Johnny America


Down­turn: A Make Your Own Way Adventure



Af­ter four years of high times and low, you are grad­u­at­ing high school. Your par­ents have al­ways been so sup­port­ive and they think — no, they know — that you can do any­thing. Your guid­ance coun­selor is a piti­ful lit­tle man but he tells it to you straight.

“I have to tell you straight,” Mr. Gor­don — hey, man why don’t you call me Phil — says. “With your grades, you might want to have a few fall back schools. In fact, you might want to con­sid­er jump­ing right in­to the workforce.”

You look at Phil to find out if he’s try­ing to be fun­ny but the re­flec­tion off those lit­tle John Lennon glass­es he wears blocks any look in­to his dead eyes.

“If you de­cide to take a route be­sides col­lege, I’ll need to know pret­ty quick­ly,” Phil says. “I’ve got to have these one-on-one ses­sions done be­fore my re­view. If would be a re­al shame if it was you kids who lost me this job.”

You’re siz­ing Phil over, up, and down be­cause you can — be­cause he doesn’t have the strength, courage, or charis­ma to try and stop you. For be­ing so skin­ny, he sure sweats a lot.

“So what’s it gonna be?” he asks.


Re­spons­es to your ap­pli­ca­tions, of the re­spons­es you re­ceived, any­way, say thank you but no. A week af­ter grad­u­a­tion, as anx­i­ety builds with con­tin­u­ing thoughts about the past, about high school be­ing the best years of your life, trig­gered by a pass­ing re­mem­brance of your sketchy coun­selor, of all things, whose name and face are al­ready dis­as­so­ci­at­ing, you re­ceive a let­ter of ac­cep­tance from your state col­lege. You be­gin to think that the fu­ture might not be so bad af­ter all, and at­tend­ing State kind of means high school isn’t com­plete­ly be­hind you.

Two months lat­er you’re on cam­pus. Not that it took you two months to get there. With a pair of binoc­u­lar and a view from the top of the phys­i­cal sci­ences build­ing, you could prob­a­bly wave to your mom as she comes home for lunch. But you don’t be­cause you’ll be home for din­ner soon enough.

Be­cause you didn’t spec­i­fy an in­ter­est in a ma­jor dur­ing your ap­pli­ca­tion, you’re meet­ing with a stu­dent ad­vi­sor to help best choose a field of study. Sit­ting across from the man re­minds you of some­body and makes you feel pressed to pick from the list of op­tions. You whit­tle it down to two fields of study. One you be­lieve avoids much of the scholas­tic work­load that re­al­ly in­ter­feres with a col­lege lifestyle and could give you a more well-round­ed per­son­al­i­ty while the oth­er is heavy on the study­ing but will open doors to a sparkling career.


You’re halfway through your sopho­more year when the or­gan­ic chem­istry tests, the lab­o­ra­to­ry write-ups, and the ad­vanced math home­works be­gin to ac­cu­mu­late faster that the pace of your study habits, which you re­al­ize may have nev­er been chal­lenged or de­vel­oped dur­ing your for­ma­tive years. By the be­gin­ning of your ju­nior year, switch­ing ma­jors be­comes less an op­tion and more a ne­ces­si­ty. You un­der­stand at this late junc­ture that if you were tru­ly meant to be a sci­en­tist, choos­ing a ma­jor two years pri­or would have nev­er ac­tu­al­ly been a choice for you. And you would have known, be­fore tak­ing Biochem 355 as a pass/fail last se­mes­ter, ex­act­ly what it was that bio­chem­istry meant or did.

You’ve al­ready amassed stu­dent loans and you’re el­i­gi­ble for an­oth­er two years, so drop­ping out of school isn’t re­al­ly an op­tion. You set up an ap­point­ment with an ad­vi­sor from the Eng­lish department.


You’re re­ceiv­ing a diplo­ma stat­ing you’ve earned a bach­e­lor of arts in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture and you’re start­ing to think about the next stage of your life. There’s a stack of books in your bed­room that your room­mate in­sists you pack out, if you want any chance of re­ceiv­ing the se­cu­ri­ty de­posit that will like­ly be for­feit­ed to re­pair costs for cig­a­rette burns and hasti­ly patched and paint­ed walls. And the bath­room — for­get about the bath­room. You’re go­ing to throw those books in­to the trunk of your parent’s car be­cause you’re kind of proud that you read a few of them and think they’ll be just the thing to lend an air of re­fine­ment to the con­do or turn of the cen­tu­ry bun­ga­low you plan on pur­chas­ing in the city, on­ly blocks from some small but well-re­spect­ed pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny. Head­ing back to your apart­ment, you see a fli­er for a grad­u­a­tion party/live show at the bar just off campus.


The next morn­ing you’re up bright and ear­ly. Be­fore rolling off your fu­ton you make a men­tal check­list of all the tasks you should ad­dress to­day: fin­ish pack­ing, print out up­dat­ed re­sumes and cov­er let­ters, call the stu­dent loan peo­ple about de­fer­ments, and read the em­ploy­ment and apart­ment rental sec­tions of the news­pa­per. You turn off your alarm clock, pull the cov­ers over your head, and fall asleep.


You don’t wake un­til the late af­ter­noon and you’ve got a headache that feels like a cross be­tween a stress and hang­over headache. The re­main­der of the day you spend re­cu­per­at­ing with as­pirin, cof­fee, and the TV with the vol­ume turned low. For the next two months, most of your days are spent the same way. The on­ly dif­fer­ence is that the last of those two months you’re wak­ing up late at your parent’s house.

