Everyone should have a lousy job in the food industry. At least once: good for the soul. I had two. My very first job — well, not counting the seven years delivering newspapers, starting at age 9 — was the summer I turned 16. At Barnhill’s, an 1890s-themed ice cream parlor in my hometown of Berea, Ohio. Pay was $2.30 an hour and I was a soda jerk/janitor since I worked a split shift. I showed up at 5:30 p.m., scooped ice cream for a few hours, shut down the restaurant and returned at 5:30 a.m. to open it back up.
Grueling. I still remember solitary frustration of mopping the floor, hearing a “pop” above me, being showered by broken glass, and realizing that I had jammed the mop handle into one of the large glass globes around a light fixture.
That was one summer.
A few bad jobs later — junior counselor at a summer camp, moving cardboard boxes in a warehouse for J.C. Penney — I became a baker at Bob Evans, a restaurant that prided itself in its biscuits. I would stand at a table in the middle of the kitchen and whip up biscuits. One busy Sunday I baked 250 pounds worth.
The guy at the dish tank was named Wayne. I can still see him — the back of his head anyway. Crew cut, black plastic glasses held on by an elastic band. He’d stand at the long stainless steel sink, throw the dirty dishes into a big square rack, hose them down with a sprayer dangling on a metal hose. Pull up the metal door, steam billowing out, push the dirty rack in, the glistening clean rack sliding out the other side.
I’d talk to Wayne, or try to. Once, I asked him, “So Wayne, what’s the plan?” He looked at me, confused. Plan? “You know, after this?” I was finishing high school and toddling off to college. Even at 17, I was able to immediately realize, from his expression, that there was no plan. This was it.
That stuck with me. We all play the hand we’re dealt. I think of Wayne whenever the subject of minimum wage comes up. New York and California, those twin liberal bookends on either side of our country, on Monday approved a $15 minimum wage to be reached gradually by 2022.
The current federal minimum wage, if you are lucky enough not to know, is $7.25 an hour, or $2.33 less in today’s dollars than what that $2.30 was worth in 1976. Doubling the minimum wage is quite a jump, but given how slow raises have come — the current wage was set seven years ago — who knows how long it’ll be in place.
While state’s rights are usually pushed by aggrieved bigots looking to excuse their particular backwater from the social progress the country is making, when it comes to minimum wage, it should be set at the state level for the simple reason that it does not cost as much to live in Manhattan, Illinois, as it does to live in Manhattan, New York. Most states — 45 — already have their own minimum wage, though 20 of those states peg it to the federal minimum wage, which is never going up so long as Congress is controlled by Republican tools carrying water for Big Business.
They don’t realize — or don’t care — that half of those earning minimum wage are over 25. Not everyone at a fast-food joint is a high school student working because … well, I’m not sure why I was working. I don’t recall my parents forcing me. It just was what you did.
I lasted a year at Bob Evans, until I called in sick one day and they fired me. Wayne, for all I know, might still be there. I hope he’s a manager by now. The minimum wage in Ohio is $8.10 an hour, $4.05 if you receive tips.