Other than mowing lawns and doing paper routes, my first official job was as a dishwasher at the age of 15.
I worked at a place called the Village Dairy and I think the most accurate way to describe it would be “glorified lunch counter”. Not that it was a bad place, mind you, but when you can find both meatloaf AND ham loaf served out of a steam table, it’s almost a guarantee you’re not getting the 5 star dining seal of approval.
The guy who owned the place was a rather swarthy chap named Jerry. The fact that he had a tendency to wear his pants a little too close to his armpits was more than off set by his handle bar moustache and though he could blow a gasket from time to time if things weren’t done exactly as he wanted, all in all, he was a pretty decent guy.
When I was 15, minimum wage was 3 dollars and 35 cents and hour but due to the vagaries of restaurant employment, Jerry was only required to pay me 2 dollars and 85 cents an hour. I think the loop hole was that “technically”, as a dishwasher, I COULD receive tips and so legally I didn’t have to receive minimum wage but tell me honestly, how often do you think a customer came in, served themselves a 4 dollar meal from the steam table, left a tip for the counter staff and then said “oh..and here’s an extra 5 bucks for the kid doing the dishes in back….he’s doing a bang up job….cleanest plates I’ve ever seen in my life!”….
In my best recollection, I never actually received a tip of any kind while I worked at the Village Dairy, but maybe with all the excitement of having my hands dunked in scalding water for 5 hours a night, I just forgot.
I know that these days most restaurants have very sophisticated high volume dish washing systems but back when I was on dish patrol, it was pretty much a hand’s on operation. We may have had some sort of steamer to run the glass ware and silverware through but everything else pots, pans, and plates included was scrubbed to within in an inch of its life by me while I listened to tepid strains of adult contemporary pseudo-pop oldies drift out of a single speaker AM radio.
As a 15 year old, most of the music seemed tragically unhip and virtually unlistenable; Barbara Streisand, The Association, Connie Francis, and The Lettermen spring to mind as fairly heavy rotation artists on this particular station. And honestly, the ONLY song I remember looking forward to hearing was this one from Tommy James and the Shondells.
Not exactly Jumpin’ Jack Flash from the Stones but faced with another spin of “Never My Love” you take what you can get, right?
Course, I wasn’t washing dishes for the glamour, I was in it for the money. At 2 dollars and 85 cents an hour, 10 hours a week and 2 weeks in a pay period. Come my first official pay day, I was fully expecting to receive a check for 57 dollars.
Imagine my surprise when I opened that first check and found that for 20 hours of washing dishes and listening to Barbara Streisand I had earned a whopping 41 dollars and 18 cents! Yes! I should be buying my own Mustang and dating the hottest girl in my class ANY second now!
Figuring there had to be some mistake, I took that first paycheck to Jerry the owner and asked very nicely mind you, if he could explain where the rest of my money was.
So Jerry pulled his glasses out of his breast pocket, propped them on the end of his nose, and took a good long look at my paycheck.
After 2 minutes of staring at it he took his glasses off and said, “It’s all there Mike. I’m not sure what you mean.”
I said, “Well, I’ve worked 20 hours in the last 2 weeks at 2 dollars 85 cents an hour so by my math, I should have a check for $57 bucks.”
In hindsight, I imagine it was awfully difficult for Jerry to keep from laughing hysterically in my face but to his credit, he didn’t.
Instead, he said “Taxes, Mike. Taxes. After the Federal, State, and local governments take their cut of your earnings and you pay into the unemployment insurance pool, and all that, 41 dollars and 18 cents is what you’re left with.”
I said, “There must be some mistake. I’m only 15 years old. I don’t think I should have to pay taxes.”
And Jerry said, “Welcome to the big leagues, son. I’m a lot older than you and I don’t think I should have to pay taxes either but believe me when I say, you do. Now how about if you trot back to the kitchen and get started on those dishes, huh?”
While I understand the importance of the lesson, what I’m trying to figure out is why I’ve had to keep learning it over and over and over again, every 2 weeks for the last 25 years.
Where’s Patrick Henry and Ben Franklin when you need ‘em?