Mondays are always busy at Hartford's job center. By Wednesday, disappointments have started to add up and early week fresh starts have given way to midweek woes about making the rent, paying the car loan and reclaiming lost identities.
"I used to have a business, a house," Jon Baran says, his voice cracking with the anger and frustration of 19 months out of work.
This past Wednesday, not 50 feet from where Baran fumed, U.S. Rep. John Larson and others crowded into a small back room at CTWorks, the front line of Connecticut's growing unemployment ranks, to discuss programs to help the jobless.
The talk was measured, controlled, decidedly hopeful. But talking about joblessness is one thing. Living through it is another — as Larson learned shortly after he walked into the Main Street site. Alice Fino approached, tearfully reminding Larson of the days he'd supported her son's Boy Scout troop and told him that same son is now desperately searching for work.
"Can you help?" she pleaded.
It was striking, unsettling even, how many emotions were packed into that room.
On one side of the spectrum was Baran, a tightly wound package of deferred dreams. On the other, Jean Rene, a young man with enough short-term contract and volunteer work to remain upbeat.
And in the middle, carefully nurturing a fragile optimism, was Emily Palka.
"There's work out there," she said, overhearing Baran's cynicism. "You just have to keep positive and keep looking. But there's work out there." Something about the way she repeated that made me wonder who she was trying to convince more — Baran or herself.
It's scary, she admitted, to realize that suddenly you're making less in a month than you used to in a week, to wonder if you're going to be able to make it. Her car was totaled the other day. But she just took the bus from Windsor to the job center. She can't afford another setback.
By this time, Necco Gamble had made her way from the front desk to where we were talking. Gamble helps people use the computers, sign up for workshops and, the day I visited, coax them down the street to a job fair the Community Renewal Team was holding.
But the reality is that she spends as much time talking people out of the despair that can mean the difference between drowning in depression and finding a job.
It helps that Gamble can relate — she was in the same place after being laid off several years ago. She'd come into the job center, she said, as if it was her job, dressed to the nines, scouring the listings from 9 to closing.
After several months, she lucked out and got a job at the center. But even she knows things were better then. More people walk into the center every day. It's harder to keep her clients from losing faith.
Down the street, at the CRT job fair, hope was filling the room to capacity. Barely an hour after the fair began, one woman with a stack of applications an inch thick told new arrivals about a food service job: $9 an hour, part time, no benefits.
But no one was deterred. The line at her table just kept growing.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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