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Nashville Scene Non-Working Stiff

If you've never been unemployed, I highly recommend it.

APRIL 20, 1998:  If you've never been unemployed, I highly recommend it.

Since the closing of the Nashville Banner in late February, I've been receiving a weekly unemployment check, a three-part check with blue printing that arrives usually midweek. It's free money--not much money, but enough to pay my share of the bills.

Several ex-Banner-ites have been reluctant, or maybe too proud, to sign up for it, but my rationale is that unemployment insurance is very likely the only government handout I'll ever see in the event that Social Security dries up, as so many people my age (late 30s) feel it will.

There's no time like the present to be collecting an unemployment check. Statewide, unemployment is so low that lawmakers are considering diverting $16 million from the fund into job training. (Hey guys! If you're giving away the extra cash, check me out!)

My adventure in unemployment began at the newspaper. After the Banner announced it was folding, the Department of Employment Security dispatched a team of counselors. I skipped the lecture on how to pursue a GED or find out more about community college, staying only long enough to find out where and how to file.

The last days at the Banner were zombie-like, surreal and impossible to get your brain around. In just a week, writers and editors had to tie up loose ends, create rsums, interview for jobs, pack up their desks, turn their lives around, and still put out a paper.

I was away on maternity leave when the paper folded, but the fingers of chaos managed to find me. When I returned to the paper to pack up my desk, I found that six months' worth of my archived copies of the "Food" section had been discarded.

If the Banner was surreal, the unemployment office is depressingly real. When the last stories had been filed, the last tacky coffee mugs and pica poles carted off, I found myself seated (with my 3-week-old baby) among the newly jobless in the unemployment office, shell-shocked and filling out paperwork.

You haven't lived until you've recorded the trivial details of your life in triplicate, then sat in uncomfortable chairs along with a dozen other anxious people, waiting for your name to be called. While you wait, you can consider the job prospects for the people around you: a man of indeterminate age with ragged clothes, brogans, and rough hands; a snappily dressed young woman with fingernails far too long for typing; a paunchy, red-faced, 40-ish man; two young, loudmouthed laborers. Or you can thumb through notebooks filled with job listings, or join the Navy, or watch the video that instructs you on the unemployment insurance process.

When your name is called, you receive a droning, canned lecture on the system from a caseworker, who signs you up for your check.

So far, I've used my unemployment check to subsidize a wonderfully slowed-down new life. Instead of aerobics classes squeezed into a lunch hour, now I take elaborately plotted walks into surrounding neighborhoods. Now I amble to the grocery at 10 a.m. and loll about the produce displays, rather than dashing in at 5:30 p.m. to snatch up a package of pork chops. I plan leisurely, multi-course meals that include lots of chopping, two different skillets, and an hour of cooking time. We're rediscovering homemade crpes, calzones from scratch, and long-cooked pot roast.

And I'm totally caught up on my New Yorkers!

I also have begun to notice others in my modest neighborhood who lack any visible means of support. A cavalcade of walkers, cyclists, and joggers cruises the street all day. Last Tuesday, the guy next door washed his car at 10 a.m. An older woman two streets over leaves at midday for a tennis game several times a week. A youngish woman down the block comes and goes in her sports car all day. We wave at each other, each of us undoubtedly wondering, "Does anyone around here work?"

But I must reveal the dark side of unemployment: Each week, we jobless must jump through the hoops, via telephone, and, when it comes to following each and every little tiny rule in the little blue publication entitled Unemployment Insurance Policy Booklet, it's not always easy to stay within the lines, if you catch my drift.

Each week, we jobless call a hotline, punch in a password, and answer questions regarding our employment and income for the previous week. If we worked and were paid, we report how much we made, and some of that money is deducted from the unemployment check. We're also asked whether we received vacation or holiday pay, entered or discontinued training, or received any pension money other than Social Security.

These I can truthfully answer no, no, and no. The issues grow more complex with the questions, "Did you refuse work or quit a job, or were you fired from a job?" and "Were you available and able to work, and looking for work as directed by the department?"

Hmm. There's the rub. Suppose, just theoretically, mind you, that I didn't follow up on an unofficial job offer because the company was over an hour's drive away? Would that be "refusing work"?

Technically speaking, would I have been "unavailable for work" if I had spent a week in March sunning on a Florida beach, toes in the sand, watching my grandmother dandle her new great-grandchild?

Would it be "quitting a job" to abandon a story assignment because I can't haul my infant around to do the necessary research?

As for the survey's key question, "Did you do any work for which you were paid?," this week I'll be reporting "yes." The Scene is saving the state some money. I prefer not to go on record saying how much. When you're a Welfare Queen, you learn to play the system.

Nicki Pendleton was food editor and restaurant reviewer for the Nashville Banner from 1992 until it closed.

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