ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Ever since February, we've been following Sylvia Martinez for some close-up insight into how the recession is changing people's lives. Martinez was a human resources manager in Virginia, but she lost her job eight months ago. The last time we heard from her, she was in crisis.
SIEGEL: In one day, she had been passed over for a new job, and there was a fire in her apartment building. Martinez was stuck in a motel, and she said she had little money left. She was continuing her job search throughout the night from the motel's business center, and a couple of weeks ago, one of those businesses called her and asked her to come in for an interview. Martinez agreed to let NPR's Alix Spiegel go with her.
ALIX SPIEGEL: For the last eight months, Sylvia Martinez has worn the wardrobe of the unemployed. Every morning, she's paired bulky sweat pants with shapeless T-shirts and declared herself dressed. But not this day.
Ms. SYLVIA MARTINEZ (Former Human Resources Manager): I had a reason to get out of bed today. I had a reason to put on a skirt and put on shoes, and I just hope that I'll be able to do this every day.
SPIEGEL: All morning long, Martinez had been telling herself not to get carried away. She's had high hopes before, particularly with the last interview that didn't pan out. But considered her conversation with the hiring manager earlier in the week, it was just really hard to contain her excitement.
Ms. MARTINEZ: We had a really good conversation on the phone. It was really positive. And she just sounded just as eager as I was to meet with me as I was to meet with her. So…
SPIEGEL: This optimism was new to Martinez. It's safe to say that losing her job had been demoralizing - so demoralizing that Sylvia ended up doing something she never imagined she'd do: desperate one night, she swallowed a handful of pills. But recently, says Martinez, things seemed to be turning around. She'd gone on anti-depressants, and the pills lifted her mood and thankfully helped her, finally, to sleep.
Ms. MARTINEZ: Though sleeping has gotten better for me. But last night was just a little hard, just because I kept thinking about the interview and what not to do.
SPIEGEL: What not to do. This is a topic, Martinez says, she's spent a long time thinking about, and it's easy to summarize her conclusions.
Ms. MARTINEZ: I don't want to seem desperate. I know that the last interview, I know that I seemed desperate. And although I am, by all means, but I don't want to seem that way. I don't want to come across to them that way.
SPIEGEL: There is, though, one problem with this strategy. Sylvia's been desperate for so long, it's hard for her to remember what it feels like not to be desperate. It's incredibly ironic, she tells me. For 10 years, her job was to hire people. But now it's hard for her to remember anything about her former life, including how to behave in an interview.
Ms. MARTINEZ: So yesterday, I found myself calling someone that I used to work with at the last company I worked for and, you know, just telling them, what was it that I asked you? You know, how was I? Just because I had forgotten that.
SPIEGEL: After this reconnaissance mission, Sylvia says she came up with a mental checklist of things not to say. She was not going to explain, as she had in her last interview, that if they gave her a penny more than unemployment, she would gladly take the job, or talk in any way about the financial difficulties that woke her every morning at three. In fact, she says, she was not even going to mention being unemployed - even privately, to herself.
Ms. MARTINEZ: I'm not even going to think about being unemployed at this point.
SPIEGEL: You're blocking it out of your mind.
Ms. MARTINEZ: I have to. I have to.
(Soundbite of birds chirping)
(Soundbite of car door opening, closing)
SPIEGEL: It was with this stern optimism that Sylvia climbed into her Saturn Vue and set off for her interview.
Okay, so this place is about 40 minutes away? Or…
Ms. MARTINEZ: About 40. Yeah.
SPIEGEL: Once she hit I-95, Sylvia seemed to relax. For her last job, Sylvia drove this road every morning. But unlike the rest of the commuters stuck in traffic in Northern Virginia, Sylvia actually liked it. It was her time by herself, she says, and now she's back in her element. She is someone with somewhere to go. But as we get closer, this ease wears off.
Ms. MARTINEZ: I'm getting a little anxious now. I just hope that I say the right things. Oh, goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness.
SPIEGEL: Sylvia finally pulls into an office park and parks in front of a building. She's 15 minutes early, so she sits silently for a while with her hands on the steering wheel.
Ms. MARTINEZ: Now it's just a matter of just going in there. So wish me luck.
(Soundbite of car door closing)
SPIEGEL: Sylvia disappears into the building, a rectangle of brick and tinted glass. Thirty minutes later, she appears again.
(Soundbite of car door opening)
Ms. MARTINEZ: Hi.
SPIEGEL: Hi. How did it go?
Ms. MARTINEZ: It went well.
SPIEGEL: As soon as she got into the car, it was clear from Sylvia's face that the interview hadn't gone as planned. It turns out that the job isn't just about being an office manager and hiring officer.
Ms. MARTINEZ: I think they're looking for someone who has really strong accounting experience, which I don't. I did accounting in between bookkeepers, but accounting is not one of my strengths. As soon as they said strong accounting, I was like, oh…
SPIEGEL: Sylvia says she was honest with them about her limitations, and the mood in the room cooled. They didn't even have a conversation about salary. Sitting in the car, her thoughts turned to her children: two 19-year-old twin girls and a son.
Ms. MARTINEZ: I've always told my children how a college education is necessary. And they couldn't go in January because I was unemployed, and I have to get a job now so they can at least start going in August. How can I take that from them? I can't. I can't.
SPIEGEL: Sylvia says she won't share the details of her interview with her children, and that probably, they won't even ask.
Ms. MARTINEZ: Chances are that they'll just ask: How did it go? And I'll say fine, and I'll just leave it at that.
SPIEGEL: They won't ask more?
Ms. MARTINEZ: I don't think they will, just because the last interview was such a disappointment, for all of us, that I don't think they will.
SPIEGEL: The unemployment rate is now around 9.4 percent. Three hundred and forty-five thousand people lost their jobs in May. It was the highest rate in 26 years, but many news headlines emphasize the good news: The rate of job losses was slowing. Things were looking up. Sylvia wasn't aware of this silver lining. She says that recently, she's been mostly avoiding the news.
Ms. MARTINEZ: I just read somewhere that - I forgot what company. It's a really big company, that they're about to lay off 5,000 people. That means there's 5,000 more people that are going to be in the same situation I'm in. That's horrible.
SPIEGEL: She says she knows too well exactly what those people will go through. And Sylvia's own list of worries continues to grow. She has to reapply for unemployment at the end of June, and says that money for anti-depressants is running out.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.