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“I Had a Great Future Behind Me”

This winter, as headlines around the country trumpeted the comeback of the economy, 47-year-old Jost Lunstroth entered his eighth month without a job. Like thousands of other formerly successful Texans, he's found himself mired and humiliated in the harrowing new world of unemployment— with no end in sight.

By February 2004Comments

SOMETIME LAST SUMMER I BEGAN to notice that my friend Jost Lunstroth had developed a verbal tic. He would suggest a time to meet for lunch and then punctuate the invitation with “Does that make sense?” Or he’d suggest an alternate route for walking our dogs around the neighborhood and ask the same question: “Does that make sense?” He would try to simplify the technical aspects of some job he had held in the past, and there it would be, springing from his lips afresh: “Does that make sense?” The question, I finally realized, was an outer manifestation of Jost’s inner turmoil. A technology consultant, he’d lost his job in May and could not find another one.

Jost was always one of my more genial neighbors—an irrepressible tinkerer married to a patient, loving wife, a devoted dad who helped build a raft of plastic pop bottles to float down the bayou for his daughter’s Indian Princess tribe, a good-natured colleague who used a rueful laugh to get through the absurdities of the workday. But then, for Jost, there were no more workdays. His weekdays and weekends had blurred into one long, uninterrupted, seemingly infinite chasm of free time. I’d catch him puttering around his house in cargo shorts and a T-shirt in the afternoons, raking his sable-hued hair away from his quizzical face, steadying his wire-rimmed glasses on his noble nose, occupying himself by painting trim that didn’t really need painting or waxing floors that were already gleaming. At first I thought of Jost as being between jobs—so did he—and in fact, after losing one job last spring, he’d gotten another right away. But then that position evaporated too, and a few weeks of unemployment began to stretch, languidly and insidiously, into months. Eight of them so far.

It wasn’t long before Jost stopped appreciating the “gift” of free afternoons with his seven-year-old son and evenings devoted to homework with his twelve-year-old daughter. He wanted to get back to work but instead found himself trapped in a grown-up version of musical chairs, in which there was, suddenly, no spot for him. Once, he’d been overwhelmed with work, serving as the point man for myriad companies—half marketing executive, half tech guru—helping them to integrate their old identities with their new Internet presence. Jost was connected 24-7, armed with the requisite cell phone, BlackBerry, laptop, and frequent-flier plan. Now, he sent out résumés and no one responded. He hustled for interviews and no one called. He imagined all sorts of slights and snubs from his working friends. All day, every day, he navigated the waves of his own panic: His unemployment checks would cease in February; his daughter’s private-school tuition would remain at $10,000 a year; he and his wife, Rebecca, were borrowing from savings they’d put aside for the kids’ college and their retirement. How was he supposed to do that math?

Jost’s state of affairs struck him as not just nonsensical but incomprehensible. He was a white male, 47, who had voted, in equal measure, for Republicans and Democrats. Until last year, he and his wife brought in a combined income in the low six figures, which allowed them to settle, with their children, into a nice home in a nice Houston neighborhood. His family enjoyed New Mexico ski vacations and Caribbean cruises. Dinner out at will. Fun money for the kids. And then, through some seemingly inexplicable changes in the economic climate, the Lunstroths’ tide of prosperity began to recede, until Jost began to fear it would evaporate entirely. “I’m trying not to become a cynic,” he told me one day last fall, in a sharp, flat tone I’d never heard him use before.

Jost was not alone. In the past year, I’d seen other dads—up the block, around the state, across the country—in the same situation. Most of them were in their forties, white, and educated; they were used to making good salaries and contributing their share to society. They were men who should have been at the peak of their power and ability who were, instead, chronically out of work, ever-present at after-school pickup and PTA meetings. With the dubious luxury of ample free time, they were forced to rethink their life plans and to wonder whether the order they had worked so hard to establish was always as illusory as it seemed today.

