[Hard times]

Free groceries, empty stores, waiting in line

Along Maryland Parkway, scenes from the recession

Carol Mittwede and Marsha Tarte, volunteers from Christ Episcopal Church, hand out bags of food to needy members of the community.
Photo: Jacob Kepler

It’s a rice-and-beans season—or, as The Colbert Report summarizes it, there’s a “clusterfuck at the poor house.” And here, on Maryland Parkway, behind Christ Episcopal Church, some 30 people are lined up to get two free bags of groceries. The line is not new; the church has been handing out ramen and bags of dried beans and cans of soup and whatever else is donated for many years. But it seems less an anomaly now than a part of a sweeping landscape of sucky times, apparent up and down Maryland Parkway, throughout Vegas, the state, the nation ...

Niuris Nive has just left the line carrying two bags of food in one hand and her 3-year-old daughter, Milly, in the other.

“I’ve applied everywhere for a job,” she says. “It’s hard being a single mother. So a friend told me about this place to get some things.” Nive has been in Vegas for 15 years and worked in a variety of service-industry jobs, most recently at the Stage Deli in Caesars Palace, which closed this summer. She’s been unemployed since July 29.

“I was going to get a job at the Review-Journal delivering papers, but you have to pay for the gas, and I have an eight-cylinder,” she says. Milly is eating a muffin given to her at the church, covering both tiny hands and her face in pumpkin-bread crumbs.

If you head south on Maryland toward Nevada Job Connect, the state’s resource office for the unemployed, you’ll pass a shuttered Rite-Aid, and a big “Closing Sale” sign over Lamps Plus’ front windows, and a “Store Closed” banner on Dillard’s at the Boulevard Mall, and a fenced-off vacant strip mall. Nevada Job Connect’s parking lot is overflow-full, and outside the front door is a table where you can register to vote, or, more precisely, prepare to register your complaint.

Inside, it’s cool and quiet, and the chairs are full of people waiting for their numbers to be called. A man with a baby strapped to his chest and another baby in a stroller is reading the job postings, which are printed from old dot-matrix printers on green-and-white reams of computer paper, tacked on the side wall: Trailer Security Officer, $6.50/hour; Office Manager in Pahrump, $11/hour; Corporate Controller, $100,000/year; HVAC Tech, $20.48/hour.

After a short wait, you get to the front of a line where you’ll get a number and sit down to wait again, this time to be called for an appointment with an advisor. But if you merely want to ask someone what it takes to qualify for unemployment benefits, you’ll be told, “You can call the number or go online.”

“There’s no unemployment office?”

“No, because there are like 100,000 people receiving unemployment now,” the clerk will say. “You will probably qualify. Just file for it no matter what, and then if there’s a problem, you’ll find out.”

At 2:07, you will call the telephone number for unemployment, and get a busy signal. Again at 2:14 and 2:24. Nevada’s unemployment rate is at 7.1 percent, the highest it’s been since 1985. You pick up the R-J while waiting—realizing it was delivered by someone who likely doesn’t drive an eight-cylinder—and read that Nevada unemployment officials predict a job recovery in 2011. Dial again: busy. Acquiesce to the idea that, indeed, the time of ramen and beans is upon us. Go online to file your claim. It’s an easy seven-step form, click yes, click yes, click yes, submit.

You’ll go back to reading about how the world lost a trillion dollars last week, the largest stock drop in history. You’ll find out that the only stock that went up on Monday, September 29, was Campbell’s Soup.

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