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Folk Heroism

On Wednesday afternoon, I walked off the job. There has been six weeks of unblogged build-up to this moment. I’ve tried to write entries about how much I dislike my job—the customers, (some of) the coworkers, the job itself—but it all just comes off as petty whining to anybody who hasn’t previously worked in retail. Unfortunately, because I work at a mega-bookstore that is owned by a huge corporation, this job has managed to combine all the worst aspects of retail with the horrors of an office-style hierarchy. For a frame of reference, watch Office Space followed by Clerks. If you ignore the fires and dead Jews, this is an accurate depiction of what the last six weeks have been like: mind-numbing, soul-crushing employment hell.

However, I didn’t walk off the job because I hate it. Not solely, anyway… I left because, for the third time in as many weeks, I was scheduled to close, 3PM to 11PM, and my break was scheduled…from 4 to 5. The first time this happened, I stupidly assumed it’d be a one-time thing because we were understaffed, so I took it without a word. The second time it happened, I started out pissed but it was resolved immediately by two of my café coworkers who had talked about it before I even got there. Last Wednesday, there was absolutely nothing that could be done—my coworkers would be gone, so nobody could cover me. Irate, I thought, “Well, fuck them, man—they can have a manager cover me.”

I called the service manager, told her the dilemma, and very politely asked if I could be given a more reasonable break. She told me she’d talk to Nancy, who has become the unofficial general manager since our normal GM is on vacation this week. A few minutes later, Nancy approached the café while I was with a customer. She talked with Matt, one of my coworkers (he was there until 5, which is why I could only take my break at 4), and I heard him quietly bitching her out for this scheduling problem. He was as angry as I was about it. She disappeared without saying a word to me. About six seconds later, I was approached by the service manager, who told me she talked to Nancy and that nothing could be done because nobody could cover me. However, if I really felt I needed to eat, maybe I could have a short, unpaid break to get food, but there’s no way I could be covered for a full hour.

Here’s the thing that was apparently unclear: going on a break, for me anyway, is not about eating. I almost never eat on my break, and when I do, I only have something small and light. My breaks are about my mental health. I need to get away from the motherfucking customers for a little while so I can clear my head and come back, as I often do, refreshed and relaxed. Working six hours, by myself, with no break—not even the 10-minute paid break guaranteed by federal law, which I have to ask permission to take and am generally refused—is very damaging to my psyche. Yes, eight hours of sleep and a day off do me well, but not nearly as well as an hour respite.

Enraged, I contemplated the idea of leaving. This was suggested by my father after I told him about the first incident of this scheduling practice. He’s been a manager long enough to know that, while it may not necessarily be illegal, it’s really shitty to do. While it may not be the best way of handling the situation, it’s generally the most effective, assuming you don’t get fired. If they really need you, and you show them what life is like without you, managers tend to be far more accommodating.

Still, I wasn’t sure if it was the best thing to do. I only had four days left on the schedule, and I didn’t really want to leave the company like this, especially if I was desperate for money and needed to coast on a semi-glowing reference from the management. At the same time, I was so frustrated by so many things, this kind of became the last straw. I didn’t even want to be at work, so them basically saying to me, “Here, get really riled up so you feel justified in leaving,” really made me feel justified in leaving.

Unsure of what to do, I talked to Matt. He’s been here for three years and has slowly grown to hate it as much as I do after only being there six weeks. Matt said, “Honestly, the way they’ve been treating you, and the fact that you have less than a week left—I don’t even know why you don’t just walk out of here and not look back.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” I said excitedly. We vented some mild frustration, and I asked him whether or not I should give them the ultimatum I had considered. I was thinking the best thing to do, as a form of warning, was to call up Nancy directly and say, “If you can’t find somebody to fill an hour from 7 to 8, you might not like finding somebody to work from 5 to 11.” I didn’t really think I wanted to do that, though, since Nancy didn’t even have the (figurative) balls to tell me herself. If she wasn’t going to tell me anything directly, why should I tell her? Let her find out from the service manager, who I bitched out rather effectively (in the sense that it made her visibly emotional, not in the sense that it actually accomplished anything toward changing my break time).

Matt agreed, without me even saying anything, that it would be best to just slip out the door. They need to know that they need more people. His ploy was to take a vacation, since his year just rolled over and he can schedule more time, so they’d realize that the café can’t survive with the skeleton crew we have. If I left, it’d send the same message, so they’d also know Matt wasn’t alone in his opinion.

I thought some more, and as 4PM rolled around, Matt asked, “So, are you gonna do it?”

“Yup,” I said confidently. I shook his hand and told him that since I’d probably never see him again, he should know he was cool to work with. He seemed both surprised and touched by this rare outburst of pleasantness.

I punched out as always, took all my things, and walked out the door. And didn’t come back. As I drove home, it was hot and humid. Huge thunderheads were building in the sky. It was pretty awesome. I thought, in the nerdiest way imaginable, that the sky was all symbolic of the workplace atmosphere. Then I thought about how lame thinking that was, and I turned the volume up on Appetite For Destruction just a few notches so I wouldn’t be tempted to think about anything other than Paradise City, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.

It’s extremely unusual for me not to feel tremendous pangs of guilt doing something like this. I think about all the people I’d be fucking over, and I get upset. Tonight, though, I knew I’d only be fucking over Nancy—the only active manager—and I felt good about that. I knew if they figured it out, they’d try to get Matt to stay or call him back, so I cleared it with him first. He said he’d refuse, and I knew he’d stick with that, so I was fine with that. And I fucking hate all the customers across the board—regulars and one-timers alike—so I wouldn’t feel bad that their precious café might be closed. Basically, everybody remotely associated with that store can suck a cock, and I felt pretty pleased that I didn’t go back.

