The economic downturn had never personally touched me, nor anyone I know, until it touched my best friend, who lost his job last month.
"Al" had worked for Cub Foods in Ames for 12 years. He'd spent the 17 before that with Randall's, which was purchased by Minneapolis-based mega-grocer Supervalu in 1998. (They also own the Cub Foods chain.)
Al started out as a 19 year-old Randall's stocker in 1977, making $3.50 an hour. On September 18th, he was a 52 year-old salaried Cub Foods Department Manager making a comfortable salary, plus good benefits. He'd worked 34 consecutive years in the grocery business.
The next day, it was over.
It ended with a bombshell, exploded on a group of hastily organized store staff by a Cubs' rep dispatched from the Mother ship, detonated from safely behind his Corporate suit.
"After careful analysis, they've decided to close it down."
Al says he almost burst out laughing - because it was so surreal, not so funny.
The culprits were identified, in low whispers: the location had been mismanaged from Minneapolis. The aging store hadn't been remodeled in years. It had never been price competitive with the adjacent Walmart, or the two Hy-Vee's in town, or the second Fareway which opened just down the road, 18 months ago. The economic slowdown had pushed it over the edge.
The staff was given 60 days notice. The lights were turned off and the store doors closed for the last time, on November 7th. The 100,000 square foot shell now sits dark and empty, about two blocks from Al's apartment.
He survives on his severance, and will soon collect unemployment. He hasn't applied for a job since President Carter was in office. His days are filled with waiting, and wondering who will hire a high school graduate who is 10 years away from retirement.
His daughter is scared. So is her father. So is his best friend.
I have known Al since I was 12 years old. We've grown up together, played tennis and golf together, watched Iowa State teams win and lose together, watched each other fall in and out of love together, traveled the country together and shared some of the best, and worst times of our lives together.
We have never been touchy-feely towards each other; our connection has always been through laughter. There is less of it now, and it feels forced, at times. My heart hurts when I see him. I find myself reaching out and touching his shoulder before we part company, or tapping his leg. I want to reassure him. I want to lie, and tell him that everything will be alright. I want to hug him and tell him I love him.
He is my best friend - and one of over 15 million Americans without a job.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.
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