Monday, January 12, 2009

Jobless yet still afloat. Literally.

There’s something surreal about applying for your weekly unemployment benefits from a cruise ship docked at the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

But don’t think I’m some goldbricker conning the system. The mostly non-refundable trip had been booked more than a year before I was laid off. My choice was either to cancel and lose all but a few hundred dollars of what my wife and I had already paid, or to invest a few dollars more and proceed despite being unemployed. When I realized the added money was what we’d spend on groceries if I didn’t set sail on the floating feed trough, it was a no-brainer. Off we went last Saturday on a weeklong cruise.

It was not a comfortable experience, largely because of the guilt. But I popped for the ship-to-shore internet package so I could field e-mails, send out resumes, and add posts to my career-related blog, Restaurant Reality Check. I rationalized it as a floating busman’s holiday, and tried to learn as much as I could about Caribbean food, a knowledge that could make me more valuable within my field.

I can’t deny that I enjoyed leaving the penguin-pleasing weather of New York for a few days of sun and warmth. But even more delicious was the break from unrelenting news of financial Armageddon. One of the drawbacks of a cruise ship—and there are plenty, trust me—is foregoing a daily newspaper. When I finally got my hands on a New York Times a week after leaving San Juan, I was immediately thrown into a Muddy Waters-scale funk. The lead story was about the biblical spike in unemployment during December. Buried among the business stories was a heartbreaker about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer facing a likely demise, at least in paper-and-ink form, by the end of this month. The piece noted that the Rocky Mountain News faces a similar plight.

Today brought a Times column by Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman about the Obama team’s expectations for the economy. John Lee Hooker couldn’t have elicited more pathos. I can’t understand why the study and reports cited by Krugman weren’t front-page news. As he recounted, the President-Elect’s financial brain trust expects the incoming administration’s recovery package at best to freeze current conditions for almost two years. That means two years of unemployment exceeding 7%. For someone who’s part of that figure right now, the news wasn’t exactly welcomed. I started humming gospel tunes.

If I have to tread water for two years, or until I’m nearly on the cusp of retirement, I think I’d rather head back to the islands and start a steel-drum brand--if I could find some institution willing to lend me the start-up capital.

The escape from the bleak financial news wasn’t complete during my Caribbean sojourn. In Antigua, locals pointed out a luxury resort that was scheduled to be open for the current season. But its backers had apparently lost all their dough in the Icelandic banking crisis, and hundreds of people had to forego choice jobs they believed would be theirs. Similarly, someone in Barbados pointed out a waterfront condominium complex, encompassing dozens if not hundreds of units, that was on the market for a mere $14 million. Normally, said a local cab driver, that much money would be generated by the sale of just two apartments.

And then there was the fellow passenger who was fired via e-mail while he was still on board. His response was either foolhardy or admirable, depending on your perspective. He immediately went to Guest Services and asked if accommodations were available on the cruise that commenced the day ours ended, so he could stay a-sea.

I wonder how he’d feel about joining a steel-drum band.

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