Frontline: Close to Home

[27 October 2009]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor


“I’m a Columbia University graduate. I’m smart. I should be able to stand on my own two feet.” Sitting in a hair salon, Emma looks at herself in the mirror. Her husband Andy sits behind her, nodding. They have a young child, and their personal training company, recently thriving, has fallen on hard times, with business dropped some 40 to 50 percent. Emma has gone back to school, she says, but in the meantime, her mother, Emma says, is “still working because she’s helping us financially with our kids. Of course I feel guilty. She worked her whole life.” Emma sighs, unable to phrase her thoughts exactly. “Why am I even talking about my mother? I’m 40 years old. With this economy, I feel like a child.”

Like many of the subjects in this week’s Frontline, Close to Home, Emma and Andy are surprised to feel uncertain about money. Clients at Deborah’s Hair Designs on New York’s Upper East Side, they’re used to having money, enough of it that they can afford to get their hair colored or trimmed regularly. Now they’re doing it less often. They’ve also cut back on restaurants and vacations and $4 cups of coffee.

Just ask Tracy and Mike, unable to sustain their business, a Queens coffee house called The Grind. Like Emma, she’s come for a haircut, and it’s been a while since her last one. “We did everything we could possibly do to keep it open and create a second home for the community,” Tracy reports. They brought in musicians and artists and tailored their menu for local tastes. Mike is now a salesman at a fitness center, he says, and he’s frustrated that they worked so hard, only to be helpless against larger forces, to end up $200,000 in debt. “It almost deflates your ego when something like that happens. Everything would have worked out if it was a different time.” 

Ofra Bikel’s report is premised on such personal stories, the laments of people who never imagined they’d be in these straits. She arranges for the Frontline crew to spend a week in the salon she’s used for 20 years, listening to Deborah listening, occasionally pressing interviewees for more details. Bikel and her team follow Rob, out of work for a year now. “He talks about his old job with nostalgia,” she says, his old job as a human resources executive. Sitting in his living room, Rob also recalls the morning he was fired “vividly” (“My boss walked in and she closed the door and immediately said the company was having a reduction in force and that I was a part of it”). The camera in his car suggest he’s reenacting that moment of shock, driving home from his office for the last time.  “I stopped the car,” he remembers, as he now does too, the frame tight and low. Bikel notes that in his old position, Rob knew “hundreds of people whom he had the power to hire and fire. He now found himself on the other side of the fence.”

The clichés are profoundly insufficient. The Rob describes the “emotional drain” of job-searching, the energy and hours it takes to research websites, to retool and send resumes. The camera hovers over his shoulder as he taps on his keyboard, alone in his home except for this unseen assembly of workers. Worse, the crew tags along when he attends a series of networking events, as well as a weekly support group, where unemployed members practice the “elevator speech,” 15 seconds worth of self-pitching. Rob heads off to a “whine and dine” session for human resource executives. Bikel observes, “About half of those present are, as they say, ‘in transition,’ they hope between jobs.” Here Rob stands before the group to perform his elevator speech, his face anxious and defeated. Bikel says he “looks tired,” then notes that he has yet another meeting to attend, even as “We decide to call it a night.”

In this and other moments, Close to Home exposes the exhaustion of worrying, in particular, the social and emotional effects on people who “have never had to look for a job.” If the “angle” here is the unexpected cohort—the residents of a neighborhood Bikel calls “one of the most affluent and powerful neighborhoods in America.” Deborah’s own business is in trouble, as clients can’t afford to come in regularly. Her sister Barbara is helping out by answering phones. It turns out that Barbara has her own concerns, “serious ones,” asserts Bikel. In fact, she and her camera team follow Barbara back to Florida for a few days, where the bank is about to foreclose on her house. Crushed by a $236,000 mortgage and 9.25 interest rate, Barbara has taken in four boarders. Introduced one by one, they sit on Barbara’s sofa in front of a television, each overwhelmed by his own sad story of loss—jobs, homes, and family members. Says Mike, recently widowed, unemployed, and homeless, “When you fall out of rhythm like that, man, it’s a bummer.” 

It is a bummer. It’s a bummer that individuals used to being poor feel poorer, and that people unused to loss now feel it. And the spread of such stories doesn’t make anyone feel any better.

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