My First Job

Published 4 May 2022

The following is adapted from several journal entries I wrote years back when working my first job. I have removed or altered the names of the place of business and the individuals involved. In the embarrassing text that follows, I come off badly: insensitive, lacking perspective, self-aggrandizing in my self-pity. But know that I wrote honestly. And I am not someone whom you should strive to be like. I just hope someone else in the world might take solace in finding something like their own experience reflected below. Perhaps this post will instead enable someone to better understand the similar mindset of a person with whom they are acquainted.

Therapists have told me to never work in a kitchen again. I still feel like I am unfit for living, that there might be some hypothetical thing I would be good for that would mean my birth wasn’t a mistake or punishment, but that whatever this thing is does not exist in our world.

Content warning for mention of suicidal ideation.

***

I wish I were dead. If I worked this job at the M— full-time, not only would I still not make enough money to sustain my lifestyle, but I’d fucking kill myself. How do those full-timers stand it? Maybe they have loving families? Support networks? This constant stress explains why Kathy always seems to be in a state of extreme irritation, muttering profanities as she scrapes the mayo on those sandwiches. But Kathy sometimes speaks with Lynn about her kids, so perhaps Kathy takes some comfort in the nightmare of parenthood. When I was stuck in the lift with three other people, so full of carts laden with boxes of produce and equipment that, when it stopped on every single storey—for someone was there who had to climb aboard at every single storey—nobody else could squeeze on and none of us could move, the manager of the R— fry cooks exclaimed, “If I didn’t have tomorrow off, I’d kill somebody.” Everyone is perpetually on the brink of eruption.

I work two five-hour shifts a week at kitchen prep, R— unit. The R— is a fast food place in the M—. I’ve never eaten there. I only secured this job at last, this step toward escaping my curse, because the process involved no job interview, no resume, none of the bullshit demands for experience I cannot provide until they give me experience. The R— assignment is pure formality, for the same kitchen, windowless and hidden, prepares food for the whole M— restaurant system. Each shift, every employee is assigned a checklist of tasks on a whiteboard to fulfill, orders from the different restaurants, such as hard-boiling this many eggs or blending this much hummus.

The food is not necessarily terrible. In particular, we brew the salad dressings from fresh ingredients. The other day a Chinese guy beside my work station (we coworkers almost never talk, and none of us know each other’s names) stood blending mayonnaise and anchovies and garlic and mustard into Caesar dressing, and he turned to me and said, “This is so disgusting.” When I was assigned green goddess dressing, because nobody had explained how to prepare the herbs—even when I asked—I ended up mixing the inedible stems with the aromatic leaves and had to spend some thirty minutes painstakingly picking the unwanted fragments from the pile of herbs on my cutting board. Cat stopped by, while waiting for her sauce to boil or something, to ask how I was doing. I lied and said I was fine.

The M— serves only the oldest food to customers, ensuring the worst product possible. The kitchen’s dedication to preventing waste results in all food being immediately refrigerated. I know, from one night when working overtime denied me dinner, that the hardboiled eggs we sell are like rubber. However, if the kitchen were wasting food, as I hear most do, some even deliberately locking their dumpsters at risk of the starving homeless eating their garbage, this scum’s literal garbage, I would probably have been fired for stealing by now. As it is, I only occasionally steal food, most especially pineapple. Once, an accident left hundreds of potato chips scattered over the storage room floor. I also ate a good deal of these, knowing they would be thrown away whenever somebody finally got around to cleaning them, though when my shift was over the chips still remained there.

The head of the kitchen hierarchy, Lynn McCoy, whom most call “Chef,” is reasonable. Nobody there has been mean to me per se beyond rare exasperation with my clumsiness and incompetence. Lynn and the other superiors also work in the kitchen. Only those with different jobs, such as the dishwashers and the management who outrank Lynn, are not in the trenches with us. Most days the managers do not assign enough work to fill our shifts, and so Lynn or Cat or whoever else is around give the us kitchen prep people torturous tasks to waste the remaining time instead, like scrubbing the stovetop with steel wool. It is mandatory that we always wear gloves, disposable, paper-thin plastic gloves like condoms for the hand, though far brittler than condoms, changing them dozens of times a shift for each new food item touched. Steel wool slices through these gloves like butter, and so far I have lost a couple fingernails to it.

