More on our series on work, sleep and dreams. This one features Lou Rinaldi describing a nightmare and how it's his subconscious taking the very real alienation he feels at work and running with it.
I’m stuck there in a chair in my kitchen. It’s like I can’t move, I guess I really can’t explain it, but I’m looking up at the clock (wait, I don’t have a clock!) and the time changes nearly every minute to something completely different. I’m starting to feel nauseous and disoriented. And then – there it is! The right minute. I’m allowed to go now. I can get up and I leave my apartment and hop onto the bus. It’s strange to me because I don’t remember the bus going right to my apartment before. Oh well, I don’t really have think of how absurd this is because of the overwhelming feeling of dread and nervousness I have looming over me. You see, I’m three hours late for work!
I finally arrive and it’s packed. I work at a restaurant and it’s the busiest night of the week, I promptly get a scolding from each of my coworkers and the manager. I forgot my work clothes, but there are some that fit me just right in the dish room (strange, they have my pants and everything), so I hurry to change. As I punch in I see them all staring at me with a glare that sees right through me – they know I’m afraid. For some reason, they went into three sections before I arrived – they’ve put section two, the largest, aside for me. The customers have been waiting there for hours to eat, waiting for me.
I get out my pad and pen and go up to the first party, there are two tables put together so that ten people could sit together. All of the other tables and booths are packed. I introduce myself with my usual line:
“Hey everyone, how’re we? I’m Lou and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Our soups are–” I don’t know the soups. Red faced, I scurry over to check. I continue, “clam chowder, beef stew, and french onion. Could I start you off with some drinks and an appetizer?” All ten of them look at me, glaring, and finally one says bluntly, “we’re all set to order.” A give a anxious smile. “Go right ahead.” They start to go around with the usual stuff. It’s a burger cooked medium on rye with fries. A hot dog and relish with coleslaw. Oh no! Each of them tells me the order but I can’t remember it, even as I try to write it down, it slips from memory and I am stuck asking over and over again for them to repeat the order. Each time I only pick up fragments. This is only the first table and my section is full – shit! I move on even though I don’t have the order, the thought goes through my head that I’ll just piece it together when I need to.
This gets repeated at every table I go to. I notice now that the rest of the restaurant is emptied out. I have a full section and the other servers are just sitting around because they don’t have any customers. I’m swamped and about to sink so I ask my coworkers for help, but they shake their heads. My manager comes up to me and tells me I have to go into the basement to stock paper products and it has to be done this very minute! I try to explain I’m busy, but he insists, so I head downstairs. The basement is completely different than what it looks like. It’s a huge warehouse with rows and rows for supplies and it extends so far that I can’t even see the other wall. Nothing is labeled and I start getting really nervous! I haven’t put all my food orders in and besides I mostly just guessed at what they wanted! I start running around like a nut looking for what I need until I run into my manager. He starts screaming at me about everything I’m doing wrong and I’m getting more and more angry. I snap, or something, because before I know it I’ve pushed him to the ground and I’m beating him to a pulp, before I know it the guys dead.
I’ve been having this dream or other dreams like it for several years now. When I was younger, at my other jobs, I never really had dreams about work, but now I’ve been working at the same restaurant for three years and it is a regular occurrence. I picked this one to describe, because it’s the most extreme one I’ve had. It makes me look a bit nuts and now no one will want to fuck with me probably, because I’m clearly crazy as hell. But seriously, it’s after dreams about work I seriously question the legitimacy of my work. Why is this?
Speaking from my experience, I’ve never had a positive dream involving work. I’m always being scolded or attacked in my work-related dreams. They’re always fantastical, unrealistic, exaggerated, but based in them is a kernel of truth. My subconscious is taking the very real alienation I feel at work every day and running with it. The result, often, is a very bad nights sleep and this scares me. I commute on the bus to work, all and all my commute takes 40 minutes, one way. I consider that to be a part of my work-time, in that it cuts into my reproduction as a worker. Now entire nights are essentially disrupted – I’m doing work in my sleep and I don’t even get paid. A whole new aspect of the theft of my reproduction has just come into my life.
These dreams don’t just exaggerate my own alienation, they take many truths from the real social relations in restaurants – they exemplify why restaurants are so difficult to organize. Despite the fact that we’re a “team” there isn’t really anything unifying about the different sections of a restaurant, or even the coworkers in one part of the house. The servers bitterly compete for shifts and tables. A long-term clique gets the best shifts – I’ve been working there three years and I still can’t become part of the day crew, or become first-in on Fridays or Saturdays. We go to the takeout and ice cream area only to find the counterperson making up and excuse as to why they can’t help you make the twelve sundaes your need. The dishwasher brings up dirty silverware. It’s hard to build past these inconveniences, especially as a server, who relies on being quick, outgoing, and having everything ready for them in order make a livelihood. Bringing out dirty silverware to a customer is embarrassing and they can take note of these things when tipping.
So many of us rely on tips we see the customer as the enemy more than the manager, even though so often we are set up to fail by the boss. Maybe I realized that in my dream and took it to the only logical conclusion I could make in that setting?
I’m not really that surprised, because even if I wasn’t a convinced communist I figure I’d still feel the same off the clock. Work is exhausting, not always physically (though sometimes), it takes a mental toll. Especially in a position where you a “server” – there’s an implied relationship there that, given the way we’re sometimes treated by customers (never mind the boss), is difficult to go back in face day after day. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve got more bills to pay, and that means more time at work. At my worst, I feel so bad that I’ll stay in bed all day until I have to get up to go to work. On a good day, it seems I still don’t have enough time to be productive for my own means and feel fulfilled.
This post is part of a series of stories on work, sleep, and dreams. Lou is the one who originally came up with the idea for this series – thanks Lou. He’s a member of Common Struggle Libertarian Communist Federation and writes a blog of his own.
Originally posted: April 16, 2012 at Recomposition