SIGN OF THE TIMES…

29 Jul

               

 

He drove the same route every day – fifty miles there, fifty miles back. Enforced auto-isolationism in a maelstrom of traffic destined for places unknown. He’d been driving the same commute for five years now, ever since hiring on with the corporation. Although he hated the early morning alarm clock and the quotidian drudgery of driving, the benefits to employment on the east side of the city far outweighed the unemployment black spot of the west. He’d seen factories close down all across the country – products with Made in America household names, shipped to foreign shores, to be made by people who probably couldn’t find America on a map. Industry, agriculture and hard work had been the sustaining life blood, the corner stone, of a country that depended on income generated by a society addicted to consumerism. Companies and corporations who for years had helped to make America great and who’d helped foster the American dream were waking up and shipping out. Factories were closing down for the promise of viable economics in Asia, leaving towns and communities devastated and abandoned in their wake.

                Men were now forced to accept state handouts or pursue under-paid employment in a job market that burgeoned with people ready to work for nothing. The whole thing was coming apart at the seams; society was crumbling, and yet it was still tuned into reality television and pathetic talent shows. Wasn’t their reality challenging enough? Couldn’t they use their mind’s eye to envision their own silver screened debut? The sympathetic camera angles and soft lighting capturing the best side of the wrong side of an economic downturn. Wasn’t their own obvious lack of talent the reason for their unimaginative, self-styled performance, the reason they’d been voted off the gravy train?

                Because of the mass lay-offs the commuter traffic, much to his pleasure, had started to thin a little. There was an upside to any situation, a silver lining that illuminated the darkest hour before every dawn. The factory closures meant less people rushing for work, which allowed him to stay in bed just a little longer before jumping in the shower, casually driving to work, and still making it on time to appease the boss. Life was good and the economic tempest which clattered around so many homes and families hadn’t touched him or his. The financial umbrella provided by his employer and his rainy day retirement fund would allow him to weather the storm.

                A split was developing in the fabric of society. A Malthusian reality of those who had, and those that didn’t. The difference between card-carrying membership in one, and not the other, was a small matter of a nine-to-five and a weekly wage, something that less and less people could depend upon. Despite the specter of economic depression there was no evidence of the country pulling together – the divide was tangible, people were choosing sides.

                Personally he was sick of being hassled by the homeless hoards, men and women who stood outside supermarkets with dirty faced children begging for a hand out. Families who only months before had been productive members of society and yet who now couldn’t put bread on the table. Was that his fault? Was their problem his? Didn’t they realize he still had to fend for his own family, pay a mortgage, a car note, and still find money for both a winter and a summer vacation? What about retirement and college funds for the kids? It didn’t matter if he worked eighty hours a week the math didn’t add up. If anybody was under pressure it was him. He was still in the game, bur playing it at a clear disadvantage. Clearly they’d no idea of the stress he endured on a daily basis. They were the lucky ones. They were the ones who’d shunned responsibility, given up, and opted out.

                They had his disdain rather than his pity and he did his best to avoid them, although that was becoming harder to do, as each and every corner was infested. No longer just brown faces but white faces as well, stood together with hand-written placards advertising their labor – will work for food- god bless- please help etc. etc. Women and children stood amongst the men, and like lepers, he negated them all. The unemployed, as far as he was concerned, should carry bells and notices to warn hard working folk they were around. That way he could avoid and ignore them, pretend they weren’t there as he went about his business.

                With all the foreclosures he’d managed to find another house in a gated community. Six foot walls and iron bars to protect him and his family from the hungry, homeless masses outside. The home owners’ association employed gun carrying security guards to ward off those trying to jump the fence. They weren’t cheap, as was reflected in the monthly remunerations, however, they were effective. Only the other day he’d seen two blue uniformed rent-a-cops tackling some hobo, throwing him to the ground whilst the wretched man’s family stood by and watched. In the beginning of the down-turn he’d felt pity, especially when it started to affect friends and relatives. After a year or so he’d become numb to their problems, ignoring their plight, putting his own priorities before theirs. It was only natural, he wasn’t a saint, and besides what could he do? The numbers on the nightly news were simply that, dots on a graph, not representative at all of ordinary people. What was it now, thirty percent or thirty five percent of the population who were unemployed – he’d lost count?

