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Build-A-Story: "I've sent out, what--80 resumes?"

Another 85,000 Americans lost their jobs in December, the Labor Department said last week. On that same day, the Obama Administration acknowledged the December figures were worse than anticipated, throwing chilly water on any hope that an economic recovery is underway. The national unemployment rate is stubbornly firm at 10 percent, and analysts expect that number to rise. The latest numbers have jolted Administration supporters hopeful of trumpeting tangible evidence that the $787 billion stimulus bill has benefited the job market.

You have the cold numbers and factoids there. Yet even the coldest numbers can feel like abstractions. I don't think I know any of the 85,000 who lost their jobs in December, or if I do, they have kept the news to themselves -- just as any of us might do under similar circumstances.

Maybe that's why I found myself listening to a balding, fiftyish man and a woman a few Fridays ago. I was at an athletic club where I occasionally work out. It was the end of a work week and it was late at night, at least 11:00 p.m. The place was virtually empty, as it usually is at that hour on a weekend, with most of the singles crowd out on dates, leaving the workout machines and benches to married, aging stragglers.

I think what first drew my attention was the man's posture; he was bent over while sitting on a bench about 20 feet away, his head bowed in obvious misery. He had abruptly halted his workout. For a moment, I thought he had hurt himself -- a muscle pull perhaps -- but standing over him was a woman, gently rubbing his back and patting his shoulders, and at some point I understood her ministrations were meant to relieve not a physical but some deep emotional pain.

He did not look up at her, and I did not hear much. I resumed my own workout. They talked in muted tones for the most part, probably conscious of my presence, but every now and then, in frustration, the despairing man's voice would rise. "I've sent out, what? Eighty resumes?" Or: "You prove yourself for thirty years and then this? I thought I had a chance with these two. I thought these two were real possibilities here."

I can only guess at what "these two" were. Perhaps two Washington-area companies where he had applied for employment and maybe even received job interviews before being turned down? "You prove yourself for thirty years," he repeated, and the words comported with his appearance: he looked like a fastidious man who had done everything by the book for most of his successful life and now, for whatever reason, he'd had to start over in the job market.

His pain was extraordinary, eased only by his companion, who told him things would turn, that all would be okay. He mentioned something about home, and she said that was all okay there, too: that she had been given plenty of time (it sounded like vacation time) and that she could accompany him to Ohio, where maybe there would be better news after his "meetings" there. "We're going to be fine," she said, and repeated this.

She patted his shoulder again. He patted her hand and held it.

His head never moved -- not for the next 10, 15 minutes. Which is when I left.

I haven't seen the man or woman since, leading me to think they may have been staying at an economy hotel within a couple hundred yards of the club. But because I regularly read the cold numbers and factoids, I know there are thousands and thousands of other Americans like him at this moment, Americans on the road looking for the next job and a bit of hope -- or perhaps some people who, having unsuccessfully searched for months or years, have temporarily given up trying, in need of a break.

I know it's a painful subject. But I'd greatly appreciate the opportunity to talk to anyone going through it. It's an important story. And readers and leaders need to be reminded at every opportunity of the urgency of the problem. You can reach me at leahym@washpost.com
Many thanks.

By Michael Leahy  | January 13, 2010; 9:31 AM ET
Categories:  Build-A-Story  
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