Snack Break

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 accepted. 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 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, 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 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. “ 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. I nod, and log out. It’s time to go.

Winter Roads

(performed at Story Lab on January 15, 2014)

“Make a left on Elston. No, a left — why are you using your right turn signal?!”

My driving instructor was yelling at me again. As usual, she was right. I did have my right turn signal on. I fumbled, switching to my left. 

“Too late. Just drive straight for now.”

She closed her eyes for a minute, weary. I felt a stress headache bloom behind my eyes, and wondered why I had decided to learn to drive at age 27. 

It’s not like I’d never tried. I’d taken a weak stab at driving in high school. I went to driver’s ed, where I zoned out a lot, thinking deep thoughts about Livejournal drama and various brands of maroon lipstick. I was there because my parents wanted me to be there, which seemed weird: my mom didn’t know how to drive. She was from San Francisco by way of Manhattan and Queens, and moving to Minnesota had not inspired a desire to learn. On the rare occasion my dad was around and speaking to me, he wouldn’t let me near his 1996 Saturn Wagon. What would happen after I learned to drive was vague: there was no mention of me being allowed to borrow the car, driving anyone anywhere, or doing anything with a car, ever.  

I completed the course well-prepared to muddle unhappily into behind the wheel training. I kind of liked my instructor, a former alcoholic and born-again Christian in his 60s with the biggest sweet tooth I’d ever seen. We went to a lot of bakeries and convenience stores, with the occasional fast food side trip, and he asked what I would do if I had an unwanted child. “I don’t know,” I replied between clenched teeth, trying to make a left on Minnehaha Avenue. “I’ll think about it when it happens.” He tried a few more angles then gave up, returning to the baked good of the day. “They never put enough frosting on these,” he grumbled. I gaped at the solid inch of buttercream on a giant cupcake. I liked listening to some of his stories over gas station pastries and White Castle sliders, but the expressway moralizing made me queasy. 

My forays into real-life driving didn’t go very well. I didn’t understand when I should make a turn. I screamed bloody murder if someone honked at me. I had a lead foot when making turns, yet 20 miles an hour driving straight felt blindingly fast. I drove my then-boyfriend’s Honda Civic exactly two times, then was done. He never mentioned it again. 

I graduated and went to school in Chicago, where the trains and busses and cabs felt like childhood and home. Over the years, friends would occasionally offer to teach me: “I can show you and my little sister at the same time,” one said, spurring nightmares of being outdone by a sophomore at Kenwood Academy.

I never followed up with them. I never left the city, and wasn’t planning to. I would never have a car of my own, and you needed a license for two years to use iGo or Zipcar. These weren’t excuses, I told myself. They were facts.  

But like so many other things, not driving worked until it didn’t, and then it couldn’t work any more. It didn’t happen fast. I was a pro at avoiding what scared me, I had been doing it for years. It was the culmination of a few things: with the help of a therapist, I decided I was going to start looking at why I was afraid of so much. I got a job that regularly required travel to the Minnesota suburbs, and stayed at my mom’s house during these work trips. My mom’s house, where twelve boxes of VHS tapes blocked my high school bedroom door, the garage couldn’t fit a car even if there had been one, and trying to throw out bottles of lotion that expired in 2008 resulted in tense arguments.

A co-worker picked me up in the morning and dropped me off at night. For the first time in a long time, I felt the suffocation of being housebound. My world narrowed to an office park and rooms you could barely walk through, in a state where winter temperatures dropped to thirty below. Not being able to go where I wanted, when I wanted was suddenly unacceptable. I felt as crazy and restless as I had when I was 14, stuck in every sense of the word. I made a decision: when I got back to Chicago, I was going to learn to drive.  

My friends were supportive, and helpful. But I needed more. I signed up for driving lessons. I put the woman from Illinois Driving School who drove up to my house at maybe 60. Dominga was Puerto Rican and had lived in Chicago her entire life. She was what my mom would affectionately call a ball-buster, kindly but firmly kicking my ass up and down the North and West sides. “Tire for distance,” she would murmur if I inched too close to the vehicle in front of me. “If everyone used tire for distance, no one would be in any accidents.” Or: “What are you doing? Why are you going so fast? You’ve got nowhere to be!” when I sped up during turns, a habit that hadn’t faded in the last decade. 

The first few lessons were brutal. My skills hadn’t magically improved. I made hairpin turns, then barely broke the speed limit. “Speed up, speed up! Move with the flow of traffic!” Dominga would yell, exasperated. “Why are you slowing down?” “Because you told me not to speed up!” I yelled. “I meant during turns! You drive too fast when you’re nervous! You’re in love with being afraid!” 

