Commute To Nowhere Essay

8257 words - 34 pages

Commute to Nowhere
By Jonathan Mahler Published: April 13, 2003

In the forest of khaki, heather gray and chambray that is the Gap's store on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, the 6-foot-4-inch Jeff Einstein is a walking, talking redwood. The instant a potential customer breaches the invisible border of his department, he approaches to offer assistance. ''Too bad I'm not selling cars,'' he jokes with one pear-shaped man after setting him up with a pair of khakis -- 40-inch waist, cuffs, pleats -- in less than 15 seconds. There's something self-conscious about Jeff's act, as if he's trying to prove to himself that he's comfortable with his job. Or maybe it's that he's overcompensating for ...view middle of the document...

While the recession of the early 90's took a heavy toll on white-collar workers, this one seems to have institutionalized the phenomenon. Advanced degrees, no matter how prestigious, offer little protection. The economy is grim nationwide, but the picture in New York City is especially bleak. Since the end of 2000, the media-and-communications sector has cut 15 percent of its jobs, telecommunications 27 percent, advertising 25 percent. Eighteen percent of jobs on Wall Street have been slashed, and firms continue to lay people off. Given the delirium with which most high-tech jobs were first created, there's no reason to believe that many of them -- and the jobs in other sectors that they generated -- will come back anytime soon. By the numbers, women have been hit as hard as men, but white-collar men tend to experience unemployment differently, organizational psychologists say. For most women, survival trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job. For men, grappling with joblessness inevitably entails surrendering an idea of who they are -- or who others thought they were.

A couple of weeks after we met at the Gap, Jeff Einstein is in the kitchen making chicken cacciatore as his wife, Mara, and I chat in the living room of their $2,200-a-month two-bedroom apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. She's a sturdy-looking, attractive woman, with chin-length curly blond hair and high, wide cheekbones. When she first met Jeff in 1997, Mara tells me, he was living in the East Village and seamlessly moving from one job to the next. Companies would hire him to dream up and put in effect initiatives that would entice investors -- and then cut him and his high salary loose to appease those investors. There was always another high-paying position waiting. Whenever he switched jobs, a press release would go out; inevitably, his name would be prefaced by three words: ''interactive industry pioneer.'' Jeff discovered his passion for computers relatively late in life; until then, he was always something of an underachiever. He grew up near San Francisco in the 1960's and never graduated from college, opting to move to Israel instead. After several years there, he returned to the United States and knocked around from job to job for a while. In 1983, at the age of 31, he found himself working at an ad agency in New York. One day, out of boredom mostly, Jeff picked up a computer manual and started reading. He found it incomprehensible. A few weeks later, he pitched a series of books to Harcourt that would be called Einstein's Computer Guides -- one of the first how-to books for personal computers. The publisher had only one question for him: Is your name really Einstein? He got the deal and flew out to California to pick up a free demo from Apple. While he was there, he went skiing in Lake Tahoe with a few of Apple's founders. For the next 15 years, Jeff had the rare experience of being exactly the right person for the right time. After his computer guides were...

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