Clocking Into Neopia
At my last job, I juice limes for hours, until my slick hands shrivel into their own branches bleeding fruit. I do this in a basement kitchen that is perpetually ninety degrees. I sweat and become part juice myself. I emerge from the underground smelling of zest, of green glee, balancing tuppers of milky brine to stock the bar. The juice will be mixed into cocktails, will pull acid from the tongues of customers. Once done, I let my forehead rest on the bar’s dark wood, soaked with fever.
The kitchen staff call me sour girl. Citrusblood, my hands cool and hot at once. I’ve slung lattes. I’ve helped butchers unzip animals for their slick organs. I still drink coffee and eat meat. But I can’t stand the smell of limes.
I scroll onto my Neopets dashboard and click on the world map. Neopia shines in orbit, a colorful globe of gaming, different lands that I pass over with my cursor. Every land in Neopia is bursting with story, color schemes screaming their allegiances. Purple clouds for Faerieland, dark blue Maraqua, green and leafy Meridell.
I swoop into the Haunted Woods, a Halloweentown of sorts, complete with twisted trees and darkened skies. I collect my freebies. When I click on Grave Danger, a game that involves grave-robbing what I can only assume are dead Neopets, I see that my pet pet has scored me a Virtupets Energy Saber, a rare artifact and weapon. It will surely mean a large sum of Neopoints in my shop till. I go to feed my pets with the free food I’ve scavenged: omelets and jellos and the odd alien vegetable. I am mechanical in this endeavor, my clicking reflexive and instinctual. I wait for the lottery game page, Trudy’s Surprise, to load and spin for my daily winnings. I pull the lever, watch the counters spin.
This is an essay about making money. The first lockdown in New York, I punched into work as a barista. Then I worked at a butcher shop, taking apart wheels of Parmesan, bagging customers’ groceries, and lifting whole pigs from meat delivery trucks. I left that job to be a substitute teacher once schools opened up after lockdown. Then I waited at an Italian restaurant, behind the bar and in front of it, clocking into a double shift right after brunch service.
Now I work at a cemetery, giving historic tours to school groups. I edit essays for students trying to get into medical school. I don’t eat for free. My rent is approximately $30 a day, every day. The crux of my life is built on whether I can afford it.
In Neopia, I fly over to Faerieland, a realm of purple clouds and violet castles. I am visiting Jhudora, the dark faerie, to complete one of her quests. I have dutifully completed 32 of her quests. This means nothing to her. She is rude as ever when she demands I purchase a can of prune juice. Where is it? she demands, like a mean customer. I bet you aren’t this slow for other faeries!
A slow worker I was not. I knew how to get plates out by a fifteen-minute mark, how to prioritize which drinks to make first for the to-go crowd. I knew how to work fast, quick, and quiet. When I messed up a cocktail I knew to pour it out and start fresh with the same rapid motion. When a customer complained I knew how to degenerate, defer, twist myself into something smaller until I shrank into the restaurant’s corner.
Though utopic, capitalism still has its claws in Neopia, running rampant in the overpriced artifacts and novelty items, the auction boards, the shopkeepers’ forums. I wait for my auction items to sell, like my retired Christmas Meowclops or Seasonal Evil Coconut. Pets remain feedable for free, and though inflation happens I’m mostly focused on fishing out the occasional rare item from an abandoned pirate cove or a snow monster’s ice cave lair. Over the years I’ve rotated out an impressive stockpile of shiny trophies, and frequently change inventory to keep up with demand. These include: limited edition holiday items, pieces of secret maps, a small library of magic scrolls containing arcane knowledge, morphing potions to transform a pet, rare food items, futuristic robot petpets. When my stock sells I collect the earnings and go fishing for more. I am rich in pixels. My bank account boasts 589,543 neopoints, with a 11.5% yearly interest rate. One day, I am convinced I will win the sweepstakes. For now, I collect my interest and sell my wares.
Karen, the nice lady I asked to take a look at my financials, asks about Future Me. What happens, she says, if you get sick? If you break a leg? How do you build security into your life?
A study from UCSF found that line cooks had the greatest risk of dying from COVID during the first lockdown. What we value as a culture remains consistent from what I’ve learned in the industry: when it comes to convenience, a worker’s life is disposable.
