Men at Work

Times being what they are, I recently spent a day in a homeless shelter.

Along with a dozen other visitors, I toured Chicago’s 133-year-old Pacific Garden Mission, which recently moved into a large new building. Our guide showed us the three stark dormitories in which guests sleep, the security desk overlooking the staging area in which guests are checked for “things of the world,” the “hot box” in which guests’ clothing is decontaminated overnight.

We met no overnighters, only sharply dressed “program men,” full-time mission residents who devote themselves to a two-year course of bible study and life-skills training.

During dinner, visitors were politely but firmly encouraged to sit in the middle of the mission’s dining hall. This helped to separate female and male residents, important for practical and religious reasons.

At the evening worship service, visitors again seemed to serve as a buffer. Female residents, some with children, many of them milling and chatting, sat on one side of the gymnasium-sized hall, close to the stage. Visitors sat on the other side, also toward the front of the hall. Male residents sat in the very back rows behind us.

As the first notes of a gospel song sounded, I turned to look back at the quiet men sitting behind me. The night’s guests included black men, Latino and white, some leaning to catch more of the far-off service, some enduring the event with downturned heads, some staring glassily into the middle distance, absent with weariness or worry.

I wondered why I wasn’t sitting among them.

For months, I’d been unemployed; previous to that, I’d lent my uncle some seasonal work hauling, cutting and boxing industrial rope in his warehouse. I was in good company, or at least plenty of it: The Bureau of Labor Statistics put the national jobless rate at 9.6% this August, the 16th straight month in which the unemployment rate had exceeded 9%.

That makes this the worst job market in nearly 30 years. And it’s hitting men especially hard. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently found that between December 2007 and January 2010, employment was down 8.2% for American men, but only 3.9% for women.

The Fed study points to losses in the traditionally male-heavy manufacturing and construction sectors as one reason for the gap. It also suggests that more men are coming out of retirement to seek work, often unsuccessfully. And it may well be that the wage gap–the tendency in most sectors for women to be paid less than men for doing the same work–has actually helped protect women’s jobs during the recession.

There’s some justice to the wage-gap idea, and it’s never too late for justice, but the numbers also describe how the ground continues to shift under our feet.

Like most Americans, I was raised to believe that honest effort eventually pays off. As the oldest of three children, raised in the suburbs by parents from the deep South Side of Chicago, I took this lesson to heart at school and in every one of the jobs I’ve had since sneaking into the garage and borrowing a shovel to clear driveways for a dollar a pop (I was seven, and our neighbors were kind).

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American men are encouraged to absorb wage-earning work into their bones, to define themselves by their practical, measurable accomplishments. Our patron saint is John Henry, who died after cutting through a mountain with a pickaxe. The laziest men I’ve met still took pride in their ability to hold a job, or to hustle up a living through their wits.

A man with work to do is a man with a present and future. A man without work is a walking question mark. Question marks can make for lousy fathers and husbands.

Unemployment is especially disorienting for men in our society. For some, the lack of purpose is catastrophic: As savings dwindle and the rent becomes difficult to pay, relationships can break under the strain. After the money’s gone, and the house, and the loved ones, the only thing left to lose is yourself.

Others of us are lucky. I had a few dollars in my pocket at the mission, a roof to put over my head that evening and people to remind me of who I am at my best. In my stretches of self-doubt and worry, I took some sideways hope from the fact that my favorite folks have liked and even loved me for reasons I’ve never been able to fully explain. Why give in to doubt just because the load had gotten a bit heavier?

Along with these good things, perhaps because of them, I still had work, if not wages. A nascent version of this piece, for example, and an increasing schedule of volunteer activities. My job search itself was a full-time occupation, and it led me back to Iowa City, where I soon found myself digging post holes, turning topsoil and planting seeds in a friend’s ambitious new garden. As long as I had the wherewithal to bring something out of nothing–to find meaningful work, even while still looking for a job–I was still in the game.

And soon enough, though you’d have gotten an earful back then if you’d told me it was soon enough, I landed on my feet, back in the town where I’d misspent much of my 20s and gotten the master’s degree that sent me running around the world for a while. Brooklyn was swell, Dubai was Branson Deluxe, Chicago was as comfortable as an old pair of work boots, and Iowa City–though I hadn’t seen it before my 17th birthday–is home.

But what of the growing numbers who have lost faith and friends? Who have lost their ability to make a mark in the world, or have at least lost sight of it?

Some, like many of the quiet men at the evening service, become strangers to themselves. Some of that group, like the mission’s program men, reach out and find new footholds. As America’s employment landscape changes, and with it the traditional ways in which we value ourselves and others, the news and numbers form a sort of memento mori: Each of us is closer than we’d once been to sitting in the back of the hall, grateful for a night’s shelter, lost and slipping and wondering where the next patch of solid ground might lie.

Toward the end of my night at the mission, knowing that I was too close to joining the men at the back to have earned a place apart from them, I tapped my foot with an urge to stand up and join them.

But I had this story to tell, and someone to tell it to. I had work to do.

Paul Seeman is gainfully employed in Iowa City