What did you do when California’s economy collapsed?
In a future time of plenty, our grandchildren will learn about the layoffs, the foreclosures and the high unemployment in history class — and they will ask us what it was like.
I’ll tell them about brilliant friends suddenly without work; about a neighbor who moved to Texas; about the empty, dilapidated house next door. And I’ll remember my conversation with Marisela Norte, an itinerant Angeleno poet and laid-off museum employee whose story was proof that even for some of the jobless, not everything about the hard times was bad.
Norte is well known in the L.A. poetry circuit for her witty, piquant verse. But like most poets, she depended on her day job to make ends meet. For 14 years, she was a fundraiser at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Then, in 2009, she was laid off with about 30 other MOCA employees.
Her bosses, she recalled, called her into an office: “They said, ‘This is hard for us.’ And I said, ‘Really? Then don’t do it!’” Later that weekday morning, she and the others who’d been laid off went to a bar and drank. And a waiter, seeing their giddy mood and the free-flowing alcohol, asked: “Is it someone’s birthday?”
Norte didn’t know it then, but he was on to something. That strange day did mark a sort of rebirth.
Like thousands of other Californians hit by the recession, she’s still looking for a permanent job and sometimes struggles to make ends meet. But just about everything else in her life is better than ever.
She’s doing volunteer work that’s deeply rewarding. She’s lost more than 30 pounds on a new exercise regimen. And she’s been sharing her observations about unemployed life with more than 1,000 friends on Facebook, in a kind of running diary that rarely ceases to find humor in her situation.
“Just got back from the job fair at the Citadel,” she wrote in September. “But by the likes of the crowd, I thought I was at a club. Ladies in stilettos, slits and necklines to here. Is that what you wear to apply for a job? And guys, go easy on the cologne. I’m still dizzy.”
In the pages of this newspaper, you’re no doubt often reminded about what a huge mess we Californians are in. It’s quite depressing and sometimes overwhelming.
But that’s not the full picture. Thousands of people have plowed ahead, forging new paths for themselves, steady jobs be damned. And they’ve become stronger in the process.
“In this time I don’t have a job, my job is to make a better version of myself,” Norte told me.
Not that she felt that way from Day One.
“I was ready to camp out on my sofa with some chips and ‘Oprah,’” Norte said.
She remembers early on walking downtown, feeling deflated. “I would look at people on the street and wonder: Do they know I don’t have a job anymore? Is there something that’s changed about me that they can see?”
Then while walking on the Eastside one day she saw a sign: “Latinos Aerobicos y Yoga.” Her first thought was to take a picture, because she thought it was funny. Her second was to go inside, where she found out exercise dance classes were just $2 an hour.
For years she’d resisted her friends’ suggestions to she work out. Now she never misses a session. And she bikes to class.
“Me, on a bicycle, at 55 years old?” she said. “That’s pretty hard to imagine. But I’m doing it.”
While struggling to make the rent on an unemployment check, she’s also learned to make do with less.
“I did this weird inventory this morning,” Norte told me as we sat in a Boyle Heights cafe. “I had 32 loop earrings. None of them matched. I asked myself, ‘Why do you have these? Did you beat up 32 cholas? You need to streamline.’ I’m keeping two pairs. One gold, one silver.”
She’s hawking some of her stuff on EBay. And between poetry readings at various local campuses, she’s also making granola to sell.
The other day, Norte ran into two artists at an East L.A. supermarket. They asked her how things were at MOCA. She explained she’d been laid off.
“In fact, I came to this market because I’d really like to work here,” Norte said she told her friends. “I can do the graveyard shift. It’s quiet. I can listen to music. I can bring order. I’ll put seven of these cans in a row and I’ll be happy.”
Her friends, she said, were mortified. “Oh my God! You’d work here?” one asked. “With these people?”
“Like which people?” Norte said she replied. “Like the average Joe?”
“I don’t get that lofty stance that says, ‘I’m an artist, I can’t do that,’” she told me. “The day I can’t deal with ‘those people’ is the day something’s wrong with this person.”
Being jobless also has brought her in closer contact with her city. For an artist, that’s priceless. She’s written about witnessing lovers’ quarrels on the street and her experiences at the East L.A. Public Library, where she’s volunteering at the store, sharing her love of literature with whoever comes through the door.
“Amber and her friends came in yesterday and she took home the Bronte poems,” she wrote recently on Facebook. “I told her I was reading ‘Jane Eyre’ at long last and she told me how it was one of her favorite books, which led us to more talk.”
Her post ended with a quote from Bronte: “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”
Marisela Norte wouldn’t have met Amber, read “Jane Eyre” or learned to mambo if she hadn’t lost her job. There’s no space for her optimistic outlook and sense of humor on her resume, but there should be — a truth that surely applies to tens of thousands of others looking for work and for ways to stay positive.
“Very dry martini in one hand and a bottle of Windex in the other, with ‘All About Eve’ as the soundtrack,” Norte wrote recently. “Tidying up the nest in preparation to receive guests tomorrow. Norte, this is your life. Bliss.”