LAND O'LAKES — Don Gould clocked in at the Publix here in central Pasco County. The green computer font on the small black screen told him to BEGIN SHIFT.
Gould is 46, has been married 21 years and is the father of three boys. Three years ago, he was living in Indiana, managing a small design company and making a six-figure salary.
Now he's living in Wesley Chapel making $8.25 an hour. Publix calls him a front service clerk.
"I used to be a big shot," he said one day last week. "Now I'm just, 'Hey, bag boy.' "
The national unemployment rate is 10 percent, the state rate is 11.5, and the local rate is 12.3. For every open job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 6.4 people who want it and need it.
Gould is in none of those numbers. He is part of the large swath of the humbled underemployed — people who during the recession have gone from highly educated and highly paid to paper or plastic.
He contacted the St. Petersburg Times at the start of the newspaper's Help Wanted series and explained why he's doing now the same thing he did for pocket money when he was 17.
His sons are 18, 16 and 12. "I want to be a role model," he wrote, "by showing by example that no job is undignified."
Which is true.
And also not so simple.
• • •
Gould grew up in Lansing, Mich., where his father was the director of inheritance and intangible taxes for the state. "Wore a suit and tie, 8 to 5, carried a briefcase," he said. A professional. His mother stayed at home. They weren't rich, but they weren't poor, either.
In junior high, Gould had a paper route; in high school, he bagged groceries and was a janitor at a church; in college, he washed pots and pans at the cafeteria.
He graduated from Michigan State in 1985 with a degree in engineering. He graduated from Grand Valley State in 1991 with a master's in marketing.
Starting in 1985, a week after he finished at MSU, and until the fall of 2007, he worked — at small companies and at big companies, as an inside sales guy and as an outside sales guy, as an applications engineer and as a marketing man. He traveled to places like Singapore for business. People worked for him.
Then he got laid off. Soon after that, his wife did, too. They both looked for jobs, and she got one down here, in Tampa, in quality control at Bausch & Lomb. So they moved.
This was August of '08. He started looking for a job. And then the economy collapsed.
Instead of sitting at home, he said, all woe-is-me and constantly clicking refresh on CareerBuilder.com, he decided to work in the meantime, anywhere, doing anything. Not every executive out of a job makes that choice. They climb society's rungs, latch onto a level of prestige, and won't let go.
The questions he was asked in his interview at Publix, he said, mostly went like this: Do you realize you're going to have to clean the bathrooms? Do you realize you're going to have to mop the floor? Are you sure you want to do this?
He started at Publix that December, making $7.75 an hour, working for a supervisor who was 18 years old.
For a while, he worked with his oldest, Clark, father and son side by side.
• • •
The other day at his home in Wesley Chapel, he "suited up" for work — black pants and black shoes, have to wear a belt, can't have a beard — and drove to the Publix and clocked in.
The computer letters told him to HAVE A NICE DAY!
At the foot of the lane, he stood and put into plastic sacks Tyson Fun Nuggets and Foster's 12-packs, Dole diced pears and strawberry Pop-Tarts, plastic-wrapped pieces of pineapple and Scooby Doo mac and cheese, a 24-count box of Publix-brand donut holes and a bottle of Shiraz.
He took people's groceries out to their cars, and collected carts, five at a time. He bent over and picked up trash, off the asphalt outside, off the floor inside.
It's easy: "I feel like I take my brain out and hang it on a hook."
It's hard: "My feet throb. My knees throb. I take an ibuprofen to go to bed."
He wears a Publix back brace.
• • •
Bag boys see things. Here's what Gould has seen:
People talking on their cell phones while paying for their food by swiping their cards — so connected, to someone, somewhere, but so thoughtless and indifferent to those immediately around them.
"How are you, ma'am?"
"Plastic okay, ma'am?"
People walking to their cars and getting in their cars and sitting in their cars while he's still loading the bags from the cart. No "thank you." No nothing. Just a trunk thump and shift to reverse.
One night, Gould said, a man came through his lane. He had on a cooking coat and clogs and bought a Bud Light six pack and two Lean Cuisines.
"Dinner of champions," Gould joked.
The man turned to him and looked at him not so much with disdain but just with tired eyes.
"You're looking at the only cook at Macaroni Grill with an MBA," the man said to Gould.
"Well," Gould said to the man, "you're looking at the only bag boy at Publix with an MBA."
• • •
It's good: "Publix threw me a lifesaver. It gave me purpose. It gave me structure. It made me meet new people."
It's bad: "Still, there's a certain amount — if I'm being brutally truthful with myself — there's a little bit of, I don't know, I failed."
The intellectual part of him asks one question: What went wrong? The human part of him asks something different: What did I do wrong?
Analysis of the economy is easier than analysis of the self.
Gould is glad his wife's job allows his family to pay the bills — they live in a nice house, they drive nice cars, they're not desperate or destitute or anywhere close — but he feels guilty that his contribution isn't more than what it is.
He doesn't wear his Michigan State shirts in public as much because sometimes he feels like somehow he has devalued his alma mater's name.
He takes his oldest son to orientation at Florida State and sees people who are smart, who have jobs, and feels a mix of envy and shame.
Doing nothing, though, would be worse. The money he makes bagging the groceries at Publix is the money he uses to buy the groceries to take home. And the lesson he's trying to teach his boys — "no job is undignified" — is a lesson they've learned.
"I grew up pretty privileged," Clark said on the phone from Tallahassee, where he's now a freshman. "He showed me that he's not better than that, and I'm not better than that."
Still, though, he added: "You can tell it's bothered him."
• • •
In social settings, and this is something Gould has noticed only in these last however many months, one small-talk staple is of course: "How are you?" But another: "What do you do?" And here, Gould said, is how most people answer: "I am an attorney." "I am a professor." "I am a mechanic."
At first, Gould said, he responded with jokes.
"I'm a trophy husband."
"I'm a kept man."
Now, though, he says he works at Publix. "They assume what they assume," he said.
The first six or so months, he didn't put Publix on his resume; the last six or so months, though, he has. Some people he has talked to about jobs have mentioned it, and they've said nice things, about how they respect that, about how they're not sure they could do that.
Still hasn't gotten him a job that's not bagging groceries. A few times, he said, he has gotten close. One time his references started getting calls. So now he tries not to get too high or too low. It mitigates the hurt.
One recent evening Gould bagged a woman's groceries and put them in her cart. The pin on his black Publix smock read ABOVE & BEYOND. He pushed her cart out of the store and into the parking lot.
The sun was starting to set.
"Which way are we going?" he asked.
News researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.