Like me, these people are unemployed. Unlike me, they will speak to a real person at some point. Also, some of them are ethnic.

The days of me being gainfully employed in a whorehouse have sadly come to an end, and now I’ve reached the stage where I get to deposit my various paychecks from the various jobs I did late in 2011, and then watch with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as the number in my checking account rises to a dizzying (by my standards) high only to take a header as soon as my landlady cashes my latest rent check.

You don’t get PA jobs by applying for them; once you’ve made the necessary connections, those jobs come looking for you, and like a grizzly bear attack, you never can really be sure when or where they’re going to strike. On virtually every PA job I’ve done, I got the call telling me that there was a job for me less than 16 hours before I was expected to be on location, clad in my PA cargo shorts, face freshly scrubbed and ready to be shit upon by whichever crewmember(s) were having a bad morning.

This breeds an awful lot of uncertainty when the phone doesn’t ring – you start to wonder if your production manager contacts have forgotten about you, or if work has dried up, or if maybe your contacts are similarly out of work. The holiday season has really only been over for two days and I’m already starting to have those concerns, so in the interests of staying afloat longer, I’ve opted to apply for unemployment.

Unemployment is a big part of day-to-day life for below-the-line industry douchebags like myself – crew members are essentially all freelancers, even the union guys, who are laid off whenever a film wraps or a show is cancelled. If more work isn’t waiting for them right away, it’s an accepted practice for them to go on unemployment to tide them over until they get hired onto some new reality show about a poodle salon run by gay ex-convict recovering meth addicts.*

*Copyright Truman Capps 2012, All Rights Reserved.

"The perm was sub-par, but I'm so proud of the progress Enrique is making. And he gave me some meth!"

I wanted in on the fun, so I spent the afternoon gathering my paystubs and lamenting my poor record keeping abilities, then Googled my way to the California Employment Development Department – these were the people who would literally be sending me money for nothing.

I set to work filling out the online application, but I got a nasty feeling that the first question – HAVE YOU WORKED OUTSIDE THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA IN THE PAST 18 MONTHS – was going to be a stumbling block when I checked the ‘YES’ box. Sure enough, I got the following message when I submitted the form:

The answers you provided to the questions on the previous page indicate that special handling is required to file your unemployment insurance claim. Please call the toll-free telephone number below for assistance in filing your claim for unemployment insurance benefits.

Even months after the fact, the checkout room continues to haunt me. I wasn’t sure how my having worked in a state that wasn’t California in the past year and a half was such an egregious violation that it required ‘special handling’ – I envisioned a team of men in Hazmat suits picking up my Oregon paystubs with prongs – but I dialed the number for the EDD anyway.

"Eww. He's got the polleny stench of the Willamette Valley all over him."

Thank you for calling the California Employment Development Department! A cheerful robot on the other side of the line said. Unfortunately, we’re experiencing an unusually high volume of calls at the moment and cannot attend to your request. Please apply online, or try again later!

Now, of course, I would’ve been more than happy to apply online, but eagle-eyed readers will recall that the State of California had essentially forced me to use their decrepit phone system, not unlike when the serial killer chops down a tree across the main highway so that the carload of sorority girls have to take the side road along which he will inevitably kill them. This analogy may seem a little overblown at first, but it’s actually pretty accurate, as you’ll see in a moment.

I called back an hour or so later and was impressed when I got a different message – first a lively Welcome to the California Employment Development Department!, followed by unavoidable For English, press one, para espanol, marque dos. I hit one, and began navigating my way through a lengthy, boring phone tree, punctuated by long monologues about filing for federal extensions or the potential ramifications if you have received military pay in the past year.

I hit the requisite numbers to indicate that I had worked out of state in the last 18 months and wanted to apply for unemployment by phone, at which point I was prompted to key in my social security number. I did, and after that I was told I’d be connected with an operator.

About one second later, the robot came back and said, We’re sorry, but due to an unusually high volume of calls, we cannot attend to your request at this time. Please apply online, or try again later!

And then, I was disconnected. I had sacrificed ten minutes of my life and wound up in basically the same spot I was in before. The sorority girls’ car breaks down, they’ve got the hood open, the serial killer is coming out of the woods, chainsaw at the ready…

Because to a white male living in America, wasting ten minutes is basically the equivalent of getting murdered anywhere else in the world.

