafers, somewhere past middle age but not old. When he was finished he got up and went to the window to give the clipboard back to the vet tech. He was smiling radiantly. He asked in an upbeat voice when he might expect a call.

Soon, said the tech. The application had to be reviewed by the manager.

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I see, the man said. Do you know when that might be?

Not sure, the tech said. He's usually around in the afternoon.

The man smiled wider. Do you think I could call this afternoon? What time?

The tech looked up. It's best that he get in touch with you, sir, she said. That's how we do it. He'll call you.

He didn't budge. His smile held. It was clear at this point that I was part of this scene, this moment, as a witness. I was involved. The man next said in a somewhat louder voice, with a mix of wonder and fury: Do you know this is the first time I've ever had to look for a job like this? The first time! This has never happened in my life. Never. I just want you to know that.

He was out the door before I or the tech could respond. A few minutes later I collected my dog and left, entirely grateful that I could still afford to do such a thing. And grateful that I was not beating the pavement with my so-called black middle class advantages stuffed like loose change in my wallet, bowing to hard reality and to history by looking for work, any work. Not yet. But bad as I felt, I also had a sliver of optimism that I still have the power to make a new way forward. I don't have money, true, but that doesn't mean that I--we--don't have a little bit of destiny left.

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