On my first day, though I had tasks remaining, the minute my shift was up, Lynn told me to leave. I assumed this would be representative: When your shift is up, your shift is up, no matter what. Lynn must have been in a good mood, as overtime is now an assumed part of the job. If I work too slowly, and of course I am inclined to work slowly as I owe this place nothing, I have to complete all my tasks anyway and hence risk being late to class. If I work too quickly, I am assigned the absolute dregs of labor or else they find tasks assigned to other kitchen prep crew and give them to me instead as some bonus work.

The worst of all the kitchen’s demands is bacon duty. Other tasks can be relatively relaxing or easy, depending on whether one can find the space to work, as all counter space operates on a first-come-first-serve basis, and whether the right tools for the job are available, which they usually are not. The restaurants of the M— system request bacon many pounds at a time.

The soul condemned to bacon duty first has to haul boxes of the stuff from the freezer, for which cold we are not dressed. Inside these boxes are layers of frozen red meat, the pearly pink fat flecked with frost like ice cream, divided between sheets of parchment paper. Each box holds an incredible quantity of bacon. Every time I think I have reached the bottom bacon tier, I realize there are somehow three more. And of course there are six more boxes. By the time I am done with bacon duty, the raw bacon has inevitably thawed and, instead of ice cream, now feels dead, sagging, fatty. Nowadays I hate bacon.

For bacon duty, the most important tool to secure are the kitchen’s tremendous cookie sheets, of which there must be something like five dozen, and the ceiling-scraping carts that carry these trays like removable shelves. Other tasks require these cookie sheets, not least of which is Lynn’s personal favorite job of baking marshmallow-and-chocolate-chip cookies, but none require as many trays for as extended a period of time as bacon duty.

The tile floor of the narrow aisle between the kitchen’s two ovens and the sink and dishwasher is not only a popular spot to rush through while carrying huge knives but is slick as black ice. Initially, I assumed the lubrication was stray bacon fat, which one pours in torrents off the cookie sheets into a trough that we later dump into a specialty grease dumpster in the parking garage. Later I realized the floor is slick with soap, which, while more sanitary, is no safer when handling trays of bubbling-hot bacon fat. The first part of bacon duty is fitting as many sheets of the bacon parchment paper to a tray as possible. Because there is some empty space on each sheet of parchment paper, Cat recommended I remove bacon from other layers and cram it in there. So long as the strips do not overlap, the more bacon per tray, the better. Each oven can hold six trays of bacon simultaneously, though I think the manufacturer only intended that number to be five. Lynn’s instructional sheet says to cook the bacon for eight minutes total, spinning the burning-hot tray around midway through in order to ensure even cooking. This means one must preheat the oven on high, cram ten trays full of bacon, slide them all in there while the flames of Moloch lick at you, and then set the timer to four minutes.

At that point, I am under three simultaneous timers: the timer on the oven whose painfully loud alarm irritates the whole kitchen, embarrassing and shaming me, the self-conscious slowpoke—if you’re lucky enough to nab it, the mobile timer from Lynn’s office is a better choice; the timer of the clock counting down to the end of my shift and also the start of my next class; and the unseen, uncertain timer of how long the bacon can be left out before it is no longer sanitary. So in those four minutes, I frantically try to tray as much flaccid bacon as possible. When the alarm goes off, however, simply shutting it up and opening the ovens would be too easy. Because I’ve been handling raw meat, I have to remove my gloves, wash my chapped hands, and put on new gloves. Only then can I switch off the alarm, throw open the ovens, and rotate each red-hot tray of bacon. Eight minutes is never long enough to finish the bacon anyway, but the wiggle room does little to relieve the crush of these three timers, especially given how many pounds of bacon you have to cook at once. Once the bacon is done, I slide the trays out of the ovens and back onto the rolling tray cart, immediately replacing the cooked bacon with raw bacon to continue the cycle. All finished bacon is unloaded into stainless steel pans and immediately refrigerated.

