An employment office is like a hospital waiting room. People come in scared. The staff has to be as unflappable as veteran nurses. You start to realize that bad things, unexpected misfortune, can find you regardless of the particulars of your life.
A couple doors down from the Oahu WorkLinks employment center on Dillingham in Kalihi, Clifford Keliikoa Sr. mans the door at Savers, the clothing resale store.
"Purple tag special today," he reminds every customer as he greets them at the door. If people are leaving with large purchases, enough to clothe a shelter, he tells them, "Just leave the cart here and bring your car in the front. I’ll help you."
And when people walk by from the WorkLinks office after the humbling experience of summing up all the years they worked in a job they loved into a few words to fit on a computer template, Keliikoa has words of comfort for them.
"I feel for all those guys who lost their jobs," he says. "I went through that three times."
Keliikoa worked for a cement company on the Leeward coast for many years before it shut down. He worked at the Coronet store for more than a decade before it closed. He then took a job in town in a store that eventually went out of business. He was 60 years old when he applied to work at Savers four years ago.
"You gotta adjust. Adapt. You can," he counsels.
Keliikoa gets up at four in the morning to catch the bus at five that takes him from Nanakuli Hawaiian Homes into Kalihi for work at 8 a.m. Sometimes the ride home in the evening takes two hours if there’s been an accident along the Leeward coast. "I leave the house when there’s stars in the sky and I get home when there’s stars in the sky," he says. He talks about the stars, not the darkness. "I don’t complain."
At the WorkLinks office, a man with rings on both pinkies tries to upload his resume onto the computer while a staff member gently walks him through the many steps. When he successfully enters his work history, she cheers for him. "OK, next step!" There are lots of steps. The office is full of people looking for work. There’s a woman in her 70s who has done food demonstrations in supermarkets, a man young enough to still list his high school honor roll and an executive who got out of college 30 years ago and never thought he’d be sitting in an employment office at 50 explaining his skill set.
"You gotta keep going forward," Keliikoa advises. "The bills keep coming. The bills don’t get laid off."
Keliikoa smiles at his customers, hands out coupons, checks purchases and reaches out to people who have that lost look in their eyes. "I feel for them. But you gotta get out there. You can’t isolate yourself. I went through that."
Lee Cataluna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.