Michelle Hui | Art by Joy Song
Click-clack. Click-clack. As she brushed past towards the glass-walled cubicles, her high cheekbones, ruby lipstick, and noir heels made my hot Cheeto stained sweatpants look pitiful. Was her perfume the smell of being a self-made CEO? Was that Herme Birkin that she swung so nonchalantly the accolades of a woman who had conquered the corporate world?
Ripping me back into my side of the bank, the teller spoke with as voice as monotone as his bank glaze, “Ma’am— Excuse me, Ma’am— ” He slid the flimsy, gray plastic across his desk, “ — Here’s your new credit card. Just remember to deposit money before you start wasting it on clothes and shoes.”
I blinked myself out of my haze and took a look around. My side of the bank was not filled with Keurig coffee machines and sophisticated women. Rather the smell of watered-down coffee permeated my bank teller’s office; archaic black long-socks (the ones that businessmen bought en masse to avoid the dreadfully inefficient task of matching socks) stretched too far above his pasty-white ankles; and most abominable of all, thin black-rimmed glasses rested on his sinking face. He looked as if the slug monster from Monsters Inc. had a long-lost twin brother.
But, this dreary corporate dealing left no dent on my dreams of adulthood. A new checking account. A new job. A new self. I could not control the impish smile that spread across my face.
Grabbing my newly minted card, I practically skipped past the windows of sunken, grey bank tellers and out the confines of the faceless bank. I stole a last glance at the ruby-lipsticked woman before crossing the threshold towards my journey of becoming a self-made woman.
With my first step onto the glossed tiled floors, from red tarts, sweet pea croissants, to hand-pressed orange juice, I take in the overpriced array of pastries. The sounds of foaming lattes are melodious. At this trendy cafe, I take my second leap into freedom.
“Hi— I’m the— the new hire. Where should I put my stuff down?”
“Oh! I’m supposed to train you. My name’s Hana. Follow me!” She stumbles her way towards me and guides me behind the bread ovens. Hidden behind the counters churning out glossy cakes is the cramped corner for us minimum wage employees. Lining the walls are cheap plastic hooks for us to hang our stained uniforms and torn bags.
“Who’s leaving the door open,” Snaps one of the managers, “And who isn’t sweeping the crumbled macarons? Our rat problem keeps getting worse and worse!”
Suddenly, my eyes catch on the mildewing rat traps hidden under the metal sinks. I secretly breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that the rat traps remained undisturbed. Despite their naked, grotesque tails, I felt a comradeship with these rats. They were like vigilantes, crawling through walls and antagonizing the entity called corporate. “Go! Go! Go! Escape into those walls!” I mentally cheer on my little friends before I am whipped away by Hana to the self-serve coffee table.
“It’s time for you to change the coffee. It’s gotta happen every two hours.”
“But it’s still full. No one has drank from it yet. Isn’t it kind of a waste?”
“It’s just the rules. It’s just something we make the trainees do.”
Feelings of absurdity wash over me. But nonetheless, I must get paid. Steam radiates as the warm chocolate-colored coffee vanishes into the abyss of the drains. I brew another three-gallon batch, indistinguishable from the piping-hot one that I had just poured out.
I am bombarded with work. Go to the back and scrub these grills. We used to have janitors, but corporate wants us to mop and clean the bathroom now too. No one ever buys the soup, just pour it into the trash. Can you rinse the containers? And repeat it with the other two. This shipment macarons hardened in the freezer— can you throw them out?
As nine p.m. hits, us workers beeline to lock doors and excitedly anticipate returning to the comforts of our corporate-free homes. I watch a gape as the other three begin to move through their practiced motions of pulling out the trash and sweeping trays upon trays of bread into the abyss. Amber croissants, hand-tossed salads, sunrise egg salads— none are spared. Every color vanishes across the horizon into the black-hole.
“Wait— wait. Can’t we take it home? I feel so guilty.”
Without missing a beat from their nightly bread massacre, “Don’t worry. We all felt bad when we first started, but it’s just corporate rules,” they chime in unison. Corporate fired three people last week for taking bread home. You don’t have to feel bad, the homeless come to the trash and pick it out later anyway.”
My body hurts. My legs ache. At least my wallet is half full. It’s finally payday — maybe my wallet will make it to seventy-five percent full today. I wishfully check my bank account hoping for a couple of extra dollars misplaced by the banker.
Yelling to no one except my cracked apartment walls and cockroach roommates, “Wait, why is my balance even lower than before? Where did my five hours of arduous scrubbing go!”
On my bank history it lists:
Credit Card Annual Fee: -$90.00
A hefty hidden fee for this flimsy grey card? How am I supposed to pay for gas now? That’s more than I make in a day. Another fine print on the terms and conditions that no one reads. But if I call in and complain, it’s going to be my fault for not reading carefully.
I’m stuck in the running wheels of earning and spending. How do you scamper your way out of the indifferent devil’s jaws? You can’t fight corporates beasts that have no face. And among the corporate Gods was the ruby-lipsticked woman— born with a key to the other side of the glass divide at that bank.
Suddenly I could only recall the color of her red lipstick as bloody. The echo of her clacking resonated over the broken backs of her laboring workers. The ten-thousand dollar cowhide bag that she swung so carelessly morphed in a sack woven with rat pelt. That was our skin that she used for her handbag; we were condemned by the Gods to scavenge for pennies or worse, be skinned by hungry these beasts for their excess.
“Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz.” My alarm shakes me from my thoughts. It’s time to drive to work with the gas tank that is almost as empty as my bank account. In the molding hallway of the cafe, I don my stained uniform and prepare for another day consumed by facades.
Hana approaches me behind the glass counters, “Can you wash the soup tins again? Do you remember how to do that from yesterday?”
“Yeah of course. It’s brainless motions. I just have to rinse and repeat this every day. ”