The most optimistic economic reports claim that these men will be back at work by spring. (“The phrase ‘jobless recovery’ may no longer apply,” heralded the Houston Chronicle in November.) But the strength of this recovery remains uncertain. Employers are still reluctant to bring on new employees; any working person knows that companies are doing more with fewer people to keep profits healthy. The recent job growth trumpeted by the administration is mainly in lower-paying service jobs (restaurants, retail) and in temporary work. Many manufacturing and low-end tech positions have been shipped overseas. A large number of people whose unemployment benefits have run out are now reported in government statistics as working, not as people who have given up looking. In Texas, uncertainty over the energy business continues to limit innovation and expansion.

What has changed for certain in the past few years—the years of this latest economic downturn, from 2000 until now—is the world of unemployment. Like everything else in this country, it’s been altered by the values and (former) affluence of the people who’ve joined it; it’s more mechanized, more modernized, more exploitative, and more socially stratified than before. It is an alternate universe full of predatory recruiters and capricious employers, with religion and technology taking on brave new roles. The only means of escape—finding a job—requires formidable persistence, herculean stoicism, and a nearly boundless supply of cockeyed optimism. Just ask Jost.

LAST AUGUST JOST STARTED KEEPING a blog to give some order to his life. He called it “I Had a Great Future Behind Me.” “Sent out boatloads of résumés and made tons of calls,” he wrote in his online journal. “No callbacks and no interviews. It is a very strange feeling to be a few years from fifty and to not be employable.”

By then he had been out of work for three months. In that time Jost tried to launch an interactive map company for downtown businesses and continued to volunteer for Bill White’s mayoral campaign, realizing that his lifelong enthusiasm for politics might now turn up a job lead. Still, he found nothing. He supplemented his white-collar search with a blue-collar search by applying for a shift leader’s job at a Coca-Cola plant. “I figured what the hell,” he wrote. “I filled out the application along with a bunch of unemployed folks. Most looked like manual-labor types, but there was another guy like me—white, well-dressed, professional-looking. The most depressing thing in the world was when the lady behind the bulletproof partition took my application, did not even look at it, and said, ‘They will call you if they are interested.'” They weren’t. Jost applied for work as a waiter at a catering company—no thanks. He offered to work as a substitute teacher for the Houston Independent School District and was told they weren’t accepting any more applications. “Thanks for everything, George and Dick,” Jost wrote in his blog.

If you are like most people, your first instinct would be to distance yourself from someone in Jost’s situation, to assume that he had done something that rendered him unemployable or that he could find a job if he really wanted to—anything to reassure yourself that you could never end up in his predicament. Jost’s work history, however, shows nothing of the kind. Until the past year or so, he worked steadily all his life. “I have done everything right,” he typed in his blog. “College, obey the laws, work hard, honest, good father and husband, good neighbor and friend, just no job and no prospects.”

Jost grew up in a struggling neighborhood near downtown Houston, where the air is scented with the aroma of coffee from a nearby plant. He was the son of an inventor and an actress; there were four kids and little money. Jost worked: cutting grass, throwing newspapers, stacking cans in a local grocery store, selling seeds door-to-door. He wanted to go to college to become a civil rights lawyer but instead found himself, at the height of the oil boom, an assistant manager at Tony’s restaurant. He stayed six years, becoming a trusted lieutenant to one of the most demanding employers in town. In 1987 he married Rebecca Black, a clear-eyed, strong-willed beauty from Pittsburgh, a lawyer who soon joined Shell Oil Company’s human resources department.

Adjusting to each other, the Lunstroths, like most couples, fell into a pattern. Rebecca, the pragmatist, became the stable one, the spouse whose corporate job provided financial stability. Jost, irreverent and excitable, was then free to pursue a riskier entrepreneurial strategy, hoping for a big payoff down the road. When Rebecca was transferred to New Orleans, for instance, Jost returned to the college education he’d abandoned in Houston, interned at IBM, and talked his way into a night job with a prominent catering firm. When Shell transferred Rebecca to Southern California, Jost graduated from Cal State, sold computer systems, and became the associate director of the Orange County Medical Association. He kept that job for five years, teaching himself about the Internet on the eve of the tech boom. “We were one of the first county medical associations with a Web site,” he told me over coffee one day, with the conviction of a man who had spent too much time reciting the high points of his résumé. In 1998, after a stint in Connecticut—Oxford Health Plans, Bayer Pharmaceuticals—the Lunstroths were happily returned to Houston by Shell. Jost got a job marrying Halliburton’s Internet presence with that of Dresser Industries after the two companies merged.