The tension of tedium and frantic haste is enough to leave me streaming sweat, scowling like hell, and cussing ferociously, but bacon duty is actively dangerous. Not only must I rapidly move trays of hellfire grease next to open ovens in a narrow, constantly busy, crowded space with a Slip n’ Slide floor, but I have to do it without oven mitts! This seems like it should be illegal. It might be. Lynn keeps a pair of oven mitts in her office, but one of them has now disappeared, and the remaining oven mitt has holes exactly corresponding to one’s fingertips. In effect, the oven mitt is designed to burn you. I have been burned, multiple times. Cat talks about burns with humor, as just something that inevitably happens. Yes, work in a kitchen long enough, and you will get burned plenty. But maybe don’t turn a lack of safe equipment into a fucking joke!

Now even the oven mitts with holes vanished. Last time I got assigned bacon duty, since Lynn wasn’t around to intimidate me, I told the managers I refused to do it unless they gave me oven mitts. Cat objected that I had to do bacon duty, but I was steadfast. If they had fired me, it would practically be a gift. Some questioning revealed that they do, in fact, keep buying new oven mitts—though they definitely did not in the months I’ve been here—but these oven mitts always mysteriously vanished, never to return. Cat believed the kitchen downstairs stole them, so I told her to go get the damn things back if she expected me to cook the bacon. Scared of those underground cooks, she initially refused, but, after she admitted that the downstairs kitchen staff were out that day, she acquiesced—though in the meantime I had better start traying the bacon. I did, and she returned a few minutes later, announcing that, having searched the downstairs kitchen, there were no oven mitts anywhere! I use towels instead.

I once asked Cat why we refrigerate the bacon instead of serving it fresh. She explained that a constant supply of bacon would require somebody to constantly fry it, as though this would be a ridiculous waste of effort, even though, literally two meters from us, a team works for hours straight frying burgers on their sizzling griddle—and refrying the cold bacon. Why don’t those cooks just fry thawed, raw bacon, then? Incidentally, I remember the meme that fry cooks work harder than CEOs, and now, from firsthand experience, I can confirm that this is absolute truth. What is most maddening of all is that there is an easy way to vastly relieve the stress of bacon duty: teamwork. Have more than one person cooperate to cook the bacon simultaneously, halving the work for each person. Alternatively, one person performs bacon duty for a set period of time, and then another worker picks up bacon duty for the same length of time, and so on, until bacon duty is complete. For despite the danger and the boredom, the worst part, ultimately, is how long bacon duty takes—how the prolongation of the strain and panic hurts your sweating back and enflames your mind.

The only task that comes close for us lower-ranking kitchen prep guys is mixing the R— sauce, but merely in that it is time-consuming, not hot and dangerous. This disgusting sauce is ordered in gallons, always enough to drown a man. The recipe involves hauling out a person-sized plastic tub and filling it with jumbo container after jumbo container of mayonnaise, ketchup, ranch dressing, and other such slop and then using a huge mixer to stir it into homogenous orange goo. Kitchen prep whisks together our own ranch dressing whenever the restaurants order any, but for some reason they keep bottles of pre-made ranch around specifically for the R— sauce. The final step is the toughest—salvaging a clean pickle barrel from the basement to hold the sauce. These plastic buckets resemble the kind used to store industrial salt and other dangerous chemicals with warning labels about how the contents can kill children. Mysterious blue or pink blotches always stain the pickle barrels, so we have to wash the buckets again since the conveyor belt dishwashing machine apparently can’t. Ladling R— sauce into a few such drums until they are so heavy I can barely lift them, I cart them to the freezers downstairs while exploding with anger because now I’ll be late to class. Down there I feel like I am visiting a morgue.

