This is how fast it can happen:

One day Patrick Robbins was a sportswear buyer at Mark Shale earning $110,000 a year. The next day he was laid off, with no severance.

Within a week, the family was on Medicaid and had applied for food stamps. Soon his mother-in-law was bringing over toilet paper and paper towels.

"From middle class to poor," Pat Robbins summed it up. "Immediately."

Imagine a pile of blocks, each one representing an element of ordinary American life.

Slowly, carefully, stack them up. One block for the monthly mortgage payment. Another for the credit card bill.

Next, groceries. Kids' sports leagues, doctor's visit co-pays, utility bills -- pile them up in your mind until they rise toward the sky in a precisely calibrated tower.

It all balances, unless you are forced to top it off with one final element: The loss of a job.

That isn't a block; it's a brick.

And with that, it all comes tumbling down.

------Robbins, 41, has a quiet voice and square-jawed good looks fit for fashion retailing. He and his wife, Kimberly, 42, and their four children live in a nice house on a nice block in the nice suburb of Westmont.

Only there's nothing nice about what has happened to them, and is happening to many other middle-class families for whom a layoff spells disaster.

The Robbinses are spinning through the recession at warp speed. They hurtled into financial straits. Now, just as quickly, they have begun to scramble out. They are emerging shaken at life's unpredictability and devoted to a budget, but also convinced of their strength and determined to change the way they live.

Their journey began at a table in a meeting room at the Mark Shale store on North Michigan Avenue. On March 23, Scott Baskin, co-president of the Al Baskin Co., the family-owned operator of Mark Shale stores, delivered the bad news to Robbins and seven other buyers. The Al Baskin Co., its high-end business battered by the worst retail environment in decades, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company was dissolving its buying staff and, along with it, Robbins' 22-year career there. Under the terms of the bankruptcy, Mark Shale was not allowed to give severance payments.

Robbins made the requisite phone calls to say he had been laid off. He called his wife. He called his father, who was a Mark Shale employee for 48 years before he retired.

Then he spent the rest of the day at the North Michigan Avenue store packing his belongings and saying his goodbyes. He bore the company no ill will and was touched that Baskin, grandson of the company's founder, shook each buyer's hand and said he was sorry it had come to this.

But Robbins was scared.

His income was the engine that kept the family going. The $20,000 his wife earned working part time as a personal trainer paid for their four children's Catholic school tuition. All the other bills depended on his paycheck.

At home, he and his wife gathered their 13-year-old son and their daughters, ages 11, 10 and 6, and told them what had happened. Things were going to be different now, they said, though they weren't sure exactly how.