Within a decade or so, then, the Lunstroths had hoisted themselves into the upper middle class. Their daughter, Emily, and son, Jack, wanted for little. They had a lovely three-thousand-square-foot restored home in Woodland Heights, near downtown, circa 1910, with a generous front porch, a modern kitchen, a Jacuzzi in the master bath, and plenty of room for the kids. The mortgage was a stretch, but Rebecca was advancing at Shell, and Jost had an offer that looked even more promising than his job at Halliburton.

It was a pivotal moment, though no one could see it then. At just about the time, in Jost’s words, “that things were getting freaky,” he jumped to a dot-com. It faltered, so he left to open his own business, called ContractorAccess, which was basically a virtual project manager. (Builders could buy products, financial planning, and so on online.) Jost raised $250,000 in seed money in the first few months of 2000, but then the Internet bubble burst, and the business stalled. Jost paid off ContractorAccess’s debts, closed it in the fall of that year, and didn’t look back. He didn’t think he’d have a problem rejoining the corporate world.

He was wrong. In the time it took Jost to close his business—from late fall to early spring 2001—unemployment in Texas jumped from around 3.8 percent to 4.3. Jost looked for work unsuccessfully for three months and finally had to file for unemployment. The Lunstroths, like most American families, couldn’t cover their expenses on one income.

As it turned out, this first visit to the world of unemployment was more like a three-day weekend than an extended stay. Jost was there just long enough to learn that filing for benefits had been upgraded since the tech boom. He didn’t have to go downtown to stand in line with the shuffling, defeated poor; he could keep in touch either online or by phone, assuring a bored operator that, yes, he was out of work and continuing to look for it.

Within a few weeks, Jost found work with a small company hired by a division of Exxon to expand and improve its Internet presence. He was back in a suit, back on airplanes, reintegrated into the working world. The Exxon contract was also a lucky break for Rebecca. For fourteen years, she had been the family’s economic rock, but she was tired of that role. She felt like a corporate drone and wanted to find a way to make a difference in people’s lives. Fortunately—for Rebecca—Shell was trying to cut costs by offering early-retirement packages in 2001. She could take one and find herself while Jost took over the heavy lifting. The Lunstroths met with a financial adviser and set up a budget for living on one income. Their realtor assured them that they could clear $150,000 profit on their house, enough to buy a smaller home in a more modest neighborhood. There was even money to send Emily to private school; they worried that she’d get lost in Houston’s crowded public middle schools. “It was the first time in our marriage that we’d ever planned anything,” Jost told me, allowing irony to steal into his voice. “We’d just lurched through life and done okay before then.”

In April 2002 they put their house on the market. Rebecca left Shell the first week in June, intending to start the University of Texas Medical School’s medical humanities program in the fall. Grateful and proud, Jost threw a party in her honor. Very soon after, Jost’s boss called him in and told him Exxon had canceled the contract. After a year and a half among the gainfully employed, he was out of work again.

From the summer of 2002 through the following spring, I imagined Jost as a character in a darkly comic sitcom, like Homer Simpson (one of his favorite characters) starring in a Twilight Zone episode. This was because Jost kept up a good front, cracking jokes and telling zany stories at his own expense, a shtick that diverted from the principle narrative, the one in which he was slowly going broke. Because he migrated toward good news, each new opportunity started with great and contagious promise.

Team Encounter, for instance, was a company devoted to commercial space ventures. It had a $6 million grant from NASA and the backing of David Hannah, one of the original space privateers. The company’s great innovation was a giant sail in outer space that would be used for various business purposes. Jost was hired to create an Internet identity that would inspire customers to send everything from inspirational messages to cremains into the void—where, for a fee, they would be stored on Team Encounter’s football-field-size floating sail, forever. (“Join celebrities and more than 100,000 other people from 565 countries in this mission to the stars,” declared the promotional material, “for as little as $24.95.”) But it wasn’t long—six months—before a major backer pulled in the reins, and Jost was laid off with two weeks’ notice.