Just last week, Mom and Dad men­tioned some­thing about rent and there was more re­cent­ly a dis­cus­sion that fea­tured you and chores in the same sen­tence. With that in mind, you pay at­ten­tion as your mom in­forms you that the com­pa­ny op­er­at­ing the plant on­ly a mile or two away is hiring.


The in­ter­view for the com­pa­ny is some­thing you take light­ly. All you know is that it’s a high tech com­pa­ny that man­u­fac­tures small bits of elec­tron­ics, tran­sis­tors, cir­cuits, mi­cro­proces­sors, or some­thing. The job open­ing at this high tech com­pa­ny is de­cid­ed­ly low tech. It is shift work spent on an as­sem­bly line, join­ing part A to part B to pass to the next work­er, who is wait­ing to at­tach part C. You know it’s a low skill job be­cause the ap­pli­ca­tion has a yes/no box next to the ques­tion about high school graduation.

The job is full time and comes with a suit­able health care pack­age. No­tices con­cern­ing out­stand­ing debts and stu­dent loans are land­ing in your parent’s mail­box and voice­mail. You wouldn’t be bound by con­tract or any­thing from mov­ing to a dif­fer­ent job if and when the op­por­tu­ni­ty aris­es. At your parent’s house, you’re sleep­ing in the For­mu­la One car bed that you loved as child.


You’ve got your­self a job and an apart­ment all to your­self. The pay­check is de­cent — it won’t al­low you to re­tire ear­ly with a healthy port­fo­lio, but it’ll al­low you to live at a fair lev­el of com­fort. Time and pay­checks pass by. Be­fore you know it, you’re in your thirties.

With cost of liv­ing in­creas­es and rais­es, you’ve made enough to pur­chase a house. Pay­ments are kind of steep. Oth­er peo­ple, who work where you do, al­so be­come home­own­ers. In fact, peo­ple all around the coun­try ob­tained mort­gages of their own. Some­thing shifts. You and every­body else knows the deal — knew it be­fore it went down but didn’t act on the knowl­edge. Prod­ucts that come with parts you help make don’t have as much de­mand. Your pay­check doesn’t feel as com­fort­able any longer.


Eco­nom­ic down­turn be damned, you’ve got a job to do. Pro­duc­tion has slowed and man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pac­i­ty is down fifty per­cent, so some­times it’s hard just to find tasks that need do­ing. But you’ve been at the com­pa­ny for a decade and your se­nior­i­ty and re­flec­tive hourly wage means you’ve got to set an ex­am­ple for the oth­er em­ploy­ees in your de­part­ment. These ma­chines aren’t go­ing to run them­selves. Okay, maybe they are — they’re per­form­ing tasks at mi­cro and nano lev­els with var­i­ous gas, plas­ma, vac­u­um, and elec­tri­cal process­es that can’t e done by hand, af­ter all — but some­one has o push the on and off but­ton. And who bet­ter to push that but­ton than an em­ploy­ee who has done the job for years, with com­men­su­rate an­nu­al pay in­creas­es? Sure­ly not one of your en­try-lev­el cowork­ers that re­ceived the same train­ing but on­ly take home half what you do. Def­i­nite­ly not work­ers in an­oth­er coun­try with dai­ly wages you’ve spent in gas for your morn­ing commute.


Ar­riv­ing at work on Fri­day, you and your cowork­ers are di­vert­ed by a group of se­cu­ri­ty per­son­nel. You must have nev­er no­ticed that the com­pa­ny has such a large se­cu­ri­ty de­part­ment. Every­body is in the em­ploy­ee cafe­te­ria, in­clud­ing the Hu­man Re­sources staff and the com­pa­ny pres­i­dent. The lunch­room is di­vid­ed in­to two sec­tions and you’re told o move to one side where a few se­nior em­ploy­ees and a hand­ful of new­er work­ers with poor per­for­mance records are gath­ered. An HR rep­re­sen­ta­tive has some pa­per­work and some un­for­tu­nate news.


You’ve cashed your week­ly check, cour­tesy of the gov­ern­ment. To­mor­row, you’ll head back out and dis­cov­er that a job, par­tic­u­lar­ly a job call­ing for your lim­it­ed skill set that will pro­vide a wage that can cov­er your mort­gage and as­sort­ed loans and bills, is a not so com­mon thing. Dur­ing the times your en­er­gy lev­el is low and the tele­vi­sion plays a lit­tle too loud­ly, you’ll won­der if there was some­thing you might have done dif­fer­ent­ly to change your cur­rent state-spon­sored sta­tus. You’ll ques­tion the choic­es you make. You’ll try to an­swer those ques­tions. You’ll try to guess the pos­si­ble outcomes.

Filed under Commentary on January 23rd, 2009

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Reader Comments

The Batman wrote:

Nice. I have a large col­lec­tion of Choo John Ven­choe Books from when I was a lad. I en­joyed this one.
Is the cafe­te­ria part a fond mem­o­ry or a pre­dic­tion of fu­ture events?
What does your lack of a pe­ri­od af­ter “irons in the fire” im­ply? Be­ing a sin­gle man writ­ing pes­simistic prose about your pro­fes­sion­al life — a missed pe­ri­od could be devastating.
Keep writ­ing Kyle.

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