                Luckily for him the huge arms manufacturer where he worked was doing solid business, supplying a government that cared more about democracy in foreign lands than it did about the wounded soldiers its wars created and the solid citizens that slept on its streets. Society was crumbling yet he didn’t feel the pain. It was as though there had been a return to feudalism where the righteous and god-given like himself felt they were born to their excess. That somehow they were the chosen. Just a few short years ago they had all been in the same boat, however globalization and a world economy brought to its knees by corporate greed had divided them. Now bullets and battleships were the only thing that the world wanted to buy from a morally bankrupt nation that had previously supplied it with quality merchandise.

*

                The gas light blinked on his console. He flicked his indicator and pulled off the highway. As he rounded the curve he saw the sign for gas. Regular was now eight dollars and forty cents per gallon. The fucking oil companies would no doubt be showing record profits again this year. If there was one thing that was as certain as death and taxes, it was oil company largesse. Driving into the gas station he noticed a family standing by the road, a mum and dad with a couple of kids. The father had on a sports jacket and a pair of khakis, and judging by the suit cases he carried, was homeless. Clearly they’d been hit by the recession, ripped from their homes by bank sponsored S.W.A.T. teams. Congress had recently enacted laws that made it even easier for the banks to evict – the sooner the losers were out of the property the sooner the banks get their hands on their federally insured loans. Now with government money in their hands, as well as freshly acquired property, they could once again engage in their Ponzi scheme – luring unwary investors into stolen property, at an exaggerated price. As he drove past one of the children waved at him, the mother moving quickly to admonish the child. A middle age woman who, despite her predicament was neatly dressed, doing her best to protect her family. He felt an unusual tug on his heart strings, a momentary pang of desperation as he imagined himself in the same situation, but quickly shook it off. He erased them from his thoughts, drove into the gas station and filled his car.

*

                Walking in to the glass-steeled atrium of the corporation building, he mentally prepared himself for another busy day. He had meetings with various heads of department to discuss the new product line they hoped to bring to fruition by the end of the year. A project he’d been involved in since inception, and one he personally believed would make a difference to the troops fighting in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

                He flashed a smile at the security guard and then swiped his identity card. The acceptance light remained red, he swiped it again.

                 Red.

                The security guard looked up, and walked towards him.

                “Morning Mr. Jones. How are you today? He asked.

                “Good, George. There seems to be a problem with the card?”

                The guard held out his hand for the card. He then walked to the computer terminal, typed on the key board, looked back at Jones and then back at the screen. He placed the card in a drawer and walked over to where Jones anxiously stood waiting.

                “Seems to be a lot of this going on today, it’s probably just a glitch in the system.”

                Jones looked relieved. If that’s all it was, then there wasn’t a problem. “My card?”

                “Don’t worry about that, they’ll give you a new one. If you wouldn’t mind going to the cafeteria they’re assisting people in there.”

                “Thanks George.”

                Walking towards the cafeteria, he nodded at the familiar faces he encountered. What a hassle. He needed to be in the meeting by eight, and it was five-till now. He pushed through the double doors, the cafeteria was full – people stood around everywhere. A group of his colleagues waved to him from one of the corners. They stood next to one of the coffee machines, a company poster at their backs declaring its devotion to its workers, their greatest asset.

                “What’s going on?” asked Jones.

                “Don’t know. Seems there’s going to be some kind of announcement,” replied the colleague.

                Jones looked around at the well-dressed and well-heeled throng of employees, freshly showered and shaved, dressed to impress for another day of corporate endeavor. The doors to the cafeteria opened. There was a hush as security personnel moved into the room, stationing themselves around its perimeter. People looked at each other nervously, the excited chatter that had moments ago filled the room now turned to stunned silence. Jones looked at his colleagues who said nothing. The intercom crackled, and a voice boomed from the ceiling.

