When I discovered that life was tough, that the system was sick and that no ordinary gainful employment could possibly support a single person living alone in a rented flat, I put my self-respect away to join the skeletons in the closet and went to give myself in at the local employment agency. The institution’s building is a fine example of brutalist architecture, probably designed so as to discourage job seekers from seeking support. Lining the entrance are sickly blue boards advertising employment opportunities. Huddled around them are the smoking and spitting unemployed themselves. Running to and fro and screaming at the top of their lungs are unattended children. I joined the queue, conspicuously well-dressed and with my hair and make-up done, and lit a cigarette to blend in.
The crowded hall of the building branched into several corridors and cupboards with desks staffed by the grumpy looking employed. I couldn’t decide if I required employment assistance, social benefits advice, material deprivation aid or a combination thereof. Most people queued at a desk ambiguously signposted as Information. One can never have too much information, so I joined in. Equipped with a file case of filled-in forms which took me about a week to research and complete, I approached the deeply frowning clerk whose substantial upper body protruded threateningly from behind the safety glass. I opened my mouth to speak, breathed in the unhealthy air and fell into a coughing fit. Convulsing with cough, I handed the clerk my paperwork. Unimpressed, she leafed silently through my forms, added a bunch of more on top of them and gestured me away with disgust.
Inexperienced in the inscrutable ways of the system, I failed to bring my own pen. Finding an available pen in the employment agency is even less likely than finding an employment vacancy there. I scurried through the corridors haunted by ghosts of the unemployed past, present and future, and found nothing. Reduced to begging for a pen from the bulky lady whom I coughed at, I humbly curled into a meek ball of wool – since I was wearing my woollen coat – and asked submissively, Could I please borrow a pen? A red vein the size of the Amazon river popped out on the woman’s forehead. BUT.YOU.MUST.RETURN.IT!! she yelled forbiddingly. I carried my prized possession pressed against my woollen heart away into a nook in the corridor, wary lest someone should rob me of it.
I filled in the forms with considerable effort and re-joined the happy hour queue only to notice that the vein woman was kindly filling in forms for a middle-aged male applicant. Maybe she’s misogynist. Or maybe the man is illiterate. Or maybe everything is all right but she just hates me. I re-approached the clerk and returned the pen the first thing, on which she let out a satisfied low grunt. She immersed herself into the mountain of papers the size of Mount Everest. Without looking up, she barked questioningly, Computers? – I stared. Computers? I vaguely echoed, losing it. – Can you work with computers? the woman gave me an impatient deadly look. – Huh, yes, I guess, I ventured. She scribbled into the special skills field: COMPUTERS. I didn’t realise that computers were such a highly marketable skill.
The dog woman handed me the unemployed ID card and forwarded me to another desk. There ensued another happy hour wait in the dimly lit corridor full of coughing people – since the winter is coming. Despite the cold, ceiling fans were on full blast in the building, probably to prevent people from suffocating in the packed place. Then I was admitted to a small office seating two clerks at one table. The unemployed sitting next to me was just in the middle of performing a dramatic story of his severe allergic reaction to the packing material in the business where he worked, for which reasons he quit the job. His clerk looked unsympathetic, but mine looked positively murderous. I think people hate me. My clerk glanced at my papers, dissatisfied. He processed the forms I got and procured another series for me to fill in. Take it home and come on Tuesday at 9:20, he advised. And so I went.