They called me twice a few hours later, within a few minutes of each other. The second time they left a message, worried that maybe something happened to me because of the storm, but I think they knew better. The manager who called is the only decent one there, so I didn’t call back because I was worried I might buckle and come back if he was really nice to me.

The next day, I got a call from a manager I barely know. He was very Zenmaster about the whole thing, speaking very softly, trying to get my side of the story. He was more than understanding—in fact, he said that even though it was a pretty shitty way to handle things, he would have probably done the same thing. This surprised me, and I couldn’t really tell if it was manager faux-empathy bullshit or if he was being sincere. He asked me if I’d be willing to come in, as I was scheduled to, and when I said I would if they’d have me (I do still need money, after all…), he told me I’d probably have to talk to Nancy and that I shouldn’t come to her—I should wait for her to approach me. That was fine by me; I didn’t particularly want to have a confrontation with her.

I got in at 3, as I was scheduled to, and was pleasantly surprised to find my friend Shannon on the schedule for the evening. She was to come at 7:30, so I could be relieved for my break, and then she’d be closing with me. Again, from a mental health standpoint, it’s much better to have somebody else there than to be by myself. I don’t have any interest in getting to know the dipshit customers, and I’m ostracized from the rest of the store until about 10:45, so there are very few people to talk to.

I was there with Matt and Rick, the café supervisor, who didn’t really give me much flak for what I did. He just told me ominously that Nancy would probably be by to talk to me, which I told him I already knew. Then they both disappeared, since they each really hate working in the café. Several minutes later, the phone rang. In the café, this only happens for two reasons: (1) one of the coworkers wants to trade a shift, or (2) a manager is calling to rain fire down on the café. I picked up the phone; it was Nancy.

“Is this Rick?” she asked.

“Uh…no,” I said.

“It’s not Matty, though…”

“Yeah, it’s Stan,” I said.

She paused, and then her tone hardened. “Oh, okay. Is Rick back there?”

“No,” I said.

“Do you know where he is? He’s not answering his page, and the reg sounds pretty frantic.”

“I have no idea,” I said. “I’m sure he’s around here somewhere.”

“Okay, then,” she said. Another pause, followed by: “Hey, listen, when Matt or Rick gets back there, would you mind coming back here and talking to me for a few minutes?”

“Sure, no problem,” I said through gritted teeth.

A few minutes later, both Rick and Matt returned, and I went into the back room to talk with Nancy.

She gave me a couple of sob stories: one was about her broken foot, which apparently happened about three minutes after I left on Wednesday, and the other was about their difficulties in hiring “a new person.” The thing that bugs me about it is, they’re still only trying to hire one new person. Since I’ve worked there, they’ve been trying to find one new person so the café would be comfortably covered with two people at all times. Since then, one person has quit, and now I’m leaving, and they still haven’t hired that one extra person. At this point, they should be look for three.

Then she got into the nitty-gritty, that she should’ve been angry, too, and that I theoretically followed the correct protocol by calling the service manager, but if I was unsure (I wasn’t), I should have called her directly. She also said she needed to report me to district HR, and they could decide what they wanted to do with me. The fact that I came back, and the fact that I’ve already quit, is supposed to go a long way in the decision—they’ll give me a warning instead of a firing—but they probably won’t know the final decision until after I’ve gone. I wasn’t really too concerned about the outcome, at any rate.

She also tried to deflect the blame, insisting the service manager never talked to her. I don’t really think that’s true, though I obviously have no way of proving it. Her entire sermon was really more about deflecting the blame away from her than actually solving my many gripes, although they did at least fix my scheduling, in part by bringing in Shannon but also by adding a person to the schedule so I won’t be totally alone on Saturday. And yeah, it’s nice that my last few days will be slightly less painful, but it seems like, despite the message I attempted to send through Gandhi-esque passive resistance, they don’t really understand the full extent of the problems in the café.. I took the opportunity to explain them, but it was basically in one ear and out the other (as I suspected it would be, which is why I didn’t bother talking on Wednesday). I just got the same old “we’re trying to hire people” speech for the second time in one conversation.

Finally, she let me go. Essentially, I won’t even get a bad reference, even if I try to apply at a different chain at some point (which would involve them contacting the previous store), or if I want to come back to this store in the future. Not that I really would, but I suppose I appreciated the fact that being flagrantly irresponsible not only didn’t get me fired—it didn’t even blackball me at this store.

Afterward, something kind of amazing happened. I was walking back through the store to return to the café, and I kept seeing people, all these people I’ve been working with for six weeks, and all of a sudden they were congratulating me for apparently having the biggest balls in the history of the store. One guy even referred to me as “a legend.” Yes, I imagine they’ll all forget about it two weeks after I’m gone, but all of a sudden I’m like a folk hero. Not because I left—no, it doesn’t take balls of steel to leave a job this shitty—but because I came back. I taught them their lesson, and I had the balls to return to the store, return to my post, do the job, and look management in the eye.

I didn’t even think of this as a ballsy move. It just seemed logical: I made my point, and they said I could come back, so why not? Does the fact that I didn’t even consider the necessity of basketball-sized loins girded in steel mean that what I really did was heroic, or are they just making a mountain out of the molehill that is my daily lunch break?

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