HE ONCE SIGNED autographs; now he signs unemployment checks. He used to be recognized on the street; today he's spotted in the unemployment office.
Former TV anchorman Mike Andrei suffered through both Channel 2's "Bloody Wednesday" in 1986 and the crumbling of Empire of America in January. Laid off for the second time in 13 months, he last worked as communications director for an advertising agency -- until its largest client went bankrupt. It has been four months since he held a job.
If a former anchorman with a degree in English literature can't get work, what hope is there for the run-of-the-resume job hunter? Andrei personifies the white-collar crash, the result of downsizing, merging and bailing out.
Some yuppies are now becoming puppies -- poor urban professionals, middle-class wreckage left in the wake of a Frankenstein economy careening toward depression.
Meanwhile, Andrei fights off his own depression.
"This isn't the way it was supposed to be," he muses over a cup of coffee. "For me, anyway. I wasn't supposed to have to go through this. These were supposed to be prime earning years.
With head in hand, he articulates what anthropologist Katherine Newman has called the "broken covenant" in the American middle class's downward mobility.
"It is so profound a reversal of middle-class expectations that it calls into question the assumptions upon which their lives have been predicated," Ms. Newman notes in her study "Falling From Grace."
One assumption: If you go to college and work diligently in your career, you're going to be secure.
"That's not necessarily the case anymore," says Alan
Beideck, New York State Labor Department senior economist. Just looking at banking and government, the economist says that from October 1989 to October 1990 the Buffalo area lost 2,400 jobs.
"People see bankers, accountants and professionals getting laid off who 'shouldn't be getting laid off,' " Andrei says.
"I've had a couple of really bad days. Having gone through this a few times, I don't see any point in doing that. I know it's not going to work unless you stay positive. Period. I have decided that's the way to do it. I don't want this to drag on and on.
"Everybody tells me to hang in there, it's a matter of being persistent.
"See me in two months. If I'm still out of work, you might have an entirely different interview," he jokes. "Portrait of a bridge jumper."
Determined not to get mired in self-pity, Andrei realizes that many victims of today's financial catastrophe are a lot worse off than he is. At least there's no mortgage or family to support, reasons Andrei, who is 36. He rents a carriage house in North Buffalo.
When Andrei first joined Channel 2, blue-collar workers endured massive layoffs. During the '82 recession, it seemed to the newsman as though a plant was closing nearly every day. He reported extensively on the steel mill shutdowns. With steelworker family members, Andrei felt that his stories held personal significance. But journalists feel somewhat separate from the news they cover. They are spectators, not players.
"I sympathize, really more so now than ever, with people who've been in that situation.
"Whether you're a steelworker or a newsperson or whoever. You realize it could happen to anybody if a bank could go under."
In 1990 in Buffalo, even lawyers are laid off. Across the country, most of this year's "first-time" job cuts were white-collar positions. Over one-third of a million jobs vanished. Yet the future looked studio-light bright when young Mike graduated from Western Maryland College in '76. He became assistant producer for a Baltimore television station.
Then his mellifluous voice and on-camera ease won him an anchor position in Richmond. From Virginia, he came to Buffalo and covered major stories like the Democratic National Convention and the pope's visit to Toronto.
On Channel 2's "Bloody Wednesday," employees were fired in three shifts. Though Andrei's job was spared, he left in the aftermath along with other disillusioned staffers, when he could no longer tolerate the gloomy working atmosphere.
"I would have left television regardless," he said, dispassionately discussing career instability in TV news.
"It's a lot tougher to make a buck in the television business. Network viewership in prime time is down from the mid-'70s. A huge chunk is gone -- cable took it, Fox came in there, people have VCRs, they watch what they want to watch." No one knows the weaknesses of "the talent" better than an assignment editor. And former Channel 2 assignment editor Jim Cookfair -- who also outlasted various management teams, but left following "Bloody Wednesday" -- remembers his old anchorman as an even-tempered pro.
"Even if Mike received an assignment he wasn't happy about, he never got upset or stomped around. There was no 'It's beneath me,' or snapping fingers for an intern," Cookfair says.
"And with the bare-bones staff we had, it was easy to get frustrated. Yet Mike was easygoing."
From the TV business, Andrei moved to banking and took a pay cut.
Among other responsibilities at Empire, he conducted media-training seminars and produced marketing/training videotapes and video conferences.
"We're paying a price for the '80s," Andrei explains. "You see all the buyouts now teetering. Junk bond markets collapsed. (Junk bond king Michael) Milken's going to jail for 10 years.
"Real estate markets are collapsing because there were too many shopping centers. It's like this whole house of cards."
In this chilly Christmas season, with his savings shrinking, Andrei is letting a few things go, like his auto club membership.
"You might stretch your credit cards a little bit, all the little tricks people use. You stretch them an extra month.
"There are a lot of people with friends saying the same thing. I think it would be tough to find anybody who doesn't know someone who is either laid off or has been laid off. Or is worried about their job. I think pretty much everybody is nervous now."
There is some gallows humor.
"I got strange looks from a couple of unemployment examiners," the former anchorman recalls.
"One of them kept giving me funny looks, and finally said, 'You used to be on the news?' There have been some humorous moments. Not many," he says with a laugh, "but a couple."
TV's Sally Jessy Raphael talks about being "fired and famous" in the guidebook "Congratulations! You've Been Fired."
"A few times after I'd been let go, people came up to me and said, 'Didn't you used to be Sally Jessy Raphael?' Talk about losing your identity!"
But real friends won't give you the slip when you get the pink slip.
"There are the people who don't want to know you anymore. Then there are friends who want to see how you're doing. It feels great, helps keep you afloat. Nothing is worse than feeling (that) not only are you out of a job, but you're all alone.
"I call people who are out of town, stay in touch -- and that also provide leads.
"I've been giving this a real hard shot. There are people in this town I call every week. They're very patient and tolerant, 'cause they know what I'm going through. That's what you've got to do." He adds with a smile, "Ridiculous, isn't it?"
Besides networking, Andrei keeps a good attitude by staying organized. He keeps his monthly calendar planning book by the phone.
"I always used to snicker at people who did that. There's a real value in it now. I know what I sent to whom, when, what company.
"You have to keep records. This is the easy way to do it. Every day I flip through and see who I called, what I have to do today, what I have to do tomorrow."
This morning he finished a letter to a recruiter, and then dressed for job hunting, steel-blue suit to match his eyes. Later, he'll change and go for a run. Jogging helps him feel "up."
"There appears to be a layoff announcement just about each day," he observes. What really gets the ex-anchorman down these days is the news.