Last November, I was laid off. Trying to claim state benefits from the NY Department of Labor could only be described as a Kafkaesque nightmare. The websites and phone systems broke down regularly as the sea of jobless New Yorkers swelled. It took me over three days on the ‘help line’ to get through to another living, breathing human being. Next, I received a threatening letter calling me in for obligatory ‘career counseling.’ If I didn’t attend this crucial session my benefits would be terminated.
At the office in downtown Brooklyn, I came face-to-face with a frowning woman sitting at the front desk. It was clear she didn’t like her job or human interaction of any kind. Without eye contact, she thrust a form in my hand saying vaguely, “Take a seat.” I had no idea what I was waiting for or how long it would be. The cloud of dust in the air was probably responsible for the foul moods and general malaise. With the unprecedented crush of newly jobless New Yorkers, the offices badly needed an upgrade and an infusion of positive energy. The latest numbers now show 15.4 million Americans collecting unemployment benefits, a 40-year high—400,000 of them from New York State. I figured the least they could do was give the office a fresh coat of paint to offer some small semblance of hope.
As I daydreamed painting the walls red, a woman appeared. She was a vibrant black woman with a head of tightly-rolled curls radiating around her smiling face. She wore a vermillion sweater with a draping cowl neck and enormous gold earrings. This woman is in charge, I thought to myself. At that moment, I decided I wanted to be in her workshop. She instructed all of us to stand up. I was told to report to classroom number 3.
Like all the others, Room 3 was dreary and comfortless. It didn’t take long for the small space to crowd with people; a sporty young man with a backpack, a polished lady with a briefcase, and a middle-aged matron passed by. We were a wildly diverse mix, but we all had the same expression plastered on our faces—a mixture of fear and dread.
The vibrant woman reappeared like a magic trick. Her electric presence crackled, filling the deadened room with life. She spoke intimately, almost conspiratorially, telling us her name, Melony. Melony closed the door, saying she needed her privacy to speak freely. She continued, “I have my own way of doing things that are a little different than other people in the NY Department of Labor offices. At 52, I’ve had countless jobs over the years. I know what you are going through. I’ve sat where you are sitting now. And I know how difficult it can be when you lose your employment: especially in these trying economic times. But I just want you all to know that at this moment you have an opportunity to redefine yourself. Please, use this time to clarify your dreams.”
She had our attention. “I also want to offer you all a little advice; Treat everyone you meet as positively as you can, and magic things will happen.”
“Every day,” she said, “I go to the same convenience store to get a coffee. The owner of the shop and I have become friends. Just before the holidays, I stopped by his store. He reached behind the counter and said, “I have something for you, don’t open it until Christmas.” I took his mysterious package, thanked him and wished him ‘Happy Holidays.’ Both of us were spending the holidays alone, far from our families. His were thousands of miles away in the Middle East, while mine were in Pittsburgh.”
“I headed over to the post office to get the mail that I had been looking forward to receiving all week. When I arrived, I found that it was closed. I returned home sad that, not only would I not see my family, I would also not have any of their presents to open. When I got home, I remembered the shop owner and his mysterious gift. Inside, I found an elegant box. On Christmas, I opened the lid, and found a sparkling silver bracelet with a pendant that said ‘Mom.’ The homesick shop owner had started calling me that recently. I was so touched by this gift because I had never been able to have any children of my own. His gift was also the only one I received that Christmas, and for that reason it was all the more special.” She smiled and held up her wrist and jangling silver bracelet.
Touched by her story, an embarrassing trickle started streaming down my face. She noticed it and looked at me with motherly concern. Sitting in classroom number 3, I was simply overwhelmed by the unexpected warmth of her spirit. It radiated through the bleak room and penetrated the souls of all us weary people.
On the way out, she mentioned she was a writer, and that one of her essays was about to be published. I helped myself to a photocopy she made available to whoever was interested. She gave me a hug and wished me luck. On the subway home, I retrieved her essay and noticed she used a pen name; Miss Mellie Rainbow. I laughed and thought how fitting it was. Amidst the hopeless doom of the unemployment offices she had emerged from the darkness and dust like a walking ray of light.