We are the soldiers of sustenance, well-versed in our individual roles and unified by a blanket sense of urgency. The in-room dining telephones are dueling for attention, the soundtrack for the apex of the morning. There’s at least an hour left of hard fighting before any kind of let-up. The line cooks are fully engaged with egg and flame, breaking yolks into vegetable oil and sizzling bacon on a massive griddle. Stewards shuffle around the back, pulverizing oranges and grapefruits into fresh juice. The expeditor is furiously wiping fingerprints off the perimeter of plated eggs benedicts and bowls of steel-cut oatmeal. I’m working the bread station, a blur of popping toast and flashing blades. In one moment I lead the fray, barking commands and stuffing croissants into folded linen. In the next, I am dragged off the floor for a word with Chef.
This office is devilishly comfortable, the luxury box of an abattoir. Two cozy armchairs face a heightened desk cluttered with paperwork in various stages of being processed and ignored. Two glass vessels sit adjacent to each other, each home to brilliantly colored betta fish. Also known as Siamese fighting fish, these creatures behave like starved pitbulls and look like tropical orchids. If dropped into a shared container they will instantly attack each other, relenting only when one is mortally wounded and swimming sideways to the surface in defeat. Somehow this captivity is worse; a bizarre purgatory. There, in plain view, your mortal enemy, starkly apparent but separated by an invincible pane of glass. Life is a constant state of tension, ever in fear of death at the hands of your opponent, ever enraged by his presence, naught to do but swim laps.
This is the HR director’s office. In the corporate universe, the humanity of the staff is always on trial, never more so in the kangaroo court of human resources. No need for a trial in this case. I’m guilty, having been self-sabotaging my position here for months. I can’t stand my supervisor, and I’m not at all quiet about it. She was promoted for the worst kind of reasons: smiling strategically and supplicating to our masters whenever they roll into the kitchen. She’s a corporate darling, never complaining about anything real, lending input only to address cosmetic, symptomatic issues. Regarding the philosophical and structural malignancies of our department she is either willfully ignorant or exceptionally blind to reality. Never mind she doesn’t know shit about food and is incapable of delegating any task. Never mind her club-footed managerial style. Never mind the questions she “axes.” Never mind her fitful relationship with the differences between “their,” “there,” “they’re,” “your,” “you’re,” et cetera. Never mind her skinsuit of tangible wrongness; she knows when to kneel, so by all means empower her over her talented, intelligent peers with their dangerous notions of free will and self-awareness.
I’m definitely out of strikes here. Third time in HR, same problem as the last time, which itself was awfully similar to the time before that. My neck is well acquainted with the chopping block at this point. The Chef-ecutioner sits to my right, the director throned behind the fish. It’s an emotional exchange. Both of these characters have fought for me in the past, trying to help me fit in. I’m a bucking bronco when they need me to be a goldfish. Can’t do it. Can’t fake it. Agony is, they know how good of a job I do. How much skin I lay down every day. I wish I could meet their expectations, just lower my shoulder and shut the fuck up enough to keep my job. I carry the staff most days, but my temper has recently worn down to the nub. Metal grinding on metal. Managers from other departments overheard me swearing. My mind is everywhere but work and I carry it on my face. I’ve been done here for a while. Selling $14 bowls of Raisin Bran to grouchy millionaires doesn’t satisfy the innermost desires of my heart. I’m challenged but not stimulated. Every morning is the same puzzle: How to be proactive; how to motivate the cooks; how to shuttle food up in a timely, accurate fashion; how to give a shit. Mining for meaning is the biggest challenge. I’m swimming around in this bowl, bumping against the glass, and all I want to do is fight.
The chef is worked up, but he’s wasting his time. I think he thinks I might try to save my job. The HR director is listening, responding, echoing his concerns, amplifying the depth of my transgressions, broadcasting in plain language how awful they think I am. This is so boring. I want to tell them the truth, that I know all this. I know what attitude you want me to have: You want me to be a good fish, to shut up and swim quietly like a good little pet. Can’t do it. Can’t fake it. So I’m suspended, pending investigation. Only one choice left, really. Do I want to be fired or quit? There are certainly benefits to being fired. (Unemployment, baby!) And if that’s what I want, I can easily bypass all that suspension shit right here. I could tell the truth for 30 seconds. That would be enough to get the boot right this moment. Or maybe I could tell them to go fuck themselves. It’s a barbaric thing to do, but it feels somehow appropriate anyway. The darker side of me yearns for such a release. Wouldn’t it be nice to get paid for doing nothing for six months? I could play Lego Harry Potter on Xbox and eat Peanut Butter Cups. They don’t want that; I can see it on their faces. How expensive is it to get rid of James? Yeah, he’s a problem, but God is money, so let’s weigh our options.
It’s ultimately a spiritual question. I read something brilliant recently in The Art of Fielding by a rookie novelist named Chad Harbach. Through the lips of his character Owen, he says, “A soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.” Getting myself fired here is the same as writing myself a dozen checks. One sideways word to manipulate the tempers in this room and I get to skate free for half a trip around the sun. Let the government pay for my Pop Tarts for a while. Nothing is really free, though. Every decision has a cost, and in this case the price tag has a portion of my soul etched into the barcode. No sale.
So I resign, eschewing the ignoble luxury of unemployment checks. Keep your money, government. Use it to pay a fireman or something. I’ll hang on to my soul for now, for ever, and if you ever need help finding yours, I’m on Facebook.