***

Just working two shifts a week at this easy kitchen job has caused it to pollute and haunt all my time. I no longer feel human. Growing up, I saw my parents working, and I saw my sister and her boyfriend working, and I saw my cousins working, and I saw what it did to them. My parents, best I could tell, had no friends and only complained about their stressful jobs. My sister ceased to have a moment of free time and would call our parents almost daily sobbing. Even in high school, I saw my peers already climbing over each other to engage in part-time jobs and athletic clubs and other extracurricular activities until they never had free time and stayed up all night doing homework on top of it so they would be too sleepy to function. (In contrast, I was too sleepy to function because I stayed up all night reading.) From very young, I believed having a job was tantamount to death, the stripping away of all chance for hobbies and interest and love and individuality and potential. Like being an adult definitionally means having your soul broken to make other people money. Our rhetoric extols “freedom” and “democracy,” but we live most of our lives at work, under naked dictatorship where the very clothes you are allowed to wear are subject to regulation, where your days off are opportunities to recover from the grind but never enough. I thought, though, that these expectations reflected my innate immorality and that, when the day came, I would see there was satisfaction in work.

But now I know that a job is as bad as I thought. The only positive feeling associated with working at this kitchen is leaving. For if, when I leave, I am not so angry I can barely speak coherently—which is most days—although when my shift concludes the night I wade through might be so dark that this job in a windowless kitchen literally steals the light from my life, returning to the outside, to the water and the moving air, I am so glad I want to weep for joy, as I suddenly have escaped the dictatorship. When I got a bad cut on my left forefinger a couple days ago, a peeler accident that mutilated my fingernail too, my main thought was not “Blood!” or “This will be a pain to keep putting bandages on for the next month.” It was and continues to be: “How will this impact my ability to mix salad dressings at the M—?!” Two shifts a week is all it took for my body to be so claimed by the M— that it no longer feels like mine.

One of the Chinese guys at the M— keeps slicing his fingers open with the kitchen knives. But as Cat wraps his digits up in yet another bandage, he manages to laugh about it. Though it is a laugh not far removed from crying. With those injuries, how can he wash his hands often enough on shift? But I have turned up to work even when I am sick because of the impossibility of seeing a doctor to give Lynn the mandatory doctor’s note.

I am not someone who can live in this world. My soul isn’t cut out for it. What can I do? Where can I go? Mark Fisher posited that suicide is a logical reaction to capitalism. And I never doubted this for a second, only that there are other logical responses too, better responses, but I am too fundamentally weak to pursue any of them. The problem is that this sadness is not an individual problem but a societal one. I need a supportive community as well as a better mode of living, but so far I have never, ever had either. Or rather, the “better mode of living” open to me is a parasitic dependency on my parents that represents the worst hypocrisy and moral failure.

I have demonstrated, these last few years, that, left to my own devices, I do not deserve to live. I have used probably less than one week total of this time doing anything good. Everything else, when I’m not crying and breaking my glasses and screaming and beating myself over uni assignments like an infant, has been a waste. I know myself too well to believe I am capable of anything different. Will I ever really kill myself? I’ve thought about it ever since early middle school—it seemed then the only sane solution for most people, who are about as delusional as schizophrenics but in more socially acceptable directions. I thought suicide would not do for me—I could not risk damnation, and further I had to do my writing first. Today I know better than to believe the writing of a talentless, whiny mediocre white guy like me could contribute any good to the world—or that good has any chance to prevail.

***

On my first shift, I felt proud, for though the work was tedious and my feet were aching, I finally had a paycheck. I was finally a real adult. It did not matter that, for the time being, even working this kitchen job full-time would provide insufficient pay to sustain me until I move out of Y— in a few months, for the accumulation of wealth had to start somewhere, and anyway, I needed some cash to pay an illustrator. Slicing lettuce, the easiest task the kitchen offers, had clear material benefits. I could see that I cut the lettuce so that others could use it for salads and sandwiches—unlike the shit I write in class, somebody benefits from this work. But after that first shift, those first weeks, those days walking to work pumped up to finally be closer to earning a right to live? It used to be that just thinking about going to work would make me cry. Since I decided I would quit, however, I no longer react that way.

