The best dream that I can remember was about work. A best dream could be a great many things — fanciful, satisfying, revelatory — but for me it displayed my work situation with refreshingly blatant imagery.
At the time, I was working at a book store on campus. This was my first job after college, and it was sobering. A liberal arts degree had earned me nothing more than minimum wage employment ringing up text books and crap branded with the logos of the university and its sports teams. My prospects were minimal, and I pinned all of my hopes on the novel I was writing.
Incidentally, that is precisely what rendered the manuscript a unsalvageable mess. Conceived and started in high school, it contained ten years worth of ideas — most of which clashed like lions and hyenas. Like most aspiring writers I wrote as though I had only one chance, so I burdened my poor silly plot with every “deep thought” that occurred to me.
I wrote most of the first completed draft at my cash register. I’d purchase a university branded notebook with my employee discount and keep it on a small ledge on my register until it was filled. Customers generally came in waves, so I could spend nice blocks of time writing — when I wasn’t chatting idly about nonsense with coworkers. (One of whom remains a good friend some 20 years later.)
The register rested on a flimsy pedestal before me, and to my side was a narrow counter made of cheap plywood. Full-timers stood for roughly eight hours on thin carpet mats that failed to soften the ancient hardwood floor. Our relief from this was taking shifts in the greeter pen. There we sat on a broken stool and pleaded with customers to leave their bags in coin-return lockers.
We caught no end of hell for those coin-return lockers. They were individually labelled as being coin-return, and we always referred to them as such, but the word “return” never registered on a portion of customers who would berate us for profiting off of returning coins. To be fair, since few patrons ever seemed to notice that their quarter had been refunded, we grazed at the lockers to pick up “tips”.
Around this time, the news media picked up the word “McJob” to refer to low pay, no future jobs. There was little question among the cashiers that this described our lot. We had escaped the grease, but in return we had to deal with irate customers. There weren’t many — the majority of folk simply wanted to pay and escape before having to acknowledge us — but the enraged customers left ugly stains on our memories.
They mostly held us personally responsible for the high prices of the text books. Not the publishers, not the store — the cashiers. These customers seemed to believe that if they revealed that they were on to our scheme we’d have to cut them a discount. It’s notable that they didn’t usually want lower prices for everyone else.
The worst were the law experts. They weren’t lawyers, but they gave us to understand that they knew the law and that the law said they didn’t need id to write a check, didn’t need to be the person whose name was on the credit card, and most especially didn’t need a receipt to return sweat pants that had been worn long enough for the color to fade and the logo to disintegrate. To them we were whatever “-ist” they thought would frighten us into risking our jobs by violating store policy.
Being a contrarian, I’d provide them with whatever manager most fit their accusation to resolve the dispute. The racist manager almost always let the customer win, which goes to show that some people are more lazy than hateful.
I reached the nadir of my life as a cashier when the head cashier left. I’d been there a year by then and had been more reliable than many of my fellows. My friend had been there longer, but he wasn’t interested in the position. I figured I had a decent chance.
I didn’t, of course. I was new to the workforce and didn’t know how the advancement game worked, and so I thought I could rest on my proven competence. Meanwhile, an applicant from another department chatted with my boss about recipes. She got the job and left within a year.
It took another 20 years for me to learn how to win over management and get ahead. I’ve never been very good at the soft skills.
Shortly after that let down, the dream came.
In the dream I’m standing at my register, flipping burgers on the counter beside me. There don’t seem to be any order slips, or a prep area, but the grill is filled to capacity. Customers stretch in a line back to the staircase that divides the store in two. People mill between my station and the charge desk, which stands behind the registers as the last line of defense.
As I work the grill my weight shifts, and the thin scraps of carpet squish beneath my feet. Confused, I look down. There’s a quarter of an inch of water on the plain wood floor, flowing back and forth as the store gently rocks from side to side.
More water pours in from the doorway. No one else appears to notice, but I’m growing alarmed. I abandon my station and head outside to investigate.
The store rests on the deck of a large ship, but I knew this. I also know that the ship is the bright new star of the line, The Titanic. Now that I’m on the deck of The Titanic and can see the water lapping over the bow, I know that it’s sinking.
The rest of the dream is a confusion of trying alternately to warn everybody and to find a suitable place to empty my bladder. I wake up and staggered for the bathroom on legs that still thought I was at sea.
This was not a subtle message from my subconscious, but after a chuckle over its accurate portrayal of my mood I ignored it. Like one of the customers in the dream, I simply didn’t want to know that I needed a lifeboat.