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Notes from an American Breakroom
Robert Isenberg
illustration by Jean-Paul Manzanares
Cheese Steak Baby-Jean-Paul Manzanares
You press the left arrow, and the machine’s trays move right. You press the right arrow, it moves left. The little hum of a small interior engine is entrancing. Little juice containers and cartons of milk slide past. I feel like I could watch the options all day: beef steaks and chicken fajitas and wraps of all kinds. Snickers bars and little packages of airline peanuts. In front of the machine, I feel like Kubrick’s monkey standing before the monolith, entranced by its bland efficiency.

I look around the break room, making sure it’s empty. By empty, I mean there’s one woman, Rita, pacing by the coffee machine. She wears a worn patterned skirt, and her dyed red hair is an ode to bed-head; she doesn’t notice me, because her mind is burbling with narcotics. She’s watching the coffee dribble, drip by drip; she rubs her stomach with anticipation. Anybody else, and I might feel silly about using the machine, but Rita doesn’t judge.

The quarters squeak as I crush them in my fist. They came from my floor, back home, either sitting in the lonely corner by my desk or pressed under my mattress. As I slide them in, I don’t feel like I’m spending money; these quarters are refuse, found objects. They aren’t real dollar bills. I’m delighted by the sound of small change trickling down into the slot, lost behind the plastic plating of the machine.

$1.25. My dues are paid.

To open the transparent plastic door, you need biceps and a sense of timing. These machines are not for the faint of heart. As the options scroll past, I zero in on a cheese steak. Take a breath; if I open too quickly, the little door will jam. Too slowly and it’ll open for a second, then snap shut, and I’ll have lost my money, and my lunch. This has happened before: The machine is plastered with little post-it notes from my fellow employees.

"Owe Jim $2.75."
"Tasha lost forty-five cents. Please refund."

I’ve considered doing this myself, since it’s all based on an ambiguous honor system. I’ve thought of scribbling, "Lost rare gold doubloon, family heirloom, valued at $4 million. Bag of Fritos did not materialize. Please make check payable to...."

The door opens. I hold it there with one hand and reach into the little wedge-shaped box with my other. When the door closes, I examine the cheese steak; it’s wrapped in air-proof plastic and set on a little disposable tray. The bread is crushed into a brain-like mold; the cheese has a rubbery look and meshes into the wilted gray of the steak proper. Edible meat is dead by definition, by the steak looks deader. I marvel at it, thinking, “This came from an animal. This is the amalgam of a cow’s most obscure parts. This cow died for me. Her innards are the same shade as concrete.”

I stick the steak in the break room’s microwave. Rita is swaying now, and rests her palm on the crumb-stained counter for support. As I twist the knob back and listen to the airy buzz of the microwave, I gaze at the pile of dishes in the sink: pots and pans and cans half-full of decaying chili. Forks are stuck in the remains of old spaghetti, standing upright, ready to impale a careless hand. The water is murky and lagoon-like; the surface is a skin of grease and food particles. A crushed coffee cup floats through the mess like a debilitated life raft. No one has touched the sink for weeks.

The microwave chimes. My cheese steak is ready.

This isn’t the first time I’ve bought food from the machine. I’ve bought soggy bagels and arid cheese crackers. I’ve eaten sad-looking hamburgers and flaccid hotdogs. I’ve eaten applesauce out of plastic cups that squished around my tongue like congealed mucus. I don’t know why I do this. Why can’t I just make a turkey sandwich like everybody else? Why not soup or ramen noodles?

I go the smokers’ room to see some friends. The smoking room is an unventilated room with white walls that are permanently stained yellow. The massive window doesn’t open, and the room is crowded with twenty smokers, all puffing away slowly. They sit in chairs and sulk like inmates in a psychiatric ward. They wear hoodies and ripped-apart shoes; one woman sits on a table, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. A man—who boasts three-hundred-plus pounds—is sitting on the windowsill, resting his head against the glass, hands folded on his cane. Another man with a curled lip flips through a newspaper from several weeks ago.

All of these people are solicitors; they work in the Call Center, and make cold-calls all day, asking people questions for government surveys. I’m not one of them; in a few weeks, I’ll be leaving for good. But there is no sense of ennui, no sentimentality. Kids like me flow through this business like water. I look at Herald, this old man who fought a fighter jet in World War II. He’s a handsome old codger with white hair and an ironic grin. He should be retired, but he can’t afford retirement. Somehow, he shies away from Social Security. He eats a deli sandwich that his wife fixed this morning. He will forget who I am, despite the bitter jokes we made about this place. So will Jack, and Tonya, and Bill. It’s the machine, and we’re a bunch of processed food, chewed up and spit out.

As I bite into the sandwich, I notice that the surface of the sandwich is startlingly hot, but the center is still cold. Looking at my bite mark, I see the cardboard-like texture of old, lukewarm meat.

"Hey," says this one woman, who turns a chair around and rests her arms on its back. "You work in data entry, right?"
"Yeah," I say.
"How could I get into data entry?"
"Uh, I don’t know. I just got lucky."
"That must be great. I hate the fucking Call Center."
I take another bite, trying to think of something to say. This poor woman unmarried, three kids, alcoholic, and she’s asking me how she can move from one pointless entry-level job to another.
"Well," I say, "there might be an opening soon."
The guy by the windowsill looks up. "Wait, you’re not leaving, are you?"
"For where?"
"I’m moving away."

He looks panicked, flushed. I know this guy better than the woman who wants my job—Cory? Sam? Something like that—but he keeps fluttering his eyes, disbelieving, and I can’t understand why. "You’re ... you’re really going?"

I’m saved by Rita flying through the door. She leaves it open, to the dismay of the Call Center people still on shift; a great cloud of nicotine floods through the door, and a manager rushes from his office to close it.

"How is everybody?" cries Rita. She plunks into a chair and lights a cigarette. "Oh, my God, I can’t believe what my roommate did his time. He took my car for a spin. Did he tell me about it? No-ooo! And goodness gracious, I thought I was gonna have a heart attack when I was through yelling at him. I told him, ‘No more shit, dirt bag. I won’t have it. I really won’t. Next time you steal my car, you’re hitting the road,’ I says."

Some people chuckle, but a moment later they all stand up. The half-hour break is over, and they trudge through the door, one by one, back to the phones. All of them slouch. The guy by the window—Jim? Samson?—waddles over to me, shoots me an aggrieved look, and goes with the rest.

"Say," said Rita, running her free hand through her hair, "you don’t want to buy some percs, do you?"
"Like pain medication?" I said.
"Yeah. I took them from the hospital. If the doctor’s gonna rape my bank account, I figure the least I can do is snag some pills. I’m selling them for ten bucks a pop. You interested?"

I turn to look out the window. It’s cold out there—the air is misty and the parking lot outside is caked in freezing rain. The scattered cars could be made of stone. The neighboring buildings are brick and glass; there are no signs, no expanses of trees. I’m surrounded by adults who whine and shoplift like delinquent children. I feel like the drop ceiling panels could collapse on me at any moment. I want to burst out laughing. I want to grab a phone cord and strangle one of these people, just to see if anybody notices.

I look at the last half of my sandwich and hold it aloft.

"You want some?"

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