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Mail from unemployment comes. Some may feel relief, or maybe certainty, when they see the plain white envelope with the Economic Security Department logo in plain green at the top, but I feel dread. Light and quick, to be sure, but since having to prove I was looking for work the last time I was seriously out of work, I wonder if it’s another notice to appear before someone.

Unemployment sends forests’ worth of mail. It’s enough to be embarrassed for the state and it’s trees: weekly statements to accompany a separate mailed check, an initial benefit determination, subsequent benefit determinations, individual mailings for questions about your application, confirmations for calls to the 800 number, and a giant how-to packet explaining your rights and how to use WorkSource, the retraining and job-placement help service. This last one is skipped this time around, or maybe it’s floating around Hawaii somewhere. A mail carrier is losing some weight lugging it around. The volume is impressive and relentless at first, then tapers off to the weekly statement. Anything else is worrisome.

So when this latest letter comes I can believe it is a notice there has been a mistake, or I have made a mistake, and the involved proceedings I have opened myself up to for a little extra scratch. I feed the cat and plug in the laptop and then open the envelope under the incandescent kitchen light.

How many unemployed do this every week? How many collect it after a day out at school or volunteering or beating the pavement or just enjoying the day? How many wake up in the morning for little else but to check the mail, like some dissociated housewife in a postwar novel? The kitchen table is a standard setpiece in the stump speech, the wielders of power assuring us they know what it’s like to sit around one and make tough decisions. What do they know of this act, this American obeisance to practical decency, where envelopes are opened?

It takes at least a minute to understand what this mail is before I realize it’s bonus money. It gives the dates for all of August and early September and then explains I am eligible for the weekly temporary benefit increase. It’s the back payment we have all heard of but never seen. It’s already in the bank.

What other Washington wrangling had withheld the money or what administrative maneuver had scrounged it up, there is some relief around kitchen tables. The light isn’t quite as yellow as the early Eighties when I remember many more envelopes and much more worry, and now we have laptops to check our instant bank balances.

The state has given me another $110. Trust me: I am grateful. It’s nice to have. But it is not the blessing it must be to some, or nowadays to many. There must be thousands of kitchen tables where that incandescent light will stay on, the car finally fixed or at least given a full tank of gas, the kids bought those school extras you explained at some pain they would just have to go without for now while they sat across parents at these same kitchen tables and stared at their hands.

I worry about money. I don’t know why, really, or when it started. There were times I didn’t have a lot; through college I certainly didn’t splurge. But I never really knew want, and could always go to my parents. I shouldn’t worry, early but learned it’s associated with being money smart. I have never had the universal human experience of rolling my last nickels across the table and rent due, stomach growling.

$110 is a nice present for me, and I am grateful. But I am more grateful for all those for whom the present is far more, and keeps them from the edge.


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