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Feeling the Job-Cut Blues? Gotta Run for the Borders
The quest for music that matches the mood, courtesy of the local superstore.

The Washington Post
October 25, 2001

There's something about life's turning points that makes one just want to go out and shop at Borders Books and Music.

My own latest special milestone -- the impending loss of my job at a news service -- has compelled me for the last month or so to slink away from my increasingly irrelevant desk on a near-daily basis and head for the music section.

And there, in search of fleeting solace, I shop.

Well, okay, I don't "shop" shop; what condemned man, after all, can afford a new CD? I browse. I lurk among the stacks. I kill time and, most important, I graze, courtesy of the ingenious "listening stations," on free music samples, the superstore's aural equivalent of cheese or pepperoni on toothpicks at your local supermarket. With my company crumbling fast, I have become a compulsive nibbler. And my trips to the racks are getting more frequent.

Music soothes the savage breast? Try "savaged." That's pretty much how all of us in my office feel, what with getting little in the way of severance pay and facing a spandex-tight job market.

It all started innocuously enough. Earlier in the year, rumors the company was in trouble had all of us upset but not despondent. "What, me worry? It could turn around... someone'll buy it! Yeah!" The beginning of what was to be the end of my job made me an escapist.

So, for starters, it was the reggae section for me.

Shaggy's "Hotshot" was just the trick, funky grooves swimming in a weighty dollop of Cheez Whiz. I slipped on the headphones and was transported to an improbably goofy Babylon of hopeless pickup lines and dancing babes, a world where would-be Casanovas introduced themselves as "Mr. Love-ahhhh" and promised to show off their pet reptiles. (I was a little disappointed to learn later that Shaggy, Mr. Lover himself, was christened with the decidedly unhip name Orville Richard Burrell. But that didn't interfere with the blessed one-minute respite from the real world he provided me.)

Back at my desk I felt refreshed and giddy. No one seemed to notice that I'd been gone for a while -- a perception for which I was glad, since at this stage of the corporate debacle we were still supposed to be churning out copy.

Soon the other shoe dropped about . . . halfway -- I won't get into business details, but let's just say the company lost more of its former shine -- and I reached a new page in my emotional catalogue: panic.

I knew I needed a new job, and fast. I knew I needed to start looking for one posthaste. But I also needed to calm down before I logged onto, started to network, started to reassess the color of my parachute.

The antithesis of panic is calm, I reasoned, as I got up out of my chair, stumbled into the elevator, pressed "Lobby" and made a beeline for songs past.

That's right: Nostalgia was the antidote. What safer, calmer place to go than innocent time departed? We're talking the Ramones, we're talking Dead Kennedys. We're talking foot-tapping and lip-syncing to Jello Biafra's knife-edge vocals on "Kill the Poor" and loving it. One needs to be discreet about these things, but, just between you and me, I even air-guitared a bit to Iron Maiden. (No one was looking.) What better way to feel okay about being a soon-to-be-unemployed 31-year-old than embracing your inner headbanger and jamming to "Die With Your Boots On"? I was 13 when that Iron Maiden album came out. No responsibilities then. Sweet youth!

Like Proust biting into his tea cake, I hear Rush's "Between the Wheels" and I'm 14 all over again, looking out the school bus window, studying the cornfields as we speed homeward. Down in the Borders basement, just for me, Geddy Lee sings, "Wheels can take you around, wheels can cut you down / We can go from boom to bust, from dreams to a bowl of dust."

Not very comforting sentiments there, actually.

Right around the time a vice president said it was "time to acknowledge" that the company was going to be "wound down," and still with no full-time job prospects in sight, I moved on to dejection and misanthropism. Only for about a day, though, which is good: Pink Floyd, despite the members' collective genius, is no music to live by.

And yet, the words "All in all, you're just another brick in the wall" have fresh resonance with the unneeded worker. I can't help it! I wallow in self-imposed gloom. Woe, woe is me. My sample selections take a plaintive, fatalistic turn, like one of those old Japanese poems about pining for lovers you know will never come.

Radiohead's new album, "Amnesiac," works well for me here, too. "I want youuuuu to knowwwww," Thom E. Yorke, the band's famously moody singer, intones on the track "Knives Out." I don't know what he wants me to know. But the gentle opening guitar chords beckon the listener into a still corner of repose, and I don't care. Which is kind of the point when you're depressed.

In need of a beat fix, I move on to the Chemical Brothers. "It doesn't matter," a voice repeats over and over and over on their 1997 "Dig Your Own Hole" album. "Indeed!" I think, nihilism momentarily seizing me.

Suddenly the term "hiring freeze" echoes in my head. Anger! My psyche is getting darker now -- I'm walking toward the B's to find Black Flag. Skinhead-vintage Henry Rollins bellowing, "My war! You're one of them / You say that you're my friend / But you're one of them!" Hah! I say to myself. Take that, Mr. Company President. It's you against me. It's our war. But then I remember that I'm standing in Borders and there's no employee-management "war," just a company that's about to kick the bucket. Now feeling silly and ashamed about feeling this sorry for myself, I take off the headphones and go back to work and job-searching.

But I'm still down -- maybe more so thanks to Pink Floyd and Radiohead. Back at my office, I discover that an e-mail message awaits me. What ho! Optimism takes over. But alack, the message is not an invitation to that Big Job Interview that I've been waiting for, but instead a full description of the norteamericano feast upon which Presidents Bush and Fox will gorge themselves that evening. Afraid to log onto the Editor & Publisher Web site for the 20th time that day, I procrastinate by contemplating the presidential menu. Sure looks good: Who wouldn't lick his chops at the thought of Pepita Crusted Bison and Mi Sueno Chardonnay "Carneros" 1999? Who thinks up these names? And, I begin to wonder, can I be a food writer? How about just a food namer?

Looking around, I notice that the office resembles nothing so much as a high school in early June. Everyone's done with his assignments; every period is a study hall. All that's left is for the janitors to clean the place once more and lock it up. In the past few days there have been rumblings around the office that the end is nigh. Two weeks, tops. Maybe even a week till the pink slips land.

And so what of my fleeting solace? Check mark there, courtesy of Borders and about 30 different bands scattered across the decades. But none of my musical hooky-playing has helped me find a job, of course. So it seems appropriate that when I get home to my apartment I choose silence, since it's only in the silence that I can really work toward getting work. The silence in my apartment corners me and accuses me of sloth; there are no headphones here and I know it is time, once more, to start e-mailing, calling and searching the classified ads.

But a thought occurs to me as I skim through and Editor & Publisher for the umpteenth time.

I can always apply to work at Borders. I certainly know the music section well enough. And I may get some free CDs.

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