Luckily, Jost found a new job during that time with a foreign medical researcher who spoke in heavily accented, excitable English. He too had legitimate support, this time from prominent doctors at the Texas Medical Center and the Texas Heart Institute. Jost was hired to create an online presence that would promote the researcher’s new technique for preventing heart disease. He had a grand, global vision that included a simple test that could be used in grocery stores, much like the blood pressure monitors available today. But as before, Jost’s passion for innovation—”The work was cool as hell,” he told me—blinded him to potential problems, specifically that he had landed in a high-tech sweatshop. No one on the staff was being paid to work around the clock, as the researcher demanded. When Jost complained that he had not yet received his promised contract, which guaranteed his paycheck, the researcher responded with angry e-mails questioning Jost’s dedication to the cause. After six weeks with no contract and increasingly abusive behavior, Jost quit. (He was paid eventually, after discussing his situation with executives at the Texas Heart Institute. The researcher left the medical center at around the same time.)

It was May of 2003, and Jost had run out of lucky breaks. The tech world he had once loved had turned on him. He had no income, and neither did his wife. The Houston real estate market, like the economy, was slumping, and their beloved home had become an albatross. The realtor hosted multiple showings but drew only one offer, a lowball. Maybe this was a good thing, Jost told himself in the middle of the night; if someone actually bought the house, he wasn’t sure they could get a loan for a new one.

He returned to the unemployment rolls, scoured Web sites like Yahoo’s Hotjobs and monster.com for work, and tried to avoid the worst recruiters, the owners of “body shops” who’d try to hijack his résumé off the Internet to send to prospective employers, hoping to cadge a fee if Jost got a job. “All we unemployed souls can do is send our résumés electronically to some virtual place and hope that it stands out from the other thousands that have been sent in by others,” he wrote in his blog. “No one to call, no one to tell us, falsely perhaps, but better than nothing, that our résumé is on file and that someone will be in touch.”

One night, Jost overheard his daughter describing him to a friend as her “computer-geek father who does not have a job.” He wasn’t sure which hurt more, being a geek or being jobless.

UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES, IT WOULD NOT have occurred to Jost to turn to Christianity for help. First of all, he is Jewish, and second, he had already sought and failed to find help at his own religious institution. “They didn’t think Jews got laid off,” he said of his temple. But then a Muslim friend told him about the Between Jobs Ministry (BJM), located in a church just north of Houston, in Spring. Many local churches had seen the benefit of employment services during hard times—they boosted membership—but Northwest Bible Church, which housed BJM, was by far the biggest and most zealous, with more than two thousand members. Resigned to the fact that nothing else was working, Jost decided to visit the ministry one morning last September. He was so nervous about showing up at an evangelical church that he had to pull over and take a short nap before going in.

The sanctuary, located inside a modest A-frame building nestled in a grove of pines across from a skating rink, had seats for about four hundred, but only about one hundred were filled when Jost arrived. Waiting for the meeting to begin, he flipped through the packet of information he’d been handed at the door, a series of flyers packed into a Ziploc bag. A red flyer contained the ministry’s mission statement (“To assist in all areas of a person’s life as they are involved in a job search”). A bright yellow pamphlet contained interview tips. A beige sheet suggested “Forty Ways for ‘Between Jobbers’ to Bolster Their Financial Future,” which included avoiding ATMs, lottery tickets, and e-trades. (“Buy and hold for forty days,” the pamphlet advised.) The remaining sheets were religious tracts, which Jost ignored.

At nine-thirty, a pale, reedy man took the pulpit and welcomed the crowd that was slowly filling the sanctuary’s metal folding chairs. Jost spied Indians, Asians, blacks, and Hispanics—men and women—but the majority of the guests looked just like him. The church was filling up with white guys of a certain age, dressed for Casual Friday, bearing cell phones and soft briefcases. Like Jost, they shifted uneasily in their seats as the pastor, Roy Farmer, began to speak. The scene was not unlike a Depression-era soup kitchen, but instead of supper following the sermon there were job leads, and instead of hobos there were former engineers and software developers.

