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The American obsession with downtime


If somebody really wants to win the presidential election they should base their campaign on a "breaks" platform, since this country's employees seem far more immediately concerned about their breaks than the issues of, say, Iraq and gay marriage. The campaign slogans could run along the lines of "Universal Breaks For All" or "Break When YOU Want To, Not When The Man Says!" or "Co-Workers' Breaks: YOU Decide." I'm tellin' ya, it's the breaks, stupid.

Wherever I go, the employees are earnestly discussing breaks, either theirs or their co-workers'. Even those who can't speak much English otherwise have the crucial break word down pat. If I were from another planet or even just some other country I'd conclude this "break" I'm hearing about all the time must be something serious, hey, maybe even holy since people talk about it so much.

The Martian me would report back to the mother ship that Earthlings are heard to regularly call upon and might well worship "Break." The foreign me would start to suspect that Americans have three main lit-up areas in their brains, with the first focused on speedily obtaining and gobbling food and the second reserved for pondering who will be the next American Idol (I'm rooting for redheaded-crooner John). The third brain terrain, at least as large as the other two, broods on the "break" topic.

For such a short, simple word it certainly comes with a rich assortment of contexts. There's the classic "Can I go on break NOW?," often shouted at the manager by a cashier just as I pull up to their register with a towering shopping cart. There's also the heavily-intonated answer "On break," delivered with sneering disgust by an employee to the same manager in response to his innocent question, "Where's so-and-so?"

This damning accusation is frequently followed by a complaint about how or when so-and-so takes his break, with the most common one being that the obvious screw-off takes it right before he's scheduled to leave. There must be an employee in every Charlotte business who commits this crime, judging by the widespread griping I've heard about it.

Another rampant and unforgivable sin is taking too long a break. If you're a worker bee on break out there, please be aware that your fellow co-workers are clocking you with an avidity and precision such as they apply to no other part of their job. People who would have to enlist the help of their fingers and toes if the register didn't tell them how much change to give back have calculated down to the nth of a second what time you should be getting your fanny back from break.

There's a boiling sense of unfairness that bubbles through the whole weighty "break" topic in general. If employees aren't grumbling about other people's breaks, they're expressing deep dissatisfaction with their own. A grocery-store cashier was going on one day to the bagger about how she didn't want to take her break and lunch at the same time as scheduled. She really didn't want to take them together, judging by how often she repeated it.

In fact, this was such a vital injustice to announce to the world as represented by the mentally-handicapped bagging boy that she had no time to acknowledge me, even though I happened to be a customer spending a small food fortune that would no doubt end up helping to pay for her breaks.

See, this is how I'm in on all these burning break-related issues. Apparently I'm easy to block out because that's what workers often do, continuing their "break" dialogue with their fellow employees while technically waiting on me. They pause only if they have a pressing question, like the Fresh Market clerk who interrupted her grumbling about being forced to wait another half hour before break to inquire if the artichoke I was attempting to buy was, like, a really big Brussels sprout.

Now the true break-debate pros can ask you mandatory questions and provide basic information while still keeping up an undammed stream of commentary along the lines of, "What's your phone number I asked him, "Why does she get to go on break first when I got here two hours earlier?' That'll be ten dollars and fifty cent next time I'm gonna TELL him I need to go first you know what I'm saying?"

Such spiels are aimed over my shoulder or behind my back at whatever employee happens to be orbiting around and involve the crafty avoidance of eye contact with me, in case I harbor a rash notion of interrupting this righteous flow. Speaking of eye contact, you must never attempt it with a worker who is finally charging off to break, head down and Marlboro Lights pack clutched in hand. They've entered the sacred bubble of break-dom. You've lost all claim on their time.

You know those signs at the beach that say "No Wake Zone"? Maybe businesses could post ones that read "No Break-Talk Zone." Any place that did that would have me as their most loyal customer.

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