May was tough for Darlene Williams. Her unemployment benefits ran out.
She paid her rent of $1,116 in June out of the $2,000 left in her life savings.
In July, her church kept a roof over her head. In August, the Actors Fund did.
In September, a friend handed her $1,200.
Now it’s October. The rent’s past due. Williams wobbles on the cliff’s edge.
You would not know it by her bearing, which is regal — shoulders back, spine straight, head held high — or by her cheerful, put-together look. She wears a bright pink sleeveless top, coordinated pink earrings, a black skirt and black slingback high heels.
You also would not see it in her wide, welcoming smile, or in her eyes, which smile too as she looks at you.
Williams smiles and smiles on this day, at the Grove’s holiday hiring fair, where she has come in pursuit of a job that, if she gets it, may last only until Christmas.
She is applying to be a concierge, to give “6-star service” at this upscale “lifestyle center.”
In this job, she would cater to people “valeting” shiny cars, clinking glasses at outdoor cafes, filling their arms with shopping bags.
Williams does not own a car. She shops at the 99 Cents Only store and at Food for Less. She is proud that she can make a $1.69 can of jack mackerel from Ralphs last for four or five meals. (Fry it up with breadcrumbs and red onions, and you’ve got yourself something like a crab cake.)
Being surrounded by plenty would not hurt, she says. “Oh no, because I’d have a job. That would be a merry Christmas.”
The Grove has 20 to 25 jobs available. About 65 people come looking for them. Some are here, too, for seasonal spots at such shops as Tommy Bahama, Pottery Barn Kids, American Girl Place.
In the community room of the Original Farmers Market, as Williams reads the application, many others do the same. Most are young. Quite a few have made no effort to present themselves. They wear beaded short shorts and skin-tight leggings and high-top sneakers and flip-flops.
As Williams fills in the blanks — no salary requirement, just a salary — a young woman in jeans asks her interviewer if she will have to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Williams would rather not give her age. “Can we just say 40-plus?” she asks. Again and again, she has failed to land jobs at places manned by twentysomethings.
Once, Williams performed on the Broadway stage using the name Darlene Bel Grayson. She was in the original ensemble of “Ragtime” and earned $75,000 a year.
Eight years ago, an agent urged her out to Los Angeles. She came with great hope and $25,000 in her savings account. She soon landed two commercials. She was edited out of both. Just pay for the day, nothing more. Then the agent went out of business.
She has since been a receptionist and worked for the U.S. Census. She has cashed out her 401(k).
Target and Starbucks and Ralph’s — she’d be grateful to work at any of them. She has been turned down by all and by Kmart, Ross Dress for Less, Trader Joe’s and so many other places they start to blur.
“You cannot live with a crushed spirit,” she says. She stays positive, but for a moment, before she smiles them away, her eyes well up with tears.
Don’t talk to Williams about Friday’s promising job report. Please, she says, just promise her a job.