In October, I attended the funeral of Steve Farber, the brilliant salesman and promoter who had been chief operating officer of Cybergold. During part of 1999 and 2000, we worked together at the online marketing firm that improbably was then Oakland's highest-profile company. When Mayor Jerry Brown joined Steve and other executives to welcome the dot-com era downtown, Cybergold was as emblematic of the new Oakland as it was of the new economy. We had moved into the First Interstate Bank building but dreamed one day of upgrading to the palatial Rotunda. Steve wrapped entire buses in the crassly ingenious advertising slogan "I got paid for doing it," and he even had an assistant call the Russian government to ask what Vladimir Putin would charge to drape the message around the Kremlin.
Steve and other executives possessed enough hubris to believe that Cybergold might reinvent the economics of the advertising industry by paying consumers directly to read advertising. I had enough of my own to imagine that a separate Cybergold project might single-handedly reinvent the economies of publishing and recording. Other Cybergoldians dreamed other dreams, though some merely dreamed of wealth.
It was a different millennium, and to many of us Steve's death of heart failure at age 42 represented its symbolic end. He was larger than life but living on the edge, mocking his heart condition by riding his bicycle for hours at a time and volunteering as a costumed mascot for a minor-league baseball team. Because we all had great affection for Steve, and because Cybergold's long-suffering Web site preceded him in oblivion by only a few weeks, his passing afforded former colleagues a somber but oddly welcome occasion to gather one last time.
After his funeral, thirteen former coworkers attended a lunch in Steve's honor at Garibaldi's. Following the meal, it came time to settle the bill. "Someone said, 'The people who have jobs are paying for this,'" former employee Damien Fuentes recalled. "We looked around and said 'Who's working?' And then we realized that only three people had jobs." This was indicative of the plight of Steve's other ex-colleagues. Two weeks later, twenty almost entirely different Cybergoldians gathered over dinner in San Francisco. Out-of-work salesman Joe DeMarco wondered aloud how many others shared his condition. "Half the people raised their hand," he said. "And a lot of the people had been unemployed for a long time."
It was an anxious year for the people we all once worked alongside -- and our anxiety was sadly representative of the broader Bay Area malaise. The recession was the dominant local event in 2001. It was bigger, sadder, and far closer to home for many of us than the tragic events of 9-11. Many of us lost jobs once again in 2001, including several of the fifteen people I had laid off the year before.
For many of us who worked in the intersection of the Internet and the media, 2001 was the worst year of our lives. Hardly a week went by that a close friend wasn't dismissed, downsized, or reassigned. Unemployment was the topic of conversation at most of the social gatherings I attended, from Super Bowl Sunday in Santa Clara, through early spring drinks at Oakland's Alley Cat lounge, an escapist summer vacation in Spain, and last fall's Cybergold reunions. This year was the first time in my three decades of employment that my salary shrank involuntarily, and the first time I ever had to rely on credit cards to pay the mortgage.
More to the point, it was the first time I was really depressed as an adult. It was the first time many of my friends were depressed too.
The Bay Area is in the middle of a great depression -- not a depression in the economic sense, but one of the wrenching, emotional variety. Many of the people I know best were deeply depressed in 2001. They were melancholy for all the conventional reasons that accompany job loss -- shame, financial woes, family tensions, feelings of personal inadequacy. But there were other causes too, and those often hurt more.
Maggie Benson and her husband had just signed the papers on a $3,500-a-month mortgage when I laid her off for the first time in May of 2000. She was six months pregnant. Two months later, she lost a second job. But after taking time off for the birth of her daughter, Benson picked herself up again and returned to work last January as the full-time West Coast bureau chief of TechWeb, a post from which she occasionally threw me freelance-writing jobs. Four months later she lost that job too, and I lost one of the six freelance clients that ultimately vaporized on me in 2001.
So Benson, 31, again returned to the job market, sending out several résumés a week for three months without receiving a single call back. Against this backdrop, she shifted her focus to quality-of-life issues. She enjoyed the extra time with her infant daughter and embraced painting, yoga, and running. "I came up with some conclusions that my thirties would be about creating things of beauty," she said. But the former editor found it hard to reconcile this new resolution with the reality that she couldn't even land a job at a day-care center, much less one in journalism. "I was feeling desperate; I really hadn't felt that way since I got out of college," she said. "I think I cried every day."
One evening, she appealed to a higher power. While crying in her bed she penned a letter. "Spirit," she wrote. "I am lost. I don't know what to do. Please come to me as you have before and help me to find the thing I will truly love and be good at and will make enough money doing. Please help me to take control of my professional destiny and to find contentment in this area that has often brought me grief, but also joy and fulfillment."
As it turned out, Benson soon landed a fulfilling job as an editor and producer. But then her husband's company was sold, and he lost the dot-com sales management job he'd held for four years. "He's in a huge world of denial about it," she said. Job-related anxiety once more darkened the family's door.
Typically, widespread layoffs are in reaction to antiquated economies or ideas, industries whose time has come and gone -- whether it's the '80s downsizing that dismantled old-style corporate hierarchies, or the '90s defense cutbacks that accompanied the end of the Cold War. But this recession is a rejection of the future -- or at least what looked like the future to a lot of us. And for just that reason it is dispiriting in an entirely different way. For the dot-com generation, 2001 killed off the novel idea that employment could be a revolutionary act.
Amid the media's obsessive focus on the reasons for taking dot-com jobs, inspirational impulses received short shrift. Yet for many of us who flocked to the sector, the motivation was more spiritual than monetary. I left a fulfilling job and almost-vested pension at the San Jose Mercury News because I could imagine nothing more exciting than the prospect of building a Web-based service that would allow writers, musicians, and artists to upload and sell their digital output in much the way that curio collectors swap their wares at eBay.
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