I knew it was time to leave my job when I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself on the way to work.
It was a persistent thought, quiet and subtle, but it struck every time that I drove the I-80 overpass on McCarran Road SE in Reno. Since I had an upcoming turn, I would always be in the far right lane, and it always just kind of struck me . . . all I had to do was jerk the wheel a little to the right, over the sidewalk, over the rail, a brief free fall, and then . . . well, I definitely wouldn’t have to go to work!
My job was a demanding one. I worked in a residential home with young adults with intellectual disabilities. Not an easy job in and of itself. In the first house I worked in, the clients had been non-verbal and fairly low functioning. But in this house, where I spent maybe a grand total of eight months, they were high functioning enough to make my job a living hell. Everything from stealing my food to running away from the house and calling 911 to defecating themselves when they didn’t have the lion’s share of attention.
But it wasn’t just innocuous stuff. They’d refuse to get out of bed and get dressed in the morning. They’d fight over taking their drugs. And when they were angry, they’d get physically violent. One client made a habit of ripping the whiteboard calendar off of the refrigerator and hitting staff with it. And one just liked to punch.
But it wasn’t just the clients. The company that I worked for was criminally understaffed and, practically, a revolving door. Combine that with my incessant need to please and inability to say ‘no’, and I spent nearly my entire life at that house. What had started as a full-time, grave shift, “totally easy job that fits perfectly with your student schedule” turned into an 80-hour a week nightmare, where I worked grave (10pm-6am — theoretically) during the week, and days (6am-2pm) on the weekends. I regularly went more than a month without having a day off. During the holidays, the rest of the staff would flee, and it was me and the house manager trading 12-hour shifts.
Staff also didn’t like to show up in the morning. While I was supposed to be relieved at 6am, sometimes my coworkers wouldn’t show up until 8 or 10, or even Noon. I couldn’t leave — not without facing abandonment charges. So I had to stay. Even when my classes started at 9am. Halfway through my first semester back at school, I had to drop out.
And the kicker: I was making $8.50 an hour. Still slightly better than Nevada’s minimum wage, $7.25, but nowhere near a living wage. I was regularly having to take out payday loans. I had sold every valuable thing I owned, save for my laptop — though a few times, I did have to pawn that and buy it back. And I was still unable to pay most of my bills every month.
To be fair, I lived with roommates at the time, a married couple who increasingly became greedier and greedier: insisting that we split the rent and utilities 50/50 instead of 33.3/33.3/33.3, insisting that I pay for the power and the internet, who eventually kicked me out because they wanted to move their grandmother into my room, so they could get her pension.
I’d also made the mistake of buying from a used car lot, paying an astronomical amount of money at an absurd interest rate, and having to pay for full insurance (ha! as if that wasn’t the first bill to go. I spent most of my time driving without insurance, with only a driving permit!). Me and my mentors figured that would build my credit — and now, it’s a very long smear on my credit report. But I digress.
I only survived by overdrafting massive amounts of money from my checking account and because my friend Kim fed me.
I was starting to deteriorate. In the time that I’d worked for this company, I’d put on over 150 pounds — and I was already excessively fat to begin with. My sleeping schedule was a wreck — I slept days during the week and nights over the weekend.
My entire life had become this job and the mattress on my bedroom floor. For someone who had always imagined a job as a means of freedom, this had become a nightmare. I was working myself 98% of the way to death, and I wasn’t even making enough money to enjoy life.
But they had hired me! In a world that, by and large, doesn’t like to hire fat people — let alone superfat people — this company had looked beyond that and given me a job. That’s not the kind of thing you can walk away from.
Maybe this was just what adulthood was. My parents had always endured jobs that they hated, just to have money in the bank and food on the table. Their jobs sapped away their joy. Their jobs didn’t leave any time for art or recreation or culture. It was work and home, again and again, ad infinitum et ultra.
I was determined to stick it out.
I don’t remember the specifics about what finally prompted me to leave. All I can remember was that it was after a grave shift, and my roommates had just called to demand more money for something. I didn’t have any more money. My bank account was already overdrawn several hundred dollars, and I wouldn’t be able to get the money for at least a day. I’d gone to Wells Fargo to try to overdraft a little bit more money, but the ATM had shut me out.
I was sitting in a parking lot in front of Target — at the Sparks Legends, I think. I didn’t want to go back to my place empty handed. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was terrified, afraid, and utterly alone.
I don’t remember if I called my mom, or if she called me.
I don’t remember much about what we said. But the conversation gave me resolve. It gave me an answer: I would go back to live with her.
It meant accepting that I had failed at adulthood; that my great escape that had begun two years earlier with moving to Nevada as a part of Ventana Sierra had failed. Everything that all of my Nevada friends and mentors had invested in me turned out to be a failure.
I was defeated. I was done. And I was sure that my family was just waiting to rub that in my face. I had tried. I had left. I had been high and mighty and I had failed.
But I didn’t have to die.
I started to dream of all the ways I could quit. I’m rather ashamed to admit that I thought of things I could do to my clients — best not spoken about, or the epic diatribe I would drop on them. Ultimately, I was way too timid to do anything of the sort — but I did create some supercilious personal letterhead and wrote an extremely overbearing and over-the-top letter announcing my two weeks notice.
I practically plastered the letter everywhere — I gave a copy to my house manager, I left a copy at the Reno office, I left one in the house notebook. It was almost like I had rented out a billboard — Zach J. Payne is no longer your bitch.
The only people that I didn’t tell? My roommates.
They eventually got their money, and they eventually got what they wanted, too. Within a couple of weeks, I was out of the apartment, my car packed with everything that I could fit.
Whatever I couldn’t fit, along with a couple of weeks worth of trash, was left in the middle of my bedroom. A big old pile of old clothes, old books, old schoolwork, and whatever bugs and rats they attracted. I suppose it was immature of me, but if they wanted me to take the trash out, I guess they shouldn’t have been such assholes. I also blocked their phone numbers, and both of their Facebook accounts. Good fucking riddance.
I left this job almost 3 years ago, but it’s left a lasting impression on me, my body, my spirit, and my politics.
Most importantly, it undid that seeming fact I learned as a child, that getting a job and working hard, honestly, and loyally at it is the way to independence and freedom. If you get a job, you can make money, and you can buy the things you need and some of the things you want. A job is supposed to give you some power, some agency, the freedom to live your own life.
I don’t have an objection to working hard. To putting in an honest day’s labor for an honest day’s work. I don’t object to going above and beyond. Despite what most baby boomers would assert, I — and millennials like me, who are reporting the same working conditions, who are suffering from the same job market, aren’t lazy.
We’re basically being gaslighted by people who think the entire experience of working an entry-level job hasn’t changed since 1972, and that we’re not happy with that.
But that’s not how it is. Minimum wage is a starvation wage. It’s a poverty wage. It’s a death wage. It’s not about managing your budget or learning to live within your means. When you have to go into debt to pay your bills; when you have to decide which necessities you’re going to do without this month, the problem’s not with you.
It’s with the people who decide how much you’re worth, who’d rather hoard the wealth that comes from your labor for your own selfish ends.
Basically, the job made me a Democratic Socialist. And a freelancer, to boot.
I own my body. I own my bones. Never again will I kill myself to make somebody else rich.
If I was smart, this is where I would pitch my editing services. But I’m still trying to figure out a system for that. So, once I do, you’ll hear about it.