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Minimum Wage

Since the third grade I’d been scouring roadsides for aluminum cans, turning my nose up at the steel Pepsi cans, hauling in syrupy garbage bags to a guy with a semi-trailer paying a quarter a pound. In middle school a neighbor two houses up paid me a hundred bucks a month to mow his lawn, a good job most of the year when he and his wife took off RVing around the country. Elementary school money collected in a yellow margarine tub in my sock drawer, but the hundred-dollar checks–written in his wife’s perfect Depression-era handwriting, arriving in small envelopes with varying postmarks and no return address–were mailed off to Navy Federal Credit Union in Merrifield, Virginia. NFCUing-it, I see, my dad would say as I filled out the deposit slip. When the statement came I would read off my century deposits and feel satisfied. I was a weird kid.

1985 was my first real job–jobby-job, as they are called now. Band trips required money, and unable to see another way out I got a job as a busboy at the town’s lone sit-down quasi-upscale seafood restaurant. The nearby motel sent over a steady stream of exhausted car travelers but most patrons were churchy locals. Wait staff was never blown away by tips and resented the churchiest who tipped with religious booklets the size of a cat’s paw. It was work, and hot even in the air conditioning. The kitchen wilted people, the air heavy with damp rag smell. I would hide in the freezer for a minute or two, sneaking a bite or two of salad and remembering childhood in Canada.

The first clock I punched was computerized, buzzing out a dot-matrix line when you stuck the card in. My father drove me down back roads to the restaurant’s freeway exit, never particularly enthused while I vibrated with worry over being late. I really didn’t know what the punishment for lateness was, but its possibility gripped me. I think I had just seen Silkwood and was waiting to be stripped and blasted with hoses.

I was not a good worker to start. I remember leaning against a pole and the boss–an arch, ammonia-blonde, prune-faced woman always dressed in the latest overblown high fashion of the Dallas country club set–asked if I thought the pole needed support. I said something like seems a little weak here as I pressed it. Another guy laughed, but it’s clear he didn’t think much of me. I kept the job, somehow.

In 1985, the minimum wage was $3.35. (I don’t remember this, but looked it up.) Working fullish-partish-time with the summer I suppose I earned a whopping $40 a week, tops. It didn’t seem like much, especially for the work I did, and having to be on my feet constantly, and wear a bow tie. A month’s work only got me $160. I should’ve looked for another lawn, but I think I felt that work even more beneath me than cleaning tables.

$3.35 in 1985 works out to $7.16 in 2012 dollars, only slightly less than half the inflation-adjusted minimum wage now. Things were cheaper then, but worth more; things are more expensive now, but worth less. Such is the magic of economics.

1985 was ages ago, before fuel injection and TCP/IP. I went to school, got a degree, later got a community college certificate that led to doubling my income by working with scary computer stuff. It’s not that hard. It’s like the other lawn I should’ve looked for.

For years I kept my paystubs from that first job, paperclipped together in a drawer. I never looked at them, though they felt like something adult I should keep. Some years ago I threw them out with all the other collected paystubs of all the other jobs. I couldn’t figure out why I was keeping them. But it would be something to get one of those 1985 slips, confirm the numbers, see if she really did take the Social Security out. A slip would let me confirm a simple calculation of worth across time.

I now bank $45 an hour. There, I defied years of training and social conditioning, dozens of employee handbooks and the unblinking eye of Sky Dad. It feels fine.

I let you in on this to let you in on another recent thought: you know, I bet I earn more in an hour than I did working all day in high school. It’s been a passing thought off-and-on for a year or two.

45 / 7.16 = 6.28

Not quite. I earn in one hour what I earned in 6 1/4 in high school. Was I smart enough to do what I do now in high school? Probably, with a little practice. It’s easier than trigonometry, but harder than algebra. But I needed to learn more than skills. How to not be so anxious and afraid, primarily. With that, the rest is momentum.

Time indeed does bring perspective.


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