FACES OF THE BANKRUPTCY : MANUEL ERNESTO ALARCON, 40, SANTA ANA

They were all Orange County employees until the bankruptcy opened a trapdoor beneath them, sending their lives tumbling into uncertainty. The Times told the stories of 50 such workers in March. One year after the bankruptcy, we revisit eight of them below.

Listening to his new boss explain the harsh realities of county budgets and job cuts, Manuel Ernesto Alarcon almost smiled. These words, he thought, sound familiar.

Ten months ago, Alarcon was told his job as a county custodian was over because the government had gone bankrupt. He worried about his house and his future as he left work that last day, but by midyear he was on the job again, this time as a maintenance man for the Orange County Transit Authority.

A few weeks ago, though, his supervisor told Alarcon that he still stands on shaky ground. The bankruptcy, it seems, might cost him a second job.

"They say there might be some cuts [because] so much OCTA money went to the county. But this time, I'm not worried," Alarcon said, chuckling. "The way life is, if you get laid off--well, you find another job. I just say: 'Thank God I am working right now.' "

Life, Alarcon said, has taught him that people should not be distraught about things beyond their control. He said he cannot pretend to understand the events that led Orange County to declare bankruptcy a year ago ("They have no money? How does that happen?") or the side effects on OCTA budgets, so he will not worry himself about it.

"The county still sends me letters, these updates, but I just tear them up or hand them to my wife," he said. "I worry myself about paying my bills. My father told me a man must always work, he must put food on the table. That is what I worry about."

His job lasts long into the night. Alarcon is among the crews that clean and service the county's fleet of buses each night. He sweeps out the buses, scans the seats and windows for gum or graffiti, then checks under the hood for low fluids and engine problems.

"All to keep the buses running and clean, for all the people in Orange County, you know?"

Alarcon has no children. His wife is a drug and alcohol abuse counselor, and her salary, along with his unemployment check, carried them through the lean months when he was looking for work. He said he was excited to land the OCTA job, but still misses the post he had at the county.

"It was one of the best jobs I have ever had."

One some nights, his county job had him sweeping floors in the spartan corridors of the county jail, or emptying trash at the government's administrative building. Even on work nights at the coroner's office, among the still bodies lying beneath white sheets and bright lights, Alarcon enjoyed his labors.

"It was always interesting, and I always liked most of the people I worked with, so what job could be better, right? I didn't like seeing the dead people, it's not natural to see dead bodies. But it was a good job."

If he can hold onto his post at OCTA, Alarcon hopes he can use it as a platform to a bus driving job that can carry him through to retirement. He wants to take the classes OCTA offers for that type of promotion, but he would gladly trade that all in to resume his old post with the county.

"I did that for six years, and I liked it. Then they sent me out because the big shots made mistakes. If they fix those mistakes, I would love to go back."

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