Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sockless In New York

I haven't worn socks since I "retired" June 19. After more than three decades on Park Avenue, with its attendant dress code, even I am surprised by the freedom my toes are enjoying. During my corporate life, my children would tease me that sandals and socks were a fashion no-no.

To be totally honest, I have worn socks since that fateful last day of work. Exercising, going to synagogue and attending two weddings and a bar-mitzvah tripped up my casual ways, as did an appearance on Fox Business News.

I don't really enjoy not wearing socks. I think my feet sweat more without them. And I'm self-conscious about my thin ankles, and how untanned they are. But no socks is a statement of where I am in life. Call it retirement. Call it a "pause." Whatever you call it, I am free to do and dress as I please, to wear jeans or shorts every day, to shave every other day. Showering every day is still an absolute.

I'm free to go to an afternoon movie, and thanks to our cable company's triple-play option, movies are free every Tuesday. I'm only constrained by my working wife's admonition not to see anything she'd like to see. That means most good movies. So my list of permitted titles is dominated by B-grade action and sci-fi movies (read, Transformers II) or crude comedies (read, Year One or The Goods), or animated flicks such as Up. But they're free, and they get me out of the house.

Not that I sit around all day moping or watching TV soap operas or Oprah or The Price Is Right. I have lots of errands. Now I run them during the week to avoid the crowd of "civilians" who descend on stores and streets on weekends. Of course, that means I no longer can evade my wife's weekend requests to help in the garden or elsewhere by claiming I have a haircut appointment or some other chore now fulfilled Monday through Friday.

One of my errands took me to the NY State Department of Labor's job counseling office in White Plains. The last time I received unemployment compensation was 1976. Then, you had to apply in person every week. Today it's all automated, online. I have no idea where they get those TV news pictures of the unemployed standing on line. Even at the job counseling office, no more than two people stood at the reception desk. Everyone else sat at computers or at tables filling out forms, waiting for their turn with a counselor. It was all quite civil, except for the lack of toilet paper in the washroom. A symbolic, regrettable indignity the unemployed had to endure.

It's not easy starting over at 60. I'm not complaining. With my skill sets and contacts I hope to develop business relationships with several firms. But this recession, coupled with the strategic transformation of the publishing industry that employed me for nearly four decades, is tearing the fabric out of the middle class and the aspirational upper class. In my last six months as publisher and group editorial director of a business magazine, Web site and related conference program, I had to lay off 20% of our full-time staff. And then it was my turn. Each associate let go was either the sole or primary wage earner of his or her household. The recession decimated ad pages, while the economics of publishing have been intermediated by the ubiquity of free Internet information. Don't believe anyone who tells you they have the answer to print journalism's dilemma, or that they have found the formula for profitable Web news sites. Publishing has entered a black hole few will escape.

I spend my days sockless, without angst, saddened to observe from a distance the fate of my profession and the many friends who toil in it. They are like the French aristocracy who waited for their names to be called to face the crowd a final time. By all accounts, they dressed up for the occasion. They wore socks to meet Madame La Guillotine.