Now I feel more an aching dread but much eased because there is light at the end of the tunnel. Pretty much every day I go to work, by the end of the shift I am telling myself I have to quit, this torture is useless, it would be better to be dead than to rent out my body like this. Last night I wrote my two weeks’ notice. When I happened to be talking to my sister, though, and mentioned this, she told me I shouldn’t quit without having another job lined up. Obviously this would be the case if I were financially responsible for myself, but as I am not, I did not even bother to worry about it. When I walk down the street thinking that if I jump out in front of a truck and it hits me, I can get off my next shift, I reckon that not quitting is the deranged option. My sister is just one of these people so steeled against perpetual pain that, unlike me, she can live. She is, in other words, a normal person, one of these people to whom hell means nothing.

But when my sister told me to have more income ready—it’s the finality of it. University, though it also makes me suicidal at predictable intervals, has an end point: graduation. Having a job is an expectation for the rest of my life. Renting one’s body is the end of life and to be done until life ends, under duress of death. On every level its parameters are death. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is nothing except the tunnel. Nobody wants a job, of course—they want money, and I get the impression few bother to ask why it is just to ruin their lives so their boss to exploit them to generate excess value under threat of homelessness and starvation. Not owning your labor is so undignified. It is maddening. When even an ounce of easy work—at this kitchen, I mean—confirms my worst fears that life under capitalism is not worth living, what does that say for my possibilities? Further, on an ethical level, what does it say about me? There is Kathy, probably much poorer than me and definitely much older, who has children and is preparing sandwiches at the M— full-time. Here is someone who should know suffering. While I can only speculate as to what Kathy is thinking or may be like elsewhere, she gets by fine. She lives, somehow. But me? This is my first job, and only ten hours a week! Among my fellow uni students, could there be even one who wouldn’t roll their eyes at my childishness? If I were someone else, I could live and succeed somewhere in some way without it being fundamentally unethical, or else (as I probably will) fail at life but have an explanatory narrative that could elicit a drop of commiseration or find me some community. But given who I am, if someone who deserves happiness were to read this, would they have sympathy? Of course not! Fuck off, they might say—look at this self-pitying asshole who’s never known a bit of oppression in his whole life that wasn’t entirely in his own head! Go to hell!

This is, in some way, the worst part: There is nobody from whom I can expect sympathy or love. I deserve and so ask for none. Yet I pathologically wish to give it! If I really wanted, though, I have had abundant opportunity. This is the easy life. But for my whole life I have still felt so worthless and so utterly alienated from everyone everywhere I’ve ever been. So life for most people is a nightmare beyond my imagination.

Historical evil has molded our society to give me every advantage possible, yet I have failed. I know by now that I am alone, and that—one of the rare times my mother is right—it is my fault. I am at heart too weak and cowardly a person to exist. Just living is one of these fundamental tasks that people around me seem to pull off but that to me seems an unsurmountable obstacle. More than I wish I were dead, I wish I had never been born. More than wishing to be succored, I wish I never had to be damned to begin with.

Anyway, though I meant to email Lynn my two weeks’ notice today, I don’t think I’ll quit yet. Maybe it is some kind of punishment.

***

My final shift would be my single worst. At the beginning, a manager, a Reagan enthusiast who had shown me how to clean the deep fryers, said, “How are you doing?” I answered, “Pretty good.” He responded, “You won’t be by the end of today.” I should add that nobody yet knew this was my final shift. Afterward, those bastards wouldn’t even let me use my employee coupon to buy some pasta with vodka sauce. I tore it up on my way out. After I quit, I vowed never to set foot in the M— ever again. I am proud to say I succeeded.