Farmer said that the idea for the ministry came to him at three o’clock one morning eleven years ago, when “the Lord laid on my heart and gave me a vision.” That vision was to create a ministry to bolster the sagging egos of his unemployed parishioners. Not much happened until the tech crash of 2000 and Enron’s collapse in 2001, but then, Farmer recounted, “The thing exploded.” While most churches took a low-key approach to job counseling, BJM offered day-long sessions to teach people interview and résumé-writing skills, and members created a Web-based job bank. “I don’t care what the world tells you,” Farmer insisted. “You are special. And today, more than five hundred people have agreed to help you find a job.” Jost looked around. It was ten-thirty, and every seat was full. Jobless people stood against the walls, two or three deep. He would later learn that BJM regulars came late, just as the sermon was ending and the networking sessions were beginning.

Jost scanned the confidential BJM pamphlet with its five hundred exclusive job listings, pocketed a free box of “Holy Altoids” (“A sheer killer in an interview is bad breath,” Farmer preached), and stayed on to work on his interview skills. He left feeling strangely hopeful. He wasn’t alone.

In his home office later that day, Jost logged on to the BJM message board expecting to survey its job listings but surfing instead into a squall of prayer requests. One, for instance, came from a man with a master’s degree who had been looking for a job for two years. Just as he decided to go back to school for a doctorate, he found a contract job with hourly pay and no benefits. He took it. “I thought maybe God wanted me to go back to work instead of school . . . I appreciate all the prayers you have given me during the last two years,” the man wrote.

Jost kept surfing, his desperation growing, until he found someone who had actually found a full-time job. “Please feel free to share this message with other BJMers,” he wrote. “My schedule is quickly filling up, but I am willing to help others in their search when possible. . . . Also, a special thank you to those who have been praying for me during this time. I will continue to pray that BJMers find fulfilling positions soon.”

Jost had just a few questions. What if two people from the group were up for the same job and both prayed to God for it? Did God pick one over the other or just ignore both?

Was he starting to lose his mind?

IN OCTOBER JOST FINALLY GOT TWO job interviews, his first in five months: One was with Questia, the online encyclopedia once associated with Enron. The other was a temporary position to replace a woman at Texas Instruments while she was on maternity leave. It was, of course, a contract job.

Being a temporary worker had seemed a great idea when Jost was assisting Exxon—he was free of the calcified corporate bureaucracy, and in those days, short-term jobs paid extremely well. But now he was experiencing the downside. Once, anyone who was breathing was hired as contract labor. Now, with so many people on the market, companies wanted to interview all the available talent before filling a temporary position—and then they wanted to keep looking for someone better. Still, the recruiter made it sound like this job—managing TI’s online store—might lead to something permanent. The position was billed as “E-business manager with a multinational.” Jost was excited. “This is not just a keep-the-chair-warm gig,” he wrote in his blog. “They want strategy and ideas and work.”

Just before Halloween, the recruiter called Jost for prescreening, an interview to determine whether he could be passed on to the company for an interview. Even though the meeting was conducted over the phone, Jost was dressed nicely, in a button-down shirt and khakis. “I’m available if it’s the right position,” he told the recruiter crisply. He listened, cradled the phone to his left ear, and poured himself a cup of coffee. “I’d like to get $35 an hour plus.” He listened some more. “Oh, okay,” he said. “A four-day workweek would be fine.” The money was already shrinking.

Describing the job, the recruiter confided that she had also placed the woman he’d be replacing. “Oh, interesting,” Jost said. “A contractor replacing a contractor.” The job, she warned, was loosely defined, scaring off some people. “That’s good for me, because I thrive in unstructured environments,” Jost chirped.

He aced the interview. The recruiter called a few days later to tell Jost she was forwarding his name to the company’s HR department and recommending they speak with him. In the meantime, Jost occupied himself by talking to a neighborhood group on behalf of Bill White. For just an instant, he felt like a normal working man again: “The audience listening to your words and watching for mistakes, the mind searching for the perfect phrase, just the right answer to their questions or just the right humorous phrase to make them laugh,” he wrote. “One of the worst things about being unemployed is losing touch with the part of you that works, that thinks about things and interacts with other professionals. The part of you that . . . knows how to solve problems . . . I miss the race and want back in.”

TI’s recruiter was scheduled to call at eleven-thirty a few days later. Again, the phone call was a time saver for the employer—no use meeting someone in person if he was a dud on the phone. “I hate these,” Jost told me as we stared at the phone on his dining room table. “I did a phone interview with eight people in the room once.” The phone rang. “This is Jost,” he said sharply, as if he were in a nice corner office.

