Elia Roldan had just received a new lab coat with her name embroidered on the pocket. She worked as a dermatological assistant and although her doctor's office was struggling fewer people are getting Botoxed these days her boss assured her that everything was fine. But that was a month ago. Now she is at Manhattan's Tompkins Square Park at 2 pm on a Tuesday, tossing an office telephone down a measured runway in the very first, and possibly only, Unemployment Olympics. "It's not like I have anywhere I have to be," she says, "I mean, not anymore." She is competing in the same white Nikes that she used to wear around the doctor's office.
The Unemployment Olympics are the hastily planned brainchild of Nick Goddard, a gangly, angular man in small glasses and a navy blazer who runs from one event to the other, herding the 30-some-odd contestants around like an inexperienced babysitter at a children's birthday party. The former computer programmer has been without a job for less than two months and says the idea for the four-event competition Telephone toss, Payday piñata, Pin-the-Blame-on-the-Boss and the "You're Fired!" race just popped into his head one night. "Normally you think of things like this but never do them," he says, "but I have so much free time right now, I decided to go for it." He built a rudimentary website, contacted local news outlets, and then watched in amazement as his email's inbox filled with hopeful participants.
Unemployment Olympians must show proof of their unemployment in the form of a New York State unemployment card, a termination letter or other evidence of job loss. They register for events at the "Unemployment Office," a lopsided cardboard stand that looks like a recession-weary version of Lucy's "Doctor is in" leomonade stand from Peanuts.
Most of the Olympians have college or graduate degrees and worked in white-collar Manhattanite jobs from which they did not expect to be booted. They range in age from the 23-year-old fired from his very first job to the 61-year-old garment industry worker who blames the Chinese for putting her fabric company out of business. They have been unemployed for an average of four months and most of them showed up alone. "Who am I going to bring?" asks Erika Garcia, an out-of-work contract lawyer. "My friends still have jobs."
But despite the event's bleak inspiration, things at the Unemployment Olympics are generally cheerful. Contestants yell and clap and egg each other on, and no one seems upset when the Payday piñata breaks on the very first try revealing Payday candybars. With New York easing its way into spring, being outdoors under a blue sky is almost as refreshing as the chance to stab a thumbtack into a fat, balding, caricature of a boss.
A blindfolded research analyst spins around in circles and inaccurately pins the tail on "The Feds," one of the eight economic culprits scrawled on an oversized poster board alongside the boss caricature. A former hedge fund manager pins his thumbtack somewhere between "The Economy" and "Consumer Spending" while a few yards away, a laid off videographer for media gossip site Gawker tosses a telephone wrapped in electrical tape just shy of the 100-point mark, as designated by circle drawn with sidewalk chalk. Prizes are awarded, mostly in the form of gift certificates to local restaurants and bars Goddard had advertised a month of free medical insurance, but found it difficult to follow through. "For some reason, medical insurance companies don't like to give away insurance to strangers." he says. Some people exchange business cards but the group's careers are so diverse at one point, an unemployed opera singer gives an impromptu performance that for the most part, they just talk about the competitions and how little money they have in their bank accounts. (See the top 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)
"This event is making me nervous," says Katina Garrard, a quiet, pale woman watching the phone toss. Garrard was a legal ethics assistant at International Paper in Memphis, Tennessee until three months ago, when her company announced extensive layoffs. Memphis is a small city and none of the major corporations were hiring, so Garrard picked up for New York, where she thought the opportunities would be "well, not plentiful, but at least they would exist." She attended a job fair earlier in the day, but it just depressed her. "There were lines and lines of people hoping for a job when only a few companies showed up. It's just so disheartening." She says she's not athletic enough to participate in the unemployment games, plus she doesn't want to risk getting a telephone in the face now that there's no employer to pay for her insurance.
The Unemployment Olympians are laughing, but they are not okay. They have moved in with friends, downsized apartments, and asked their parents for assistance. Three people say that they've cut back on groceries so significantly that they've actually lost weight. Some are thinking about leaving the city altogether. They're tired and frustrated and bored, but on this last afternoon in March they are making light of their situation. Lauren Diamond, a victim of advertising agency layoffs shrugs as she waits in line for the games, "I'm seriously sad," she says. "But at least I'm not from Lehman Brothers."