                Dear colleagues, valued workers etc. etc. Due to the current financial situation, economic climate etc. etc. We are unable to sustain our current headcount, in these dynamic markets, challenging times etc. etc. Please register with the clerks sat to your front who’ll give you your information packets etc. etc. Please remain at home until you are called by your manager. It behooves us to make strategic cuts, slash costs, stream-line in order to remain profitable – responsibility to our shareholders etc. etc.

                The speakers went dead, their electric hum clinging to the air. The silence that had solidified the room now erupted in emotional mayhem as the message slowly sank in. Their jobs were gone. What the hell where they going to do?

*

                Sitting in the car park, the manila folder on the passenger seat, he gripped the steering wheel tightly, pushing his fore-head against the leather. What the fuck was he going to do? What was he going to tell the wife, where would they go? A thousand questions with no answers rattled inside his head. He’d enough money put by to get them through six months, but after the first missed payment the bank’s S.W.A.T. team would be knocking on their door, ejecting his family and throwing his belongings on to the lawn. The shame and ignominy as his neighbors watched from behind sun blinds and twitching curtains. He’d seen the same thing happen in his old neighborhood as he’d stood with beer in hand watching the emotional dramas enfold before him.

                The manager had been nice enough, her tone optimistic. Lots of don’t worries, and empty platitudes.

                ‘I’m sure that something will work out given your years of service, your dedication, experience etc. etc.”

                Words, nothing but empty words. He was fucked, and he knew it. The project had been dropped – peace in Europe meant that the army would no longer require their new line.

                “Cut backs, tightening of belts, a return to household economics etc. etc.- the President had spoken plainly in his radio broadcast. A strategy would be adopted that would insure that major corporations would retain many of their current contracts. Losses would be minimized however there was an expectation that they did their part – personal responsibility etc, etc.”

                But where did he fit in to all this, why him? He turned the key, fired the engine and headed for home.

*

                As he drove down the motorway he rehearsed what he would say to the wife, formulated how to tell her that the vacations were on hold, that the kids’ sports would have to take a back seat. The money they had left was for major expenses only – everything else would have to stop. She’d be devastated, but what could he do?

                Up ahead he saw a group of people stood by the side of the road, the same ones he’d seen earlier at the gas station, the homeless family with the couple of kids. The father stood resolutely by the road, his arm outstretched, his thumb held high. As Jones drove passed them he read the words on the sign – “Going West.”

                He looked in the rear view mirror, saw the faces off the children follow the vehicle as he whizzed past, and then hit the brakes. The gear box whined as he reversed the vehicle to where the small group stood and wound down the window,

                “Thanks for stopping, we really appreciate it,” said the man in the sports jacket.

                “Where you going?” Jones asked.

                “As far as you can take us. We’re heading for the coast, but anywheres west is good with us.”

                “I can take you about fifty miles.”

                “Works for us.”

                “Ok jump in.”

                He unlocked the doors, and the family climbed in, the kids and the woman in the back, the father, after loading their belongings, got in the front. There was a smell of sweat, faeces, unwashed clothes, and dirty bodies. The woman smiled her thanks, the kids grinned excitedly. A good looking family in need of a shower and a hot meal.

                “Thanks again. We’ve been stood here since yesterday. Nobody stops anymore. I think everybody’s scared. It’s not as though homelessness is contagious,” he laughed nervously.

                “You’re welcome,” Jones said. “ Alright buckle up, and let’s get you folks out of here. When’s the last time you guys ate?”

                 They looked embarrassed, “Couple of days ago?” said the woman.

                He indicated, pulled the car into traffic and reached for his phone. “Hi baby, yes, listen I’m coming home early. Do me a favor – I’m bringing some guests home. Yes, just pull something out of the freezer. I know its short notice, but please do as I say.”

                The family looked at him and at each other. “You don’t have to do this, we weren’t begging for charity.”

                “I know.” He looked at the dirty, hungry, unwashed faces – saw the reflections of his own children and wife in the eyes of the family in the back of the car, pictured himself sitting in the passenger seat in a dirty sports jacket.

                “It’s the least I can do,” he said.

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