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working hard or hardly working [narrative]

12-hour shifts on thayer

“Would that be debit or credit?”

“Apple Pay.” 

I look over our new register, trying not to sigh. “Yes, is it debit or credit?”

Sometimes the person says a quick “Oh—!” and responds. Sometimes the person repeats their answer: “Apple Pay.” Or sometimes they say, “Either is fine.” Depending on their response, I mentally categorize them into considerate, unaware, and/or rich

“Oh—either is fine!” Considerate but rich. 

“Apple Pay. Either is fine.” Unaware and rich. 

Is it an oversimplification? Yes.

But does it entertain me, especially when you consider how straightforward the question is, and how long I’ve been at this register? Yes.

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I don’t think I’ve ever had a healthy relationship with working. 

You hear it all the time: “Work-life balance is important.” And, if you’re like me, you tell yourself, “Obviously—duh,” and then proceed to work and rest in the most unbalanced way possible. For me, this usually means scheduling two 12-hour shifts in a row, or leaving one job just to head straight to another. 

I hate sharing my Google calendar with others. When scheduling meetings or hangouts—god, I have to schedule my hangouts—I refrain from displaying my GCal. Instead, I ask people when they’re available and try to fit them in.

I’m aware of how stupid that sounds. But I have to do my best not to inconvenience people—my professors, my advisors, my friends, my family, and, most importantly, my employers. 

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Three days a week, I get up at 10 a.m. and rush to Thayer Street. I’m there in 10 minutes, slightly out of breath but never more than 10 minutes late.

The store is quiet and bright. I set my bag down and slip the store apron strap around my head, knowing it’ll start tangling behind my neck a couple hours into my shift. Sometimes I buy myself a fridge pastry and a cold can of coffee for breakfast. Sometimes I set aside a drink to buy later, labeling it with a pink sticky note: “Danielle’s Drink :3” (I make sure I don't forget the “:3”).

Thayer Street at 10 a.m. is so much better than Thayer Street at 10 p.m. It doesn’t feel too crowded; there’s generally a max of three people in the store. No one comes in asking for change, for an ATM, for the bathroom. If I feel like it, I’ll connect to the store speaker and play whatever music fits the morning vibe—lately, it’s been a pastel combination of mxmtoon, Ariana Grande, Olivia Rodrigo, and Noah Cyrus. 

I take photos of items that need restocking and collect them from the basement shelves. Gummy watermelon candy, chocolate covered almonds, strawberry filled marshmallows, various obscure flavors of KitKat, and dried hot chili peas. 

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Once the clock hits 11 a.m., I’m flipping over the “Closed” sign to “Open,” and unlocking the door. 

The timer starts in my head—hour one of twelve. 

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Growing up, I was always told: “Hard work pays off.” 

As the oldest of three siblings from an alcoholic household, I desperately wanted that statement to be true. 

At school and in my mind, I made myself believe: If I work hard enough, things will get better. And if they don’t get better, it’s because I’m not working hard enough.

My dad didn’t help. He wanted everything at home “a certain way.” And if he didn’t get that, then everyone was in danger. I was the one who kept things “a certain way.” This meant once I got home from school, I had to organize the shoes, do laundry, make sure the remote wasn’t too close to the folded laundry, vacuum, pick up anything the vacuum couldn’t, wipe down everything—there was a period my dad really didn’t like dust—and make sure the counters were clear. 

I could never sit when my dad was in the room. The moment he walked in, alarms went off in my head—sitting is dangerous, relaxing is dangerous, you’re not working hard. Back home, there wasn’t really a place I could rest. 

This mentality followed me to Providence. 

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When it rains, the store feels distant from everything. The glass windows start to fog up. You can hear water running in small rivers down the street, and you watch from the windows as people struggle to keep their shoes dry. The music feels louder in the silence of the store. Sometimes someone comes inside, buys a $20 umbrella, then speed-walks to what I can only assume is class, home, or maybe—like me—work. 

Sometimes people sit on the small ledge we have by the front windows, waiting for the rain to calm down. One rainy day, I was restocking because no one was in the store except for a high school student waiting by the window. After twenty minutes passed, she came up to me.

“Hi.”

I looked up from the boxes of Pocky I was shelving. “What’s up? Can I help you with something?”

She straightened her back. “Can I help?”

“Sorry?”

“Around the store. Can I help?” 

I look around. “Uhh… it’s okay. There’s not much to do right now.” This was a small lie—the chips were running low on the shelves and the fridge needed to be refilled with drinks, but no way was I taking free labor from a minor, no matter how enthusiastically she offered.

“Oh, okay.” She rocked a little on her heels before returning to the window ledge, disappointed. Her boredom was evident in the way she messed with her shoe strings.

Another fifteen minutes passed and the girl stood up and waved at me. “Bye.” 

I watched as she stepped out into the rain and slid into a small black car. Weird.

The rest of the day was slow, except for a couple of stragglers asking for change or if they could hang up one of their signs promoting farmers markets, upcoming worship services, and, perhaps the weirdest, a Persian short-hair breeding business.

Rainy days on Thayer—where I’m not in the rain—are my favorite Thayer days. 

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I don’t usually take my first break till 5 p.m. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not used to eating before 6 p.m., or if it’s because I get too preoccupied with the expectations of my employers. 

When I do take my break, it’s not really a break. It’s a break from my job, but not a break from work itself. I’m either texting my mom and handling whatever crisis she’s having, editing photos for the BDH, working on an essay, or—like now—writing a post- piece two days after I said it’d be ready for edits. 

I like to sit on top of the basement stairs during breaks because the size is cozy, and it’s out of our security cameras’ sight. I started sitting here while training new employees, since the front register is literally around the corner, making me available for questions/potential problems. But now it’s where I sit and eat whatever food I brought from home, doing my best to scroll through Twitter without messing up the store Bluetooth speaker connection.

There’s a window above the basement steps, and it’s weird to watch the clouds drift through it, watching as the rest of the world moves forward. While I’m working on Thayer, time doesn’t feel real. It’s like I’m underwater, caught in the fog on the rainy-day windows, locked in the store basement surrounded by too many boxes that need organizing. It’s like I’m one of the small plastic cats we keep on the register, the ones we keep rearranging throughout the day, making them dance, spin, lay down, and line up. 

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Working over 40 hours a week is tiring. At the end of the night, I either close the register—counting cash and coins—or mop the floor. 

It’s funny—not funny ha-ha but funny annoying—every time groups of people enter the store 10 minutes before we close. My favorite thing to do is shout, “It’s 10!” and watch as shoppers either leave or hastily make their selections, while a coworker flips over the “Open” sign to “Closed.”

Thayer Street is most chaotic at night. We’ve been stolen from, I’ve been threatened while at the register, we’ve seen street races, and I’ve had to deal with quite a few intoxicated college students. 

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All my friends say I should take more breaks. As I’m writing this, I’m being forced to reflect on how chaotic my work schedule has been. I don’t know how to build better work habits, but I do know that it starts with recognizing imbalanced work structures and denormalizing them. I want to make more restful spaces. I want to rest without the irrational stress that comes with resting. 

I was always told to “work hard,” and after nearly twenty-three years of doing exactly that, I wonder how I can reframe that mindset into something a bit more healthy, realistic, and ultimately kind to myself.



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