I walked out of a job once. I do not recommend it.
The job paid nothing. I was nothing. So, at the time, it seemed like a good idea. A few weeks later I would get another job that paid nothing. Eventually, years later, I would become a receptionist and make enough money to afford toothpaste.
My fantasy went like this: I’d stand on a desk and shout “I quit, assholes.” Then I’d put on my headphones with the orange foam pads, turn up my favorite rad tune, and dance to the bar for a whiskey drink, a vodka drink, a lager drink, and a cider drink. The reality was I quietly told my manager I was going to smoke a cigarette and then never came back, like a deadbeat dad in a country-western song.
It was a display of power; an anti-climactic display of very small power. A forgettable amuse-bouche of defiance. I don’t recommend anyone quit their jobs if they have no other employment prospects. It is better to be deliberate when planning to leave a job. I’m not saying leaving isn’t an option if the workplace is a horror show. But, even in that circumstance, being intentional is important. The “take this job and shove it” daydream is purely an emotional reaction. Your best bet is making sure you are as prepared as you can be if you’ve made the decision to bail. Save some money, polish that resume, plot a career course, etc.
I didn’t know that then, of course. I didn’t know a lot of things. I know slightly more things now, but probably less than I think I do. The year was 1997 and the hit song “Tubthumping,” by Chumbawamba, really spoke to me.
The ’90s were a great decade specifically because none of us knew what was coming.
I loved the song so much — an upbeat drinking anthem — that I bought the entire CD from a record store for an astounding sum of money: $16 for 12 tracks. My life budget was two line-items: rent and beans. So that was a big-ticket purchase for me. The song’s chorus was a rebellious party chant: “I get knocked down, but I get up again.” I didn’t know, at the time, that the band had a long history of anarchist politics. All I knew was that Top 40 radio had decided this song was a hit. The ’90s were a great decade specifically because none of us knew what was coming.
I fed the CD into my dinner plate-sized CD player and walked the streets of New York singing the song to myself. I, too, get knocked down and, also, I get up again. This became a hymn, of sorts, that made me feel powerful.
I found the job through a free weekly newspaper. The listing wanted recent college graduates with computer experience. Well, I was a recent college graduate and, also, I had computer experience. I was a veteran of various AOL chatrooms, including one about movie special effects. If you had told me in 1997 that the same kinds of people who populated messageboards would one day influence American politics in dark and disturbing ways, I would have spit out my Zima.
I called the job and left a message. A few hours later, an offer was made via the voicemail service I paid that allowed me to check my messages from any graffiti-covered payphone in the city. I didn’t even need to interview. That, I would eventually come to understand, was what you call a “red flag.”
The job was for a large clothing retailer. They needed every single piece of their inventory — pants, shirts, socks, etc — re-entered into a new database. The only way to transfer the data was to print out the unique identifying code of every article of clothing from the previous, ancient, database and manually input the numbers into the new database, which lived in sleek networked computers the size of milk crates.
It only took a few hours of this work for the blinking green cursor to brand itself into my retina.
The manager was a few years older than I, and his hair color matched his boxy khaki pants. He went to the kind of school that wasn’t Harvard or Yale but that you mention in casual conversation anyway. He was excited to be leading a data entry team. Every so often he’d take a brief break from quickly tap-tap-tapping strings of numbers it into his computer in order to wiggle his fingers in the air as if they were smoking.
In the break room, he would give me tips on how to work faster. He’d suggest I highlight the numbers printed on the dot matrix paper after I typed them in. He gave me notes on my posture. Whenever he finished one of the giant bible-sized stacks of papers he’d toss it in the trashcan as if he’d won a secret contest. At one point, in our little corner of the retail giant’s cubicle farm in midtown, he announced that whoever finished one of their stacks would be allowed to take home the leftover donuts in the office kitchen that the full-time staff enjoyed every morning.
My nickname for him was Glen, which was short for Glengarry Glen Ross.
The other members of his team, my esteemed colleagues, were also recent college graduates who needed the $5.15 an hour the job paid. We dutifully hunched over our keyboards and squinted and tap-tap-tapped. They were committed to being barely competent. I was, perhaps, not mature enough to fulfill my responsibilities.
I would take too many cigarette breaks. I would creep into the kitchen like a raccoon and steal donuts. My lunch hour was a creative interpretation of 60 minutes. I suppose it was inevitable that I would make a mistake. I was, and remain, human. And that mistake presented an opportunity to my manager to knock me down. What is the point of power if you don’t use it?
He booked a meeting room. This was his first power move. I had never been in any of the meeting rooms because I was a temporary employee. The impressive leather chairs were not for my buttocks. His second power move was to sit across from me, his fingers casually steepled. He then calmly explained that my work was not up to snuff and asked: “what are we going to do about that?”
There is no correct answer to that question, really.
I told him what I thought he wanted to hear. The leather chairs had made me nervous and sweaty. I apologized. I said I would never, ever confuse any two numbers ever again. That I would try harder. Type faster. I thought, during the meeting, that if I also wore a pair of boxy khakis I could become his trusted lieutenant. Then we’d rise together at the retail company, and one day he’d be Vice President of Data Entry and I would be his indispensable toadie. This was one path to power.
At that moment I felt like I had nothing to lose, and nothing to gain, so I made an executive decision.
But I chose another path. As we left the meeting room, he patted me on the back and said: “I know you’ll do better.” That’s when I snapped because, honestly, how did he know? How was he certain? Who did he think he was? He didn’t even get into Harvard or Yale. Maybe I didn’t want to do better? Maybe I couldn’t do better? I have always had fat, dumb, fingers and maybe I wasn’t meant to type things into computers? I may have a higher calling, Glen, like telemarketing? At that moment I felt like I had nothing to lose, and nothing to gain, so I made an executive decision. I would scurry away, forever. I get knocked down, but I get up again.
I dimly remember thinking that I had shown him who was boss. I remember smiling to myself. The next day I received a voicemail from the human resource department: call them when I had the time. I did and said I quit and the woman on the other end of the phone sighed and said “okay” before hanging up.