Have you ever had kind of a shitty job? Not like, the worst job. It’s fine, it pays okay, co-workers are nice enough for the most part with a few bright spots and a few assholes. It’s fine, but you know consciously or subconsciously that you’re not going to stay there forever.
Much like relationships, a job works until it doesn’t. You do it until you realize you can’t do it anymore. Sometimes it’s one thing that pushes you to that realization, an a-ha moment where it all falls into place. More often, it’s a combination of many things, both ongoing problems and specific events.
Sometimes, it’s the low-level yet pervasive sexism of office culture, strictly timed 15-minute breaks, and doing something really, really gross. I say in the story below that eating Corn Nuts on the toilet was my foxhole, but really it was a wake-up call. A salty, embarrassing reminder that it was time to move on.
There is something about being a woman in an office setting. You can’t be too gross. One could say that applies to being a woman most anywhere, and they would be right. But it’s particularly true in an office. Guys can belch, get too drunk at the holiday party and throw up a few blocks from Soldier Field, let mayo drip down their fronts and it’s stomach-turning but somewhat acceptable. If a girl does that it’s socially lethal. You’re a foul goblin — no longer gendered but some beastly thing, a cartoon legend that echoes through Google Chat or IM or if your office is particularly restrictive, company email. It sucks. You’re supposed to be pretty and get along with everyone be and social and pleasant, but not too loud or icky. It’s unfair. It’s sexist and awful.
I still shouldn’t have eaten Corn Nuts on the toilet.
Eating in a restroom is legitimately gross. It’s unsanitary on a basic, scientific level — food doesn’t go in a room where people shit. I accept this. You probably know this. This story is not for you. You probably don’t eat delicious junk food, let alone in a work setting, let alone in a multiple stall company restroom. This cautionary tale is for the girls and women who take bites so big it makes their cheeks look like woodland creatures, because they finally got the good pizza for the project meeting. The type who emit ungodly odors, not realizing that a leftover burrito chased with a giant coffee isn’t the best breakfast when you have to be around other people. The type who go three days without a shower because those extra 20 minutes of sleep are just beautiful and awesome. The type who chug a beer too fast at happy hour because they don’t really want to be at Paddy McFakeIrish’s Shitty Suburban Pub, and choke back upchuck while smiling politely at some bro from sales who will two months later get housed, give you his sleek, expensive Columbia earmuffs, tell you you’re beautiful, and quit a week later before you have a chance to awkwardly give them back. This is for you, because I like you, and I am like you. I know you’re doing this until you can find something better or so you can do something else, and I think you can. I want you to be remembered for your job performance and pleasing personality, not a very avoidable form of social suicide. And that means not eating Corn Nuts on the toilet, which I definitely did.
When I was 23, I worked for a company we’ll call Vehicles.net in a building in the South Loop that was basically a call center. I talked to a lot of car dealership owners through resizing their photos, listening to them complain about how their nephew set this up and they didn’t care about the Internet anyway. I looked up a lot of VIN numbers. I started at 7am, and making it to lunch was hell. I got really hungry, like stupid hungry. Usually I brought snacks, but one morning I didn’t. Not eating isn’t a thing I can do. I really wish it was. I envy people who can go hours without eating, yet maintain focus. That is magic to me. You have achieved something I probably never will, and when I get mad at you it’s really a mix of jealousy, low blood sugar, and slight awe.
By 10am I couldn’t think. There was a long line at the convenience store in the lobby, chomping into a strict 15-minute break. I mean really strict — they checked what time you logged back into your machine. I got Ranch Corn Nuts. I still really had to pee. I came up with an idea: combine peeing and eating. Done. Multi-tasking. Brilliant. I am smart. This is going to work.
I settle into the stall, and start peeing and opening the bag. My hands are shaking with hunger, and it doesn’t open. Come on, I thought, feeling more and more desperate as the seconds ticked past. What am I, a toddler? Is this plastic bag child-proof? Fuck this job. Fuck getting back to my seat at 10:45 exactly. John at the Ford dealership in Oklahoma can figure out how to download Picasa on his own. I want to be a writer but I’m not doing anything about it, and fuck MarketingCRM.com too.
In a burst of anger I use one hand to tear at the top, the other to pull the sides apart. The bag bursts and Corn Nuts scatter everywhere, little powder-crusted yellow nuggets skittering across dark tile. Oh God. Oh God.
I can see pointy-toed heels far at the other end of the stalls. They’re ugly shoes, cheap black vinyl with tanned toe cleavage bursting over the top. Or is she wearing nude hose? That’s not important. Breathe. Stuff some Corn Nuts in your face, showing a care you could have used 10 seconds ago to not crunch too loudly. It’s 10:42. I have to wait until she leaves. I can’t pick them up because that will implicate me for sure, and besides there’s no time. She finally leaves. Eating junk food on the toilet is my foxhole: I thank Jesus and Moses and every other saint and prophet that made their way into my hybrid religious upbringing. I love you all. I love you so much.
She’s definitely gone. I tear up a little in gratitude. No one will ever know. It’s 10:43. Time to go. I eat one last handful like a duck, wipe my hands on toilet paper, and ditch the wrapper as I power-walk back to my cube. I do not stop at the sink. Hand washing is for people with slow metabolisms and self-control.
I feel like everyone is staring at me. I have a scarlet CN on my chest. My hands tingle with ranch-colored flecks of shame. If you don’t eat a lot of junk food, ranch-colored means blue and green and red. These are the colors of bold and savory, the kind of taste that lingers on the palate and in the system in the way only a chemically perfected flavor can.
I log into the system at 10:44, breathing shallowly. The phone rings instantly. “Vehicles.net Dealer Support, how can I help you today? Let’s get that VIN number.” My breath is all buttermilk, salt, garlic, onion, and a proprietary blend of herbs, with delicate base notes of self-loathing and slowly fading adrenaline. It’s Wednesday — Jimmy John’s and Comic Book day. In exactly one hour and fifteen minutes Mike and Luke and I will go to Graham Crackers on Madison and Wabash, then get sandwiches. I can already feel the stress of 12:26, waiting for the Brown Line to appear and bring me back to the cube, where I will hoover a Turkey Tom and read the latest issue of Warren Ellis’ Fell, watching the minutes tick by between bites and pages.
It is an uncomfortable and mundanely foul truth that the most low- and middle-paying jobs have the strictest rules. Do something with consultant or analyst in the title? Be gone for two hours without recrimination. Go ahead. Miss a meeting here and there, or even a full day. Service and support industry? You are straight fucked if you’re back five minutes late, on the way to a verbal warning or worse, a write-up.
Still, Eating Corn Nuts on the toilet is pretty gross.
Anxiety makes the time pass quickly. It is 11:46. There are two girls talking by the microwave, and I strain to catch their conversation. “Did you hear about what happened in the restroom on the 7th floor? There was candy or something everywhere. Like Reese’s Pieces or something.” I flush with shame and pretend the ticket I’m working on is fascinating. I am really into figuring out why this guy’s 2003 Crown Victoria isn’t showing up in his listings. “Ew,” the other woman says. “That’s so gross.” I wait.
“Did you see Megan at O’Gara’s last Friday? She was so drunk and kept trying to get Chris to come home with her and play X-box or whatever.” They laugh. My shoulders drop an inch. I figure out why the Crown Victoria isn’t displaying. It is 11:58.
Mike’s head pops up above the cube wall. “You ready?” he asks. 12:01 on the dot. I nod, and log out. It’s time to go.