Dollar Menu Don’t Come Easy

by G.T.

One way to look at vacation time is that it’s free money. Or it’s a complimentary week for a year of enduring your job. Most employees cash out to supplement their part-time career, or use it to escape the doldrums of whatever they do, but not actually escape to anywhere special — a “staycation”. I’m hoping to sustain myself indefinitely with the smidgeon that is my unused vacation pay from my former job. Problem is, I didn’t get it today.

I visit an ATM at a gas station ($4.13 per gallon). After smudging the touch screen a few times with my case sensitive digits, a ticket spat out at me revealing my net worth: pocket change. It’s a disheartening drive home. No radio, so I concentrate on the gas gauge, which was two pumps away from running on fumes.

I check the company website. Final pay (including vacation time, if applicable), will be available at your store location. Today is just one of those days when circumstances make you feel as if you’ve never wished for anything so much in your life.

I call the store. One of my former managers answers the phone. It’s like we just saw each other yesterday, in that he didn’t seem too enthused to hear from me. I ask about my vacation time, precious nugget of endurance that is rightfully owed to me. And I’m entitled to it. Yes, I am. I left on good terms, proper notice of resignation offered, but they were a bit salty about my inevitable leave. Perhaps that explains the manager’s less-than-ecstatic tone.

He’s on the other side of the building, so he transfers my call. I’m on hold for 28 minutes: personal best. It’s not uncommon for employees, and now ex-employees, to be put on hold for what is an eternity in the annals of customer service. I always thought it was a tactic stuck on workers whom they believed were  calling off their shift. Like a passive-aggressive way of scaring them out of taking the day off. Before today, the record was 24 minutes.

I hang up, convinced that there’s a special phone in the service center that transfers no other calls but mine. I try again, and five minutes later a receptionist answers.

“Where’s my vacation time?”

“We’ve got some pay stubs of yours up ‘ere, but I dunno what’s what.”

I recognize the voice of the lady who’s on the other line. There’s a big poster at the entrance of the store, showcasing all of the bilingual employees. Below their photos are their names and their second language. The poster is a straight flush of Spanish speakers, except for her and another guy.

Hello, I’m ____, and I speak Spanish.

Hello, I’m ____, and I speak Spanish.

Hello, I’m ____, and I speak Tagalog.

I always meant to ask her how many Tagalog speakers she’s helped over the years. The other guy speaks Ashanti.

My only chance is taking the hard road. I head onto the interstate, fixated on my dwindling gas gauge. Head South, I think, gas is cheaper that-a-way. I turn off before resorting to Flintstones mode, and fill up at the nearest station. It’s not often ’round here that there’s just one gas station per intersection. This one is packed, and peddling $4.16 per gallon. What a kick in the shins. Surprisingly, I get a pump as soon as I drive in, but a roofer’s truck (celebrating 25 years in business) in front of me is pulling a trailer. The nozzle can’t reach the tank, so I’m stuck waiting for him to go and taking in the view of multitudes of commuters rushing to work or already on-the-clock. The Pepsi guy is wheeling a dolly full of soda and no one holds the door for him. The gas station clerks are multitasking: stuffing Benjamins into the electronic safe; explaining to the cable guy that his lottery tickets are yesterday’s numbers; and automatically asking to swipe my rewards card, and his rewards card, and her rewards card…

Paying for gas today is not an inconvenience, not a chore, but a gamble. I’m doubling down and I take a sullen look at the face that graces its facade. Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson Jihad. Oh, those bucolic suburban midnights, listening to Andrew Jackson Jihad in Mike’s Toyota Yaris or Shaun’s Ford Focus, during a late night run to Wendy’s. How carefree I was, offering a dollar and change for a junior bacon cheeseburger. Keep the pennies! They don’t even offer those supple JBC’s for a buck anymore. Dollar menu don’t come easy these days.

There I was not a half hour later. Joliet. City of Steel & Stone, which happened to be the first title of this blog: Steel & Stone. I thought it would make my writing sound sexy and dynamic. Anywho…

An uneasiness overcame me when I arrived/returned/whatever it was, to Joliet. I want to one day return and find it sentimentally foreign to me — a once recognizable canvas muddled with either new landscaping or urban decay. Either or. It has both already, but I still know it all too well. Now that I’ve left, I want to escape what smothered me. Yet there I was, taking the old route to my old job, trying to sever the last of my affairs in this town.

It was a long drive to discover that a clerical error still has me listed as an employee. Vacation time is only paid out to those who quit, like I did. But somebody hit the wrong key and I lost twenty bucks.