Thursday, April 1, 2010

I never thought it would be like this

Worried that I might sink into a hole, squeaking out an inadequate living as a part-time farmhand, mom suggests that I look into an opening at Fairhaven Memorial Park and Mortuary, not far from where she lives.

“They’re looking for a funeral director,” she says excitedly.

“Mom, I’m not qualified for a position like that.”

“You might,” she responds. “You’re good with people and you’re low-key.”

I try to imagine myself—sober demeanor, faint smile, slight signs of hope and compassion carefully constructed across my face, voice subdued—doing the business of a funeral director: “So sorry for your loss. How may we assist you?”

A warm, professional grasp of the hand and on to the next order of business. “So sorry for your loss….”

“Mom, thanks. I’d really like to stay in the field I grew up with. I like stories.”

I’ve spent most of my adult life pursuing stories for newspapers and magazines. I grew up believing that there’s a place for stories that present life not as another promotional campaign but as it is actually lived by real people. Unfortunately, the market for these kinds of stories seems to be dwindling.

“You could get a whole bunch of stories working at a mortuary.”

“I’m sure I could mom.”

She tells me it’s worth looking into; the job has been advertised for more than three weeks, she adds; they might just consider me. “It doesn’t look like they’ve found anyone.”

“Mom, that’s what businesses do; they run an ad for a few weeks, build up a candidate pool, and make their selections.”

“Well, you could look into it, get some stories, write a book and get rich.”

“I’ll look into it, mom.”

It’s not a bad idea, really. There’s likely to be more job security in this business, of course, because there’s never a shortage of dead people. It’s unlikely to be a dead-end job (no pun intended), and the story possibilities…well, you’d have be six feet under not to see them.

I go online, find the mortuary website and locate “career opportunities.” The site lists openings for Assistant Sales Manager, Family Services Counselor, Sales, and Operations Manager.

I click on operations manager, curious what duties such a position at a mortuary might entail. Assign holes to be dug? Bodies to be dressed or cremated? Gravestones to be lifted, set into place? Coffins to be bought and sold?

The ad reads: “Premiere…mortuary seeking an individual looking for a challenging opportunity that offers the ability to grow and develop a strong employee staff.”

The “challenging opportunity” sounds interesting but the ad offers no details. I can only imagine the possibilities: “Hey Hector! How come you haven’t filled that goddamned hole yet? It was supposed to have been done yesterday. We have another graveside service scheduled in the next plot at noon. What’s taking you so long? … The furnace broke down again? Damn it! We’ve got five stiffs whose ashes we’re supposed to deliver by morning….”

As for growing and developing a “strong employee staff,” I like people but have never felt comfortable managing them: “Here’s the deal guys, I’m used to working a deadline, just not at a mortuary.”

Unfortunately, they want an “experienced manager with a minimum of 5 years of funeral home management experience.” That eliminates me right away. The call volume of “over 700 cases” a year I could handle. Hell, I used to handle almost that many calls in a week as a newspaper editor.

Additionally, the job prefers an individual who’s a California licensed funeral director. That’s probably a good idea. Someone with a license can be expected to get the job done right. No Maxwell House Coffee cans as urns in this business.

Next, the Family Services Counselor’s duties include “promotion of the funeral home through public relations.” Well, here’s another opportunity to create stories. “At Fairhaven, everyone’s dying to get in….”

I hate public relations. I agree with the late comedian Bill Hicks, who said that people who earn their living convincing others they should accept things that aren’t true, or buy things they don’t need, should just go ahead and kill themselves. “You’ll be doing a public service,” he says.

I also hate sales and skip over the remaining ads, so much for career opportunities in the funeral business. The year 2010 seems to be the year of deflated career options.

The latest reports suggest that many boomers like myself are working at “survival” jobs such as checkout clerks at chain hardware stores earning $10 an hour; or the lucky ones have found positions for which they are severely over-qualified at slightly more than $10 an hour and far less than the six-figure salaries they had before the economy crashed.

“I never thought it would be like this,” they collectively groan. “I was supposed to retire and spend my golden years taking it easy.”

In a recent Frontline episode on PBS, “Close to Home,” which features a local hair salon in the upscale Upper East Side of New York City, a woman in her mid-forties laments: “I’ve had to borrow money from my mother just make ends meet.” She’s embarrassed, and surprised that she’s admitting her sudden unexpected dependency as an adult.

A former middle-aged executive who’s been out of work for more than two years admits he never anticipated long-term unemployment. The hardest hit age group in the U.S. for periods of unemployment lasting two years or longer are people 50 and above.

And so it goes, as regular salon customers complain of their reduced circumstances: “I never thought it would be like this.”

Welcome to the economy of dashed hopes, where nearly an entire generation is forced out of retirement to survive the sudden loss of personal financial resources built up over a lifetime, where careers have been severely downsized or eliminated entirely, and where a banking industry on the verge of collapse, recently bailed out by the federal government, refuses to renegotiate home loans for people unable to make ends meet.

So far, we seem to be taking it in the shorts without much complaint, but here’s what one struggling homeowner recently said he’d do if the bank refuses to renegotiate: “If the fuckin’ bank comes after my home, I’m gonna call my buddy, who’s gotta ‘dozer, and I’m gonna have him bring it over here, and I’m gonna get on that thing, drive it off the trailer and plow it right through the middle of that fuckin’ house. And you know what? I’m gonna tell the bank, ‘You can have your piece-a-shit house.’”

Another friend recently called me a “malcontent” because I’ve never been happy with the status quo, with the little bit of truth or good that squeaks out of Washington, D.C. or Sacramento; I’ve never quite trusted Wall Street. I do, however, see something positive in the crumbling condition of our global banking and business enterprises, which seem to have forgotten the smaller economies of Main Street.

We’ve been challenged to reduce consumption, to find more sustainable models for doing business, to turn to our neighbors and friends for help and support, and to think independently from the “experts” who run our government and industry.

In my own neighborhood, we’ve talked about how to grow more of our own food, and ways to earn a little more money by selling the surplus, and saving money by doing more of our own repairs. Maybe it’s a pipe dream but already one of our own opened up his yard as a nursery because he can’t find enough work as a landscaper.

Selling plants won’t make him rich, he says, but it’s a better alternative to having nothing.

I’ve never lived so close to the ground, planting, tending crops, working as a farmhand, as I have in these reduced circumstances, thinking how much better it is to be above ground eking out a living than to be below ground pushing up daisies.

Still, there’s enough uncertainty and desperation in this economy for people like my mother to suggest that maybe, just maybe, her malcontent of a son might qualify for another ground-breaking endeavor. I won’t waste my time pretending that I might qualify for such an opportunity, but at least it’s an opportunity. §


  1. Your a brilliant writer, You will find something I'm sure. A year ago I started following Karen Essex Blog, she had finished Stealing Athena and was now researching a new gothic novel, probably vampire genre. I thought she might need an assistant as she round about hinted so in an interview. I proposed and was flatly turned down. This past week she tweeted she had placed an advt on Craigs List for said assistant, and within an hour received 200 responses. Her comment was to the effect, this is how bad the economy is.

  2. Here's the movie version of this post:

  3. thanks for the comments. the movie looks intriguing and i'll put that on my list.

    hey, things are getting better, right?

    as long as everything's ok on wall street, eh?