The elevator in my office building doesn’t work sometimes. I don’t mean that in the plunging-40-stories-to-a-fiery-death-to-be-covered-in-gruesome-yet-inaccurate-detail-on-CNN-for-the-next-two-weeks sense; after all, I am writing from this side of the grave. It just has a weird glitch. When the elevator stops on, say, 42, on its way to one of the higher floors, it will forget your floor and head back down.
This happened to me the other day on my way to work. I wasn’t paying any attention to the floor numbers counting up or the digital message scrolling by, welcoming me to the building with the personal warmth that only LCD can offer. The elevator stopped; the other person on it got off. The doors closed, and the elevator continued on. When the doors opened again, I got off too.
I held up my wallet to the wall scanner, because, really, who has time these days to actually remove their ID? There are so many better ways to spend that .75 seconds. At the beep, I pushed the glass door. It wouldn’t open… weird. I held up my wallet again, listening specifically for the beep I could’ve just imagined in my morning commuter daze. The scanner beeped, but the door was still locked.
My heart rose up into my throat. I’ve been laid off four times in a little over a decade, and not always tactfully. One company disconnected my phone before informing me that they no longer required my services. Was this one of those moments? I swallowed the sour taste of mouthwash and looked up.
Three older men and one younger women, all conservatively but impeccably dressed, were chatting in the lobby beyond the glass. They didn’t look familiar, probably there for a meeting. Another unfamiliar man in a dark suit walked by. I tried to make eye contact, hoping he would let me in. The woman noticed me instead — middle-aged guy in khakis and polo carrying a backpack. She mouthed, “You don’t work here” and returned to her conversation. The name on the receptionist desk read “Lehman Brothers.” Indeed I didn’t.
I should’ve felt stupid, but I only felt relieved. That relief soon gave way to vague irritation. Didn’t Lehman Brothers go bankrupt in spectacular fashion four years ago? I saw it on TV; it must be true. Yet there it was, the company (or at least its remnants) that helped kick off the financial meltdown and plunge the American economy into crisis, a few floors down from my current employer. That recession sidetracked my career for all of 2009. And the ghost of it still lurks nearby, waiting for me to wander off the elevator at 9:55 on a Tuesday morning.
I didn’t dodge a bullet, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had. My perch in the middle class is reasonably safe. I have a job and a paycheck that covers my expenses, sort of. My kid will eat tonight. My apartment won’t be padlocked tomorrow. But like so many other people, I’m one market meltdown away from a weekly unemployment check (and possibly one election away from losing that too). And this catastrophe is completely beyond my control. One day soon it will just happen… again.
Welcome to the middle class in America.