This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.
I hate it when I’m frustrated as hell because of some complex work problem and someone has to go and post some inspirational crap that screams into the universe via pastel colors that anyone who fails to love their job is some sort of inferior species.
In my teens and twenties, I had crappy jobs. The kind where the on-the-job survival strategy was usually to identify and then obtain admission to a clique among the employees. Then, regardless of which one it was, it was essential to bitch constantly about the boss. The boss, defined as anyone who had any power over your schedule or your pay. Occasionally there were drugs before shifts, routinely there was comedy during the shifts, inevitably there was drinking after shifts ended. Pranks helped pass the time and revealed creativity that was clearly being wasted. I worked mornings with a hostess who had a crush on the cook. She decorated the boisterous Puerto Rican man’s locker with an elaborate unicorn theme that made him laugh hysterically as glitter rained down on him after he closed for the night. It also provided him with gifts for his youngest daughter’s birthday, which we all knew was that weekend.
Sometimes, we’d try to find ways to work around The System that ruled all my crappy jobs. One woman broke company policy by hiding and then wrapping up discarded food to take to the homeless shelter not three doors down from the restaurant. A teen without a car whose parents were often too drunk to drive him to work became part of an impromptu carpool we developed after he was beaten up for looking too weird for our city’s bus riders. Many times, we understood things about each other without speaking the words. We were hard-shelled, difficult to read, defiant in our appearances. But if you got in with us, we had your back; without even thinking about it. Some of us weren’t always in the right. A few broke down and stole. Many lost our tempers one too many times. I sometimes found myself the one in the ladies’ room too hungover to work properly. It wasn’t that we weren’t honest people. We prepared, cooked, and served food t strangers! The trust that people put in us was a serious contract. But waiting on people is humbling and can hurt. There are those who can’t see you as a fellow human, or who focus in on the myriad ways they can control you, or who assume stupidity because they have never had to work such a low-paying job. This daily stress of remembering your worth, among so much to do, it was often a task left undone.
There are jobs in this world that will kill your soul. One night my appearance was picked apart by drunk frat boys in the drive-through. Another, I bravely tried not show that my hands were shaking as I politely gave the change to customer who swore at me with the most hateful profane language I’ve ever seen. Every night I would count the minutes left until dawn, knowing I had to ride my bike home before the sun rose over the mountains. I knew. I know that these people were out there in the night and, as they told me, “they knew where I worked”. I would calculate how much I earned as the hours passed. I balanced the dread in my stomach with the cash in the bank. I traded a boring graveyard shift for minimum wage, trying not to think too much about any dignity lost when I put on that grease-stained uniform. Three years of this. But, when a customer jumped over the counter and punched a co-worker, I resigned.
My first job that didn’t involve physical labor, working outside, or serving food was a godsend. It was so damn comfortable. I was seated behind a computer and expected to answer phones, stuff envelopes, and talk to people who came in to the non-profit for appointments. I didn’t have enough nice clothes to wear five days a week so I bought scarves and tried to hide beneath their colorful patterns. The other employees greeted me by my name and asked me questions about my weekend, and slowly, after a few weeks, I realized they actually wanted to hear the answer. I didn’t have answers as my crowd from the old job were all getting off at two in the morning and I was starting work now at 8:00 am.
My boss took me aside after a couple weeks and asked me to try to chat a bit more and not be so shy. She told me to talk about myself, share more. What was there to share with these people? Could I tell them about why I ran away across the country as they selected a doughnut in the staff room? Did they all share their secrets gathered around the coffee pot? Hell, no, they didn’t. I had to make up a new version of myself for these people. In my mind, my name at this job was Kaitlin. She could mingle. She could chat. One afternoon the entire office, six people, ran outside to the patio to watch a freak hailstorm and I was torn between continuing my data entry project like I thought I should – and being Kaitlin, who would run outside and twirl around with the blond guy in the storm and maybe get a latte after work. I weighed the criticism I was now more sensitive to, for so long that the storm ended, and I hadn’t moved. Another reason I could be viewed as stand-offish. I was scared to death of being wrong and spent a lot of time indecisively stuck.
But, for the first time, my boss wasn’t my enemy. She didn’t get annoyed or mad if I made mistakes. Instead, she talked about learning experiences. I started to see that not everyone was as perfect as they looked and that I wasn’t the dumbest person there. C was the first woman who ever shared what she knew with me, instead of hiding her knowledge and hoarding information jealously. I was used to managers waiting for a screw up during training, waiting for weak spots to be revealed. But, she only saw strengths. She said the word, “potential”. She asked me to take walks at lunch with her and she didn’t need to fill up my silences.
I realized that I liked her because I felt capable and useful to her. This, in turn, made me realize that I could be capable and useful. But I couldn’t see it in myself until I had C as a mirror. She was the first woman I ever trusted at work. In years since, I have had other bosses, a few good, some terrible. My voice has be ignored or my talent has been underestimated. At times my originality is noticeably overlooked or inaccurately credited. Often my words aren’t quite right or I misunderstand. Whether up or down, I try to remember C. Because what she did that changed me, was uplift. And, even on a bad day, we can all do a little more of that.