Fifteen-Minute Break

Erika Hunter

© Copyright 2021 by Erika Hunter


Photo of a girl on break.

When 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.

Before 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.

I 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.

Surely 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.

The 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.

She 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 by day, and if it doesnít work out, Iíll quit. I began to wonder what her mantra would sound like.

Later 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.

Donít 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?

Many 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, and if it doesnít work out, Iíll quit.

I 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.

I 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.

  I 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.

Although 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.

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