Copyright 2021 by Erika Hunter
I was younger, my dad would tell me that I should work at least one
minimum-wage job in my life. As a university-bound,
academically-driven, and quite frankly, financially-privileged
teenager, I didnít understand why this was so important to him.
I settled on the theory that this job was meant to humble me, as I
would be exposed to the harsh living conditions of the working class.
I would pity their sorrowful existence, and their pain could function
as my motivation as I ventured through a relatively obstacle-free
path in achieving a prideful career.
beginning my first year at university, I was hired as a minimum-wage
retail associate at an unnamed multinational corporation. Iím
not quite sure why I feel the need to maintain the anonymity of the
company. Perhaps I have internalized the notion that this unnamed
companyís sacred reputation must be protected, because to get
in the way of capitalist conquest is to commit a heinous crime.
was excited to start my new job, mostly because I had not yet
experienced having money of my own, but I was also worried as to how
my severe social anxiety would respond to a continuous stream of
customer service interactions. I comforted myself by repeating the
following mantra: I will take this job day by day, and if it
doesnít work out, Iíll quit.
enough, only a couple hours into my first shift as a cashier, I had a
panic attack. I asked one of my coworkers to cover for me, and I ran
to the bathroom, overcome with trembling. I stood on the tiled floor,
tears streaming down my cheeks, my heart pounding so loudly that I
couldnít think, as I tried to avoid touching the surrounding
filth. I will take this job day by day, and if it doesnít
work out, Iíll quit. I will take this job day by day, and if it
doesnít work out, Iíll quit. I will take this job day by
day, and if it doesnít work out, Iíll quit.
next day at work, I was taking my ridiculously short and only break,
a meager fifteen minutes long, when one of my coworkers joined me in
the breakroom. I grumbled internally, not wanting a single minute of
my break to be consumed by human interaction. She sat down in a chair
next to me, letting out the biggest sigh of relief as the chair
cushion sank slightly with her weight. I smiled uncomfortably, and
then returned to my phone screen, hoping that no further gestures
would be required on my part. Although Iím embarrassed to admit
it now, I had created a profile of her in my mind only seconds after
glancing up at her. She wasnít as young as me, therefore she
was a deadbeat who had reached an impasse in her pursuit of success,
if she had ever attempted to pursue success in the first place. I
didnít want to talk to her, but much to my disappointment, she
began to ask me questions. I was hesitant in my responses, partially
due to my socially anxious state of mind but partially also due to my
elitist perspective on the world, so I deflected until she
reluctantly shared her story with me, her reluctance not due to an
unwillingness to share but rather due to a language barrier.
had received her Masterís degree internationally before
immigrating to Canada. She moved here because she couldnít find
work in her home country, but upon moving, she realized that her
education had no official value here. It was too late, she couldnít
afford to move back. She planned to get a minimum-wage job, which she
could work while acquiring her Canadian education. However, she had
to work full-time to cover expenses, considering the burden of paying
rent in Vancouver, and there was no money left over for a college
tuition. Even if there had been, it would have been impossible to be
in school while working so much, in addition to taking care of her
son. And just like that, my profile of her crumbled, like the
glorious demolition of a building too old to protect its inhabitants.
After a five-hour shift, I took a two-hour nap. After a seven-hour
shift, she wrung energy out of her exhausted body, in order to care
for her child. Her sigh of relief at the beginning of her
fifteen-minute break made sense to me now, and deadbeat no longer
seemed like an adequate descriptor. I will take this job day
day, and if it doesnít work out, Iíll quit. I began
to wonder what her mantra would sound like.
that day, the panic inside of me bubbled up yet again, and I asked my
coworker who I had met in the breakroom to cover the cash register
for me, realizing that I forgot to ask for her name. ďNo
problem, ErikaĒ. She knows my name; did I forget to ask for her
name, or did I forget her name? I remembered that I was wearing a
name tag, as was she. Maggie. Of course, this isnít her real
name, Iíve changed it for the sake of her privacy, but I think
that it embodies her cheerful and sophisticated presence quite well.
I was trembling in the bathroom again, avoiding the walls because I
knew they were dirty, and I was feeling guilty. This was my third
panic attack during the shift, and given that they lasted about five
minutes each, I had spent fifteen extra minutes not working during my
paid time. I recalled Maggieís sigh of relief. Iíve had
double her minutes of break time. Of course, she could take bathroom
breaks too, but she couldnít afford to lose this job by being a
negligent employee. I could.
get me wrong, I view my mental illness as a source of struggle.
Having a panic attack in a public bathroom is not the same as sitting
in a comfortable office chair in the breakroom. That being said, I
view my ability to accommodate mental illness in my life as a
privilege. I have options. I console myself with the possibility of
escape. I will take this job day by day, and if it doesnít
work out, Iíll quit. I wonder if Maggie has ever had a
panic attack at work. What would she do?
of my other coworkers were students, like me, but many of them were
also paying out of pocket for their education, unlike me.
School-induced stress could not justify a reduction in hours because
that would mean being unable to pay for school. Meanwhile, I was
ready to cancel a shift within hours of being assigned a new essay,
my Registered Education Savings Plan bearing the weight of my tuition
costs. My fellow student coworkers, carrying the burden of student
loans on their backs, also heaved sighs of relief when they began
their fifteen-minute breaks. I was still annoyed by these breaks.
They were so short that by the time I started to settle in, I had to
get up and return to work. I will take this job day by day,
it doesnít work out, Iíll quit.
spent my evenings looking at other job postings in Vancouver, typing
in keywords like ďsustainableĒ, ďlocalĒ,
ďindependentĒ, because if I was going to work a
minimum-wage job, it should at least give me enough environmentalist
status to be able to look down on other minimum-wage workers, right?
When a job posting mentioned one of these words, I applied without
investigating the true environmental merit of the business.
wish I had a dramatic epiphany to share, when I realized that I was
ignorant of my privilege and snooty towards those who didnít
have it, and then I made a grand gesture to express my slightly less
narrow perspective on the world. Instead, it has been a slow process
of observing how my lived experiences compare to those around me, and
how that shapes our respective positions in society. I recognize how
mental illness has burdened my life, but then I ask myself how my
financial privileges have lessened this load. Most importantly, I
repeat my mantra: I will take this job day by day, and if it
doesnít work out, Iíll quit. And then, I consider who
might not find comfort in this sentiment, rather consoling themselves
with, say, the prospect of a fifteen-minute break.
started writing when I was eight years old, and began
entering writing competitions at age thirteen. In 2018, I won the
Polar Expressions Publishing National Short Story Contest. I
graduated high school amid COVID-19 chaos in 2020, and am currently
working on my Bachelor of Arts at the University of British Columbia,
planning to major in Political Science and minor in Gender, Race,
Sexuality, and Social Justice. When Iím not studying, I am
either working at my part-time job, reading, or writing. I also have
a passion for activism, and recently, after enduring a traumatic
assault experience, completed a campaign in collaboration with the
Metro Vancouver Transit Police in order to raise awareness about the
prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on public transit. I
often use writing to work through ideas related to my activism,
whether that be tied to gender inequality, systemic racism, or any
other form of social injustice.
I have not considered becoming a writer professionally, I do
spend much of my time researching writing contests and entering all
of those that suit me. I write poetry and essays, but I
decided to dabble in some
short non-fiction by entering this contest. I also love to read, and
take much of my literary influence from Margaret Atwood.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher