First Person - Looking for work - for a long time

‘I’m not going to be traumatized by this situation. I won’t allow that.’

Editor’s note: First Person is a series of commentaries that gives voice to those not commonly heard in Atlanta media.

On days he hasn’t picked up temporary construction work, Brookhaven resident Carey James wakes up before sunrise, gets dressed and goes out looking for work. The 59-year-old master carpenter, tool-and-die maker and HVAC technician lost his job at a local university just as the Great Recession began and, like thousands of Georgians, is still navigating the difficult labor market.

All my life I’ve worked. During high school I started my apprenticeship as a tool-and-die maker.

I’m a master carpenter. I got an engineering degree from Butler University. I only got an associate’s degree at Stanford, in social anthropology — it’s totally worthless unless you’re going to be on tour, you know, telling how civilizations got started.

When I moved to metro Atlanta in 1992, there was a lot of work everywhere. If you didn’t have a job it’s because you didn’t want to work. There was a plethora of jobs.

Then they closed down the General Motors plant, the Ford plant, manufacturers. People were scurrying around like mice in a maze. Then other jobs started getting phased out. Now it’s hard to find any work.

When I was first laid off in 2007, it really wasn’t too bad. I received several emails from contractors in New Orleans right after Katrina. I went right down there for four or five months, repairing devastation only God could have done. I got there on Sunday and on Monday morning I went to work fixing properties and making $1,500 a week. But when I crossed back over the state line into Georgia, there was nothing.

In 2008, we got flooded out in Douglasville during those big storms and pretty much lost everything. We’re down here in Brookhaven starting over. My wife’s grandfather pretty much built nearby Lynwood Park. He dug the first well. He built the rec center, the church. He was the first to have a bath and running water. I renovated his house, put in all-new flooring and electrical system. But my wife’s mother decided she wanted the house back, so now we’re in an apartment.

I’m up at 5:30 every day, ironing the clothes for my son and wife, cooking breakfast. I don’t have an appetite. I’ve never been a breakfast person, but if they’re hungry, they get fed. I make sure she gets a balanced meal. I cook for my family and wash the dishes.

They’re real fussy. You think they’d like steak, but they’re burned out on it. My son and I love spaghetti, but my wife doesn’t eat spaghetti. I bake chicken for her and fry chicken for my son. Just making sure that we have at least a vegetable and a meat. Bread, maybe, and milk, cereal, stuff like that. I clean the house. My son plays drums at school. We go see football. We stay active at our church.

I couldn’t tell you how many miles I’ve put on that car. Every day, I’m out there looking. I go out hitting the streets with my planner in hand. Gotta make sure you have gas in the car to get from Point A to Point B. And you learn how to pray. Prayer works.

I do a lot of cross-referencing to find potential jobs. Jobs are also sent to me from the technical institute where I received my HVAC training. A lot of the application process has changed. Employers won’t accept walk-ins in a lot of places, so you have to do it online. And you never know how many people are in front of you with that. It’s really changed a lot of things.

I keep both fingers crossed. I get especially excited when I have a couple of real good prospects or someone calls and says we’d like to set up an interview.

I find work from time to time. I do roofing. I put columns in this lady’s bedroom. Any odd jobs I can find: “Carey, can you come over?” This lady’s furnace won’t start. I don’t charge what calling an HVAC company would.

I’ve always made good money. Always. But we’re not used to living like this. Thankfully, my car and house are paid off. My wife, who still works, is bearing the brunt of things at the moment. I can see the worry in her eyes from being under so much pressure. She knows what’s on my mind. I need to take care of my family. A man needs to provide a place for his family to live, transportation, pay the bills. That never changes. It doesn’t matter what society says.

The whole thing now is not letting my family see my face. It’s to somehow change the subject when unemployment becomes the dominant conversation. If I lose it, then what’s my family going to do? What’s going to happen to us? My kid won’t be interested in college. He’ll be thinking, “What can I do to help dad?”

It’s not always going to be that way, so you have to encourage each other and continue to trust in God. No matter how you feel about it, He’s still in control. But inside, it’s killing me. I gotta make a change. I don’t care if I’m flipping burgers, I just want to find a regular paycheck. Hopefully, somebody may read this and say, “Maybe we can use this guy.”

I’m not going to be traumatized by this situation. It would overcome my family. I’m a Christian and a family man and wouldn’t ever allow that to happen. Prosperity is all around me and has actually been a part of my life for so long. Learning how to not live prosperously is what I’m trying to do.

A carpenter has to be inventive. If the solution to your problem isn’t in front of you, you have to create a solution. And not just create it, but create it to the point it works. You have to have enough inside you to pull it from you and make it work. The wall in front of me right now is unemployment. How am I going to get through it? Keep going. It’s just a wall. What happens when an unstoppable object meets an immovable force?

Every day is a different trial. It doesn’t become a merry-go-round until you see the same thing over and over again. I’m hopeful.

— As told to Thomas Wheatley