Our value is tied to what we can churn out on the daily, healthy or sick. Our value is in our production, in our exhaustion, in our emotional labor, in whether our legs still work. We are interchangeable and replaceable. We are inventory.
I did the math while juicing limes. I did it while staring out the window of a classroom. I did it over and over again, retreading the same muddy paths. For a time, I struggled to pay $30 a day. I struggled to feed myself, to heal my sicknesses. I struggled to see an end.
Karen is nonjudgmental. She sends me charts dividing up my income so I can pay off my debt little by little. She tells me I participate in life; I am young in a beautiful city. There is time to do most of what I want to do. I have friends, an artistic practice, a cool job.
I build a house for my Neopets in Faerieland. I buy and sell and buy and sell and buy and sell. I participate. I watch the money rise in my Neopian bank account. I watch the money leave my actual bank account. I wait and breathe and wait.
The stages of starvation for a Neopet:
1) Hungry. Last year was a whole hungry summer, so hungry I felt it in my sleep.
2) Very hungry. My bank account chronically empty, I did all the tricks, did what was asked of me–lived less. Lived off sleeves of crackers, tea, packets of oatmeal, till the flesh under my eyes swelled my vision shut. WebMD said I was delirious with water, my body rivening for salt. When I switched to 99 cent ramen the swelling went away, replaced by horrendous acne.
3) Famished. A former friend who grew up wealthy laughed when I told them I was suicidally broke, said they didn’t see how the two were related. You can save and starve all you want, slough off the buds on your tongue. Endure indignity. Endure the organs’ revolt.
4) Starving. Nothing I put into my body made it whole. Nothing I did made me whole.
5) Dying. And Neopets don’t die, which makes the presence of a graveyard confusing, and also means that pets live in a kind of horrible emaciated limbo, unable to do anything about their own hunger. Like virtual ghosts, they are deprived of the means to feed themselves. They touch nothing; play with nothing; they float along in their world until I come to visit. Their benevolent, loving, forgetful owner.
I have friends who have been in service for decades. For every one of them, I think of their knees splintering, their spines unspooling. Stooping low to lift a delivery or burning a finger on a stove. Roughshod hands with cleaning chemicals. Stocking a grocery or scrubbing a kitchen.
My father worked in a kitchen. Fresh off a plane, he became a busboy at a Chinese restaurant in New York, then Boston. He was saving up money for his graduate program in Louisiana. While a student there, he cleaned hotel rooms. He was paid $30 a day–my current rent–consequently the same amount of money for a room for one night.
His first few nights, he likes to joke, he was so exhausted that he waved his money away and collapsed on the beds he’d just made, waking to an unfamiliar room. He did this because he had no strength left. He gave it away so that other people could rest.
This essay appreciates service work. This essay is thankful that its author worked in service. It is not service work itself that this essay is critiquing–rather, the treatment of workers, the withholding of resources, the crossing of pickets. The legislating away of safety, the lack of protections. The lack of insurances. The lack of coverage.
In Neopia, I am pushing colorful buttons to receive gifts in a world of utopic abundance. In this world, rest is our least abundant commodity.
At the cemetery, I take school groups to different graves, and we talk about the people buried there. One time, a fourth grade student interrupts my Women Pioneers tour. “We’re stepping on dead bodies, aren’t we?” he asks. “We’re stepping on them, we are right on top of them, they can FEEL us.”
Children are good at telling the truth, and a cemetery is not always an easy place to be. His fifteen peers shudder and shuffle around in the grass. One of them flinches away from a headstone.
“People here are buried five, seven, and nine feet underground,” I say. “I promise they can’t feel us.” It’s a rehearsed answer and he knows it.
“Don’t you ever get sad working here?” he presses. I remember burning my hand serving a one hundred and twenty degree latte. Smiling when I felt incapable of smiling. Folks brunching while the cooks coughed below them.
I tell him what I know is real. That truthfully, working any job can make you sad.
Nancy grew up in Shanghai and near Detroit. Her poetry, plays, and prose are published by The Offing, poets.org, Asian American Writers Workshop’s The Margins, film distribution company A24, and others. Nancy is a Voices/VONA, Watering Hole, Tin House, and Pink Door fellow. She is a ChaNorth Writer-in-Residence, and has a poetry MFA from NYU. She works at a cemetery in Brooklyn.