Outside, it was a lovely fall day, the streets dotted with colored leaves and fallen acorns, the light yellow and soft. But Jost was much more interested in the world of cramped cubicles and beeping phones. As the woman described her company’s online store—the one Jost might get to manage temporarily—he took diligent notes on a pad emblazoned with the name of a cholesterol-reducing drug. Rebecca had brought the pad home from her part-time work with a medical ethicist; in addition to her studies, she now had three part-time jobs.

“And this is a public Web site,” Jost asked, “open to the public?” The woman said it was. “Oh, wow. Okay,” he said. “And it’s a service differentiator as well?” He took some more notes. “Rrrright,” he said. She asked about a particular kind of technical expertise. “Have done and interests me,” he answered, upbeat.

The interviewer asked about his experience; she was worried that Jost had never managed a large online store before. He explained that at Team Encounter, he had worked to get as many people as possible to buy the online space kit. The woman on the other end of the line grew quiet. What, exactly, did Team Encounter do again? Jost stared out the window and gathered his thoughts. “It was basically a sail in space,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s just a fascinating story, and the vision is just incredible. People around the world purchased our kits.” Then Jost reminded her that he had also consulted for Halliburton and Bayer.

Well, the woman said, she was very excited after talking with him. Jost said he was excited after talking with her. “From what I’ve heard about you guys, there’s a lot of room for pushing the envelope in terms of creativity,” he said. He paced the floor while he spoke, but his step was lighter. “Yeah, I understand that it’s a short-term engagement and you want to be sure nothing goes seriously wrong in that period of time,” he added.

The woman on the other end of the line promised to move Jost to the final round the minute she got off the phone. Jost hung up, thrilled. There was just one more hurdle between himself and a job, albeit a temporary one. He would have to meet the executive he was scheduled to replace. “It’s up to her to decide how I will fit in,” he said. “She’s going to decide, ‘Is he gonna screw things up for me?'”

Taking nothing for granted, Jost returned to BJM for more networking. He met with about sixty people in one of the Sunday school classrooms, a group of unemployed men and women who could have been mistaken for the PTA of a prosperous suburban high school. This session was supposed to facilitate networking. Everyone stood up and sold themselves in what BJMers call a 30-Second Commercial: “I’m so and so, and I have a proven record of meeting goals,” for example, or “I build business solutions for large companies.” Then, if someone knew someone at a company someone else was interested in, they were supposed to speak up, and the contact was listed on a white board. That day Jost served as the group’s recording secretary.

Their stories were a microcosm of American unemployment: Tech people were out of work because of the industry’s contraction. A kid in his early twenties needed contacts at Wal-Mart because he was a toymaker and had heard the corporate giant was going to start making its own. “They’ll own that soon too,” someone cracked. An out-of-work engineer predicted more jobs in oil and gas. “Now is the time to get positioned in the energy business. Don’t give up on it,” he urged. A nicely dressed middle-aged woman announced that Halliburton was hiring people to go to Iraq for $100 an hour for six-month stays. Her hiring tip—an inspirational requirement for these sessions—was “to stay open to new ideas,” but no one seemed open to Baghdad yet.

Finally, it was Jost’s turn. He’d been standing at the board for the past hour, making connections for others. Now he clutched a bright-green marker, pushed up his sleeves, and gave it his all. “I’m Jost Lunstroth, and I develop effective solutions for communication challenges,” he said, rat-a-tat-tat. Then he paraphrased a recommendation from a co-worker during the days he’d worked steadily at Halliburton: “I can walk into a room and see that there is one guy with vanilla ice cream, another with whipped cream, another with cherries, and one guy with hot fudge. Each is happy by himself. But I can envision that with the right container, these guys could get together and make a sundae.” The group leader nodded approvingly. Were there companies Jost would like to target for his job search? he asked.

“Anyone who has money in the bank,” Jost answered.

