The guy in the brand new Lexus pulled up to the curb. He wasn’t supposed to park there, but he got out, left the car running, and used his cardkey to slip inside the building.

He emerged a few moments later with a box full of office tschotkes, shoved it into the back seat and turned to grab another. I nodded and smiled; he didn’t smile back. He stared fixedly at the ground, groped blindly for the keys and finally drove off.

Layoff day.

A friend once likened an office facing layoffs to sheep in a pen waiting to be sheared, and there are remarkable similarities: Huddling, fearful bleating, edging away from the guys with the scissors, plunging back into the crowd to escape notice, pushing someone else out to the too-obvious edge. I guess that’s a trans-species response.

You can’t work in journalism, Web or marketing–my three professions–without experiencing plenty of layoff days, and over the years I’ve both been shorn and done the shearing. Most times the pain of being sheared is gone as soon as you find another job.

Shearing someone else stays with you for a long time. All you can do is hope you were fair.

My ex was laid off at his regular weekly staff meeting. The company owner walked in and announced “We need to cut costs, so this is Joel’s last day. Good luck, Joel; your things are right outside the door.”

As layoffs go, it wouldn’t exactly take the compassion award.

If I’m laid off, I usually wind up comforting the guy with the shears–I know how awful it feels to surgically remove a livelihood. And perhaps sympathizing with ol’ Edward Scissorhands across the table there, who still has a job while I don’t, sorta prolongs the notion that I’m in charge. A couple of days later I usually I realize that whole dynamic is pretty weird, but I guess it works because I’ve done it more than once.

Last week’s layoffs were low-key; these guys knew for months that the scissors were poised, and the CEO had done the best job I’ve ever encountered at both explaining the layoff and exhibiting compassion for what was coming. For the first time I could watch a layoff with a minor species of detachment since I was a contractor, not an employee. My own contract had been budget-cut a couple days earlier so, technically speaking, I was already gone.

But I saw the shellshock of the Lexus guy and the folks cut from my group. The relief–and guilt–of the survivors. The difficulty of trying to be sorry for your colleague while concealing your joy that, for now at least, your mortgage will still be paid.

I did mother confessor to both sides. Watched the shellshocked sheared numbly select the stuff to pack and the stuff to leave in the cubicle that was no longer theirs. Listened to the “why me?” analysis, the barely concealed envy of the guys who still had jobs, the bitter diagnoses and shoulda-woulda-couldas. Saw the manager stumble off to a quiet corner, tearslicked, and shade her eyes from view. Witnessed the dark exhaustion, the vain attempts to get back to work.

I know the only thing that helps is the prospect of something much better down the road–and I know there is for these guys–but right now I’m sure it’s just too early for them to think about that.

So I’m sorry guys, I really am.