I called my friend Patrick, a fellow out of work entertainment industry professional on unemployment, to ask if this was the state’s circuitous way of telling me I wasn’t eligible for unemployment until I’d been working in California for 18 months, but he told me no. Just keep calling and calling, and eventually you’ll get through. There’s a job center out on Sepulveda where if you call from one of their phones, apparently you’ll get through right away. I’ve just heard about it; I’ve never been there.

At that point, I wasn’t wearing pants and was in no mood to put them on, so I opted to keep calling from home rather than going to the trouble of leaving the house. I called several more times, and was either booted off immediately like I was the first time I called, or led through the entire phone tree only to get booted off right when I thought I was going to get a chance to speak with an operator, which led to a lot of profanity and the coining of the phrase ‘Unemployment Phone Tree Blue Balls’ by yours truly.

Eventually I went to the Internet in search of tips, not unlike when I get stuck in a video game, and was shocked to find that that was exactly what the California EDD phone tree is: A goddamned game.

"What game is tedious, boring, takes forever, and ends with you having no money... Oh, hey!"

This blog post sums it up pretty well – essentially, you can’t speak face to face with an unemployment insurance representative, because in California there are none. Unemployment offices, as the woman in the above blog discovered, are just grimy rooms staffed by receptionists and security guards, full of telephones you can use to call the phone tree.

The phone tree itself is so notoriously byzantine and temperamental that its thousands of unsatisfied customers, desperate to apply for or report problems with their unemployment checks, have developed systems of numbers to key in that, in some cases, will override the system and immediately connect you to an operator, as she found in the following conversation with a security guard at a San Francisco unemployment office:

From Unemploymentality.com:

Officer: “Push English and it dials the number. If it says ‘thank you’, hang up and try again. You have not gotten through. If it says ‘welcome’, you have gotten through. Dial 12117 to quickly navigate through the menu and you might just speak to someone.”

Me: (not sure whether to laugh or cry) “I see. And what are my chances of success?”

Officer: (points to the pages of signatures on his clipboard) “Out of all these people who came in today, maybe 4 or 5 got through. They put in some serious time.”

Me: “But why come in here and call when I can call from home? I don’t understand this set-up – a room full of phones to dial the same useless automated service I have been cursing for weeks?”

Officer: “Well, every once in a while, someone ACTUALLY gets through. Then everyone waits nearby and when that person is done with their call, they hand the phone over to someone else.”

Keep in mind, this is the largest state in the union. Over 35 million people live here. There’s a horrible recession going on, and one of the primary customer service tools for people to receive unemployment benefits is so broken that trying to use it is essentially a full time job.

I’ve tried the 12117 trick the guard recommended to her, but the information is out of date – the EDD evidently got wise to the fact that their phone tree was apparently helping at least some people, and as a result they changed it so that dialling 12117 will get you immediately booted off the system.

Now, it seems like the preferred method is calling the Vietnamese language line, because it’s not as heavily used as the English, Spanish, or Cantonese lines and because the operators all speak English as well. The main problem with this, as I’ve discovered, is that you have to try and navigate the phone tree long enough to actually speak to an operator, which is pretty difficult when the phone tree is entirely in Vietnamese.

Oh Christ this is the most racist thing I've ever put on my blog, SORRY GUYS.

Apparently the key to getting an operator on the Vietnamese line is to hit 6, 7, 3, key in your social security number, hit 1, and then, when greeted by a person speaking Vietnamese, immediately say, ‘Hi do you speak English?’, which I think is a more complicated procedure than the series of knocks and passwords one would use to get into a Hanoi speakeasy full of people playing Russian Roulette.

So tomorrow I’m getting up at 7:45 – 15 minutes before the EDD call center opens – and am going to spend time that I could be spending looking for a job calling both the English and Vietnamese EDD lines and punching numbers like crazy, all so I can talk to a person, which is usually the sort of thing I do my very best to avoid. But hey - at least it's something to do during the day.

Truman Capps could also be spending this free time working on his screenplay, but that’s arguably the one thing more difficult than squeezing free money out of the State of California.