I gritted my teeth, furious. I started crying as I walked into the house. My boyfriend stared at me. “She’s right.” I sobbed. “I don’t know how I’m going to do this, I hate her, but she’s right. I wasn’t meant to do this.” He hugged me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, “but you can do it. You’re not meant not do anything. And stupid teenagers do it.” I called and scheduled my next lesson.

Dominga took me through the worst intersections: Logan and Western, Lawrence and Elston, Fullerton, Elston, and Damen. We went to the Jewel parking lot on Division and Ashland, where she’d tell me to look around, look around, adjust my mirror, look around again, account for people meandering through the shifting sea of cars. She told me to watch out for bikers and pedestrians and never to pull up in the middle of the crosswalk, even though a lot of people did.

“Slow down before you stop, or you’ll get hit from behind — you’ll get a kiss, a kiss you won’t like!” she cackled. She liked checking out guys jogging in tiny shorts, and if they were shirtless, even better. “Mmmmm,” she’d say, “that’s sexy. What do you think?” I’d smile big, corners of my mouth twitching, not letting myself laugh for fear I’d lose an ounce of white-knuckled concentration. 

I almost always knew where I was going, and she liked that. We drove through Humboldt Park. “This is where I grew up,” she said, “you probably don’t come here very often.” “I’ve been here,” I replied. “Hmmmm,” she said. “Turn right at Kedzie. You know where that is?” I made a face. “We’re going to Belmont and Kedzie, right? I hate that intersection.” She cackled again. “I know you do, that’s why we’re doing it. It’s good for you.”

We took Belmont west to Milwaukee, then headed south towards Ashland for more parking lot training. As we made our slow way past Wood, then Wolcott, she told me how the long, diagonal street used to be all Jews up around this part when she was young, how she worked for a Jewish tailor in high school and liked it.  

When she first picked me up, she asked me if I lived there with my parents. “No, I live with my boyfriend.” She nodded. As we drove down Damen, making a right on Belmont, she asked if I liked the Mexican place we were passing, and told me how she would split burritos with her grandson, how he always thought he could eat the whole thing. “Do you think you’ll have children?” she asked. I’m not sure what it is about driving instructors and that question. “Yeah,” I said, quickly scanning the side mirror for nothing — another nervous habit. “Why are you looking there?! You don’t need to be looking at that,” she snapped, “Keep your eyes on the road.” Then, switching tones “How old are you?” “27.” “Aaaaah,” she waved her hand, “you’ve got time. Plenty of time.” I smiled, and made a smooth right onto Kimball. 

I took eight lessons, two more than the recommended six. I got better — not great, but at the end of our eighth lesson she asked when I wanted to take the behind the wheel test. I signed up the next time the Department of Motor Vehicles in Jefferson Park had available. “If you have work you don’t want to do,” my mom had always said. “Do it fast, before you think about it too much.” The lesson had stuck.

In my head, the behind the wheel test would take hours, and be somewhere between the The Fast and the Furious and Drive in terms of activities and difficulty. Right before I started, Dominga whispered to me: “I’ve had worse students than you pass.” She patted me on the shoulder.  

The test took about 15 minutes. I blundered the last part hard, parking at an awkward angle that nearly grazed another car. “Stop,” the instructor said. “Put it in park.” I stared at him, eyes red and teary.  “You need to be more careful with that, you don’t want to hit another car.” I nodded, holding my breath.

“Go get your picture taken, you passed.” 

I started crying in earnest. He looked incredibly uncomfortable. “Thank you, thank you so much.” He nodded again, still not facing me, a flush of red creeping up his collar. I took that as my cue to get out and leave him to his next, less emotional driver. I hugged Dominga, promising to refer others her way and leave a good Yelp review. I couldn’t stop touching the piece of plastic in my pocket, running my fingers reverently over my awkward photo and inaccurate weight.

I’m still not a great driver. But I love it. Doing something you thought was impossible, no matter how mundane, is powerful and heady. Driving is about more than multiple bags of groceries, as incredibly cool as that continues to be. It’s about waiting in the cold because you don’t feel you have a choice. It’s about doing something and making it your own, being the adult you always wished had got on your case about it when you were 16.

“Step on it!” Dominga used to yell when I waited too long at an intersection, and it’s about that, too: making a decision even when you believe deep in your bones that you’re going to fail. I think that’s why every time I pull onto my quiet street, I feel like a million dollars, and a little less in love with being afraid.