I’m happy to announce a new contributor to CenLamar, Sharon Tohline.

Sharon and her husband moved to Alexandria only two months ago. She’s from Baton Rouge by way of Los Angeles and the Big D, and she’s currently discovering Alexandria for the very first time.

A few days ago, Sharon introduced herself to me in an e-mail and pitched an idea for a weekly column on experiencing Alexandria as a newbie. And after confirming that Sharon was, in fact, a real person with real credentials, I knew she could add a valuable perspective in the discourse of “life in Louisiana.”

That’s all the introduction Sharon needs. Throughout the next few months, as Sharon is introduced to Alexandria, I’m certain that she will also be introducing herself to us.

So, without further adieu, Sharon’s first post:

Joblessness and Friendliness

Joblessness has struck Alexandria.

This was my first realization upon relocation. Not the beauty of living around the corner from a national forest. Not the strangeness of having less than a 15-minute drive to everywhere. Not even the overwhelming friendliness of most of the people I met when my car broke down the first time I headed into town. Before I could appreciate any of these things, I was struck by the remnants of joblessness, all within the space of my own home and yard.

As my boyfriend and I pulled into the driveway of our new rental trailer, we were forced to edge around a broken Nissan in the front yard. When the landlady unlocked the front door to show us the interior, she had to sidestep an abandoned playpen and matching car-seat lying in the entry hall. “These will be gone by the time you move in,” she promised. “Belong to the other renters.” Because my landlady is a true Louisiana woman, the effort necessary to garner further information from her is not significant. She admits fairly quickly that the other tenants left quickly because of the expense of renting. At least one member of the couple had lost a job; possibly both had. The story was not clear. They were moving in with family.

One week later, as we walked our dogs around the property, we encountered a neighbor loading boxes into his truck. He stopped to chat and we learned that he too had lost his job as a supervisor at a local plant. He was hoping to find work again, and he had more than thirty years of experience. But plants and mills were more often laying off than hiring.

I understand joblessness. As a defector from the world of higher education and a person with an arts degree, I am used to the feeling of being turned down one hundred times before hearing even a “maybe.” But I am not used to this level of joblessness. I am not used to being around so many others who understand and identify with my predicament – people who are used to working, who have held productive jobs their entire lives and never suspected to have them snatched away.

On the one hand, Alexandria and its environs are rich with hospitals and medical plazas, sanctuaries during times of recession. But these outlets are available only to those who have appropriate training. We are just as deep in mills and plants, manufacturing businesses that are often the hardest hit and the first to eliminate jobs. At my own job (I too have taken work as a medical staffer), at least thirty percent of the employees have husbands who have lost their long-held positions. Others are waiting, hoping that the economy recovers before a second round of layoffs ensues.

During our recent presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama took extensive criticism for his comments on small town life. We all remember this. We all know the lines about desperate, forgotten people “clinging” to religion and weaponry. Of course people were offended. But there are times when I understand what he might have been suggesting. Alexandria will lose its jobs long before Baton Rouge or New Orleans. It will definitely lose them before the larger cities I’ve inhabited in other states. And if this downturn rights itself before sweeping waves of poverty infect the middle classes of those cities, the conditions in places like Alexandria and Pineville will likely be forgotten.

Still, I’ve seen evidence here that whatever the rest of the nation might hear or remember about this time, the people of this city will remember. And they will have risen to the occasion by taking care of one another.

As my neighbor was packing up his car, he said something that proves this to me. “I hate to leave. The owners are nice people.”

He’s correct. The owners are nice people. They let both him and the tenants before us stay as long as they could. There was never talk of eviction. This is something else that strikes me about my new home – something that I fear is cliché, but that I also can’t leave unsaid. My landlord in Los Angeles was cutthroat. She regularly threw belongings out onto the street if payments came late. We survived four days with a broken toilet (the only one in the house) by running around the corner to the Circle K. We lasted even longer without power when a fuse blew and the owners were unreachable overseas. My experiences in Baton Rouge and in Texas were less harsh, but still impersonal. Garnering an extension was unlikely, if not impossible.

There are nice people here. We live in a community small enough in size that that kindness is noticeable on a daily basis. And while the personalities of a town’s people are certainly not enough to stave off starvation alone, living in a place where people try to take care of one another will always be important.

It’s a small thing, but it gives me hope. And it makes me love my new home, even if I couldn’t find a job in my field.

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