That night, he logged on to BJM’s chat room and posted a notice. “I am a bit embarrassed doing this, but here goes . . . Can you think of me over the next few days? As a Jew, I cannot rightfully ask for your prayers, but I can ask for your positive thoughts and energy. After being unemployed for six months without an interview and the bank account getting very small and the stress growing, I have two interviews this week . . . One job is as an analyst for a local outfit and the other is a fill-in e-business manager for a multinational company. The latter will last around four months, until the person returns from maternity leave. But both have benefits. Be nice to know that I can take the kids to the doctor if they get sick.”

A few days later, he was turned down for the Questia job as overqualified. Then, Rebecca called from the parking lot of Emily’s school. Their twelve-year-old Mitsubishi Montero had been acting up—the warning lights on the dashboard had been blinking like terrorist threats—and now the car wouldn’t move at all. Rebecca listed the symptoms, and Jost deduced that the problem was the fan belt. Like any competent husband and father, he drove the other car to AutoZone and bought one.

He was fine until he got to the school parking lot and found himself surrounded by all those Mercedes, Escalades, and Lexuses, and those thirteen-year-old girls, the exceedingly pretty ones with their impeccable orthodontia and unmistakable, unshakable, out-of-my-way confidence. Jost moved toward the hood, but he couldn’t bring himself to open it. If he opened the hood, he would be revealing his underleveraged status to the world. I’m broke and I have to fix this beat-up car in front of my daughter’s school! If he opened the hood, the buttoned-down, briefcase-wielding, once competent Jost would vanish. Forever.

He called a tow truck. “Whoa, there’s some serious damage here,” the mechanic said when he arrived. The good news was that the problem was the crankshaft, not the fan belt—Jost couldn’t have fixed it if he’d wanted to. The bad news was that he had no idea how he would pay for the repairs. The trussed, rusted Mitsubishi was dragged away, and Jost, being Jost, spared himself the metaphor.

INTERVIEWING WHILE UNEMPLOYED, JOST THOUGHT, was like trying to pick up a girl in a bar. When you are there specifically to pick up girls, they can sense it and avoid you like the plague. But women can’t resist someone who’s already attached. Jost ruminated on this notion while he drove the fifteen miles to his final interview, a drive he’d make gladly if he got the job at TI.

The woman he might temporarily replace was in her mid-thirties, and harried. She escorted Jost into a tiny conference room crammed with a table and chairs. A window looked out into a hallway, and her eyes kept darting past Jost’s to the people passing by. He felt a slight crack in his psyche, a fissure opening in his confidence. The woman had wanted to meet at 1:30; fine, Jost had told her, but he’d have to leave by 2:30 to pick up Jack from school. No problem, she’d said—the interview shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes.

But she was a talker. Jost started sneaking glances at his watch as his departure time approached. She hadn’t asked him one question about himself by 2:00. Jost’s mind wandered to his worries: Should he stop the interview to call Rebecca to fetch Jack? What if the interview went way past its scheduled time and Jack was left to wander alone on the playground? When Jost tuned back in, the woman was droning on about Excel spreadsheets. 2:30. Politely, he tried to break in but couldn’t get her to focus on him. Was she talking about Excel because she was already training him? Or was she just blathering because she’d already decided against him?

It was 2:45. She was still going. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But I have to leave.” He pushed back from the table, stood up, and tried to salvage the interview with a trick he’d learned at BJM. Jost asked her to list his strengths and weaknesses—in other words, to share any concerns about hiring him so he could address them and leave her with what he called “a positive takeaway.” Well, she said, Jost hadn’t really managed a large online store before, but he did have every other skill they needed.

He left feeling clueless. It’s not like I’m a fill-in CEO, he told himself. It’s a middle-management job. Then he realized he didn’t know whether the job was even middle management or not.

It didn’t matter. By the time a week had passed, Jost knew the job wasn’t his; he wouldn’t be filling in for the fill-in. The recruiter never called to tell him so in person. “She just sent me an e-mail,” he said.

At least Jost had a few new prospects. His neighbor, also unemployed, had started a business selling outdoor lighting. He thought Jost would make a great salesman for the product. Jost also had a line on a Web job at the University of Houston and the possibility of a tech job in Fort Worth, though they wouldn’t pay his travel expenses to the interview. “All this good stuff is going to happen at once,” he assured me. I sincerely hoped he was right.

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