“Would you like to supersize that?” she asks with zero expression. She doesn’t look at me. She’s evidently staring into some fast-food dimension visible only by the brain dead culinary professional. I have the feeling that if I was bleeding profusely out of my jugular and my entire head was on fire, she would not so much as blink an eye.
I look slightly behind me to confirm that she is indeed not looking at anything in this world.
“No thanks,” I say.
She pushes a few buttons. “$4.89,” she says.
I want to wave a hand in front of her face. She’s still looking somewhere off slightly to her right and a little downward. If she were Maine, she’d be engaged in an uneventful staring contest with Iowa.
I hand her a five. I’m pleased to see her arm actually move for the money. I watch her robotic, lifeless maneuvers, and I am struck with amazement. I am amazed, but not surprised as this is the typical zombie behavior of a person hating their job. But I — on this day, at this moment — am blown away by an epiphany. It hits me: This fast food worker’s space-off session is a metaphor for my own career. Maybe even my life.
No, no, I don’t work behind a cash register. You see, I went to college. I put in my time, expecting that pot of gold at the end of the college rainbow they sell you on while in high school. That pot could be a life of blissful affluence and corporate power, or maybe backpacking the globe and serving the impoverished in third-world countries, or perhaps nobly slaving away in a lab somewhere, discovering cures for the incurable. At least those were the marketing splashes the prestigious state institute of higher learning spoon-fed me. Even my parents got in on it. “Go to college,” my dad would say, “and make a great life for yourself like I was never able to do.” He’d squeeze my shoulder, making me believe I would be someone. So when my buddies chose manufacturing jobs, lawn-care work, or doing push-ups in the Marines, I chose college.
And guess what? I did it. I graduated four years ago. Did I find that pot of gold? Well, I did get a job at the largest employer in town, making $32,500 annually. I have my very own gray cubicle to sit in, and I am invited to attend team meetings that sometimes have bagels. You be the judge.
I design corporate training programs. I’ve been doing this for four years, and in those four years I’ve gone from “Training Analyst” to “Training Analyst II,” which means I’ve gone from $32,500 to $37,883. In only four years! At this rate, when I retire, I should be making close to maybe 48 large.
One of the great perks of being a Training Analyst II is that we qualify for better cubicles than the Training Analysts. Our floor has no less than 250 cubicles — some “ghetto,” some “middle class,” and some definitely “upper crust.” The cubicle I’m in now is closer to the restrooms — a fairly coveted spot on my floor that approaches middle class. Most people want to be in the cubicles by the break room, though. Those are really nice and very tough — but not impossible — to get.
But me? I’m shooting for the stars. I, like dozens of others on my floor, have my eye on that cube Carol Johanski is in — the one by the drinking fountain and the window with the choice view of the east parking lot. It’s the nicest cube on our floor, no question. And Carol, in all her smugness, knows it. It’s obvious by the way she has her bobble-heads and cacti lined up where everyone can see them. It’s like — “hey, since you’re obviously doing a walk-by of my sweet cube, you might as well take a look at how a REAL office space should be decorated.”
Carol Johanski, I swear.
Perhaps that’s what my dad meant when he talked about making a great life for myself: getting Carol Johanski’s cube. That would really be something.
You probably think I’m being sarcastic, and you’re right. Because, yeah, I feel a bit gypped by the whole go-to-college-and-have-a-fulfilling-career spiel. And you know what? Sometimes, when I look around at my co-workers, I get the feeling I’m not alone. I’ve caught Carlos, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology, surfing online for construction jobs. And I’ve overheard Donna Payne tell her husband on the phone she’s having a good day because one of the course review questions she wrote “might be included in the final materials — verbatim!”.
She cries quietly at her desk sometimes.
Louise, my manager, likes to motivate us, likes to pump us up. She frequently reminds us that “everyone plays an important role here.” She’s right. I mean, if I were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, those training pamphlets on integrity in the workplace wouldn’t get written. At least not until they’re reassigned, that is. That could slow the process down by maybe two whole days.
I’ve noticed that Louise takes more and more smoke breaks, lately.