Eighteen: Ragged Bob

Posted: November 19, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

“I was $200 away from pushing a shopping cart for a living, that’s how low I got. But you know what? I plucked up, I turned myself around. Got myself a job and made something of myself.”

Bob Overton was a 21st century Horatio Alger. He espoused the virtues of American social mobility on a regular basis; it was his core belief and it was unshakeable.

“Now look at the caste system of India, where your whole life hinges on what caste you are born into. No, I don’t go for such injustice. I prefer our system of upward mobility, where everyone has an opportunity.”

Aside from the ‘low period’ in his life which I never learned much about, Bob always had a job. He had been a gas station attendant, a fisherman, a marine (narrowly avoiding deployment to Vietnam), a surfer, a customs inspector and a career guidance counsellor. Now he wanted to get into show business.

Bob set me up on CalJobs – California’s job service – and gave me lengthy motivational speeches on the key to success.

“You see, to achieve the kind of result you want – which is a secure job with at a salary of at least $40,000 a year; I mean that is the minimum to afford a car, new clothes, a nice apartment, a meal in a restaurant once or twice a week and still have some disposable income to spend on your interests, whatever they may be. Now what’s the best kind of job which will give you all that?”

“I don’t know…”

“A government job. A job with the federal government will give you all that, plus medical benefits and a 401K plan, you follow me? You need to start preparing for retirement already; you need to think about your retirement and how you are going to fund that retirement. “

“Now I am living off a comfortable pension which I paid into during years of service as a federal employee. I was rewarded… did you see my plaque, on the wall here? This was from 12 years of service. So you see, to achieve that kind of result you need to have the right skills for the right job, you follow me? I landed my job because I had those skills. I developed the skills and knowledge when I did my Masters at USC. Get the skillset and you get your job set. That’s how easy it is.”

One evening Bob spoke for two hours non-stop about the secrets to landing a great job. All you had to do was go out and “pound the pavement.” Walk up and down Main Street, follow your future boss into his office, hand over your resume and hey presto! You’re hired.

“There’s people saying we’re going to have more riots this summer, but there’s nothing to riot about. Nothing to riot about if you got no skills. That’s why these kids can’t get jobs, because they’ve got no skills. How do they expect to find work if they haven’t got any skills?”

His faith in opportunity blinded him to other forces in society.  I wanted to tell him the USA ranks near bottom for social mobility, in comparison with Western Europe (only the UK fares worse). That there is 11% unemployment in California and over 30% youth unemployment: the reason why young people don’t have jobs is because there aren’t any.

Bob felt counter-arguments like a needle in soft flesh. He bent over in pain and lost his temper. The idea he could be wrong was inconceivable to him. So I gave up. It would be easier to convince an astronaut the earth is flat.

After two weeks, and about a dozen hours of motivational speeches, I agreed to Bob’s persisting request: to go to the Employment Development Department for “expert advice”.

Tune in on Thursday for the next installment of The Road to Skid Row.

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