Off the clock

Jen Rogue writes about how our work life infiltrates itself into our dreams and technically amounts to unpaid labor.

Submitted by Recomposition on April 13, 2012

A blaring alarm clock interupts my restless slumber. Damn it! Time to go to work. And do what I’ve been doing in my sleep for the last few hours, unpaid. In the shower, I wonder about how much space in my brain are taken up by produce codes. Are bananas (4011) edging out my memory of the first time I rode a bicycle? I can’t even remember the last time I ate a clementine but 4450 might as well be tattooed on the insides of my eyelids. I chug coffee and try not to think about how awful it is to wake up feeling like you already put in your eight hours only to realize they haven’t even begun.

“…. Broccoli …. 4060 …. Eggplant …. 4081 …. Red Onion …. 4082 ….”

I’m on autopilot. My fingers fly across the keypad almost of their own accord. Later, when I’m really present in my body, I’ll think about muscle memory. How many times have I had to punch out the numbers for garlic (4608) for my hand to know it without really being connected to my brain? My fingers twitch in my sleep, when I’m dreaming.

“…. Red Pears …. 4415 …. Spaghetti Squash …. 4776 …. Asparagus …. 4080 ….”

I already spend so much time at work, it seems unfair to be robbed of my sleep. Or, hell, maybe I should see about an overnight shift. Seems I can do my job while sleeping. Then it won’t matter that I can’t tell the difference between my on-the-clock shift and my “unpaid overtime.”

These days, I’m working in a call center. No more waking up with produce codes at the tip of my fingers. I get to sit at work, which doesn’t reverse any of the damage over a decade on my feet has done to my body, but it helps. Plus I save on shoes. Instead of morning or afternoon shifts, I work nights, which means I no longer sleep tensed, waiting for the alarm clock to drag me out of bed in the morning. But still, this job, like every other, has found ways to leech off my precious free time. No more looming produce codes from my years as a cashier; these days, it’s the phone. I’ll be in a dead sleep and then


I’m jerked awake, falling out of bed, swearing the phone is ringing. It doesn’t matter that my apartment has no land line and my cell ring is Iron Maiden- I live with a subconscious tension, anticipating the chime of a telephone, because of the hours and hours of getting screamed at by customers who seem much more confortable with being rude since they don’t have to see my face. As if a third (or more) of my day isn’t enough, the call center haunts my sleep, too.


It’s seeped into my dreams. I bolt upright in bed, “Thanks for calling….” on the tip of my tongue, grasping for my keyboard. It is often accompanied by the feeling of falling, reminding me of jolting awake in a high school desk, drool coming out of my mouth and my notes flying everywhere. There is the same sense of embarassment, of worry that I’d fallen asleep when I was supposed to be paying attention; to the teacher, the customer, the computer, the boss. The feeling quickly turns to anger, though. I’m in my bed, in my room, in my apartment! I fork over a load of cash to my landlord for this safe haven, but it seems work follows me here as well.


I don’t think Lady Gaga and Beyonce had call center work in mind when they wrote their song but has become something of an anthem for me (“stop callin, stop callin, I don’t want to think anymore…”). I’ll be zoned out, driving, running errands, and the radio will make me think that I’m supposed to be working. Everything seems to sound like inbound phone calls to me now. Hell, sometimes birds chirping makes me reach for the phone. The phone rings in a movie, a flash program on the computer, so many things make me think, even just for a nanosecond, that I’m supposed to be working. I wonder how much time it would all add up to together. How many naps have been interupted…


So much for my day off.

Originally posted: April 13, 2012 at Recomposition