You Know What That Means When Someone Pays You Minimum Wage? You Know What Your Boss Was Trying To Say? “Hey If I Could Pay You Less, I Would, But It’s Against The Law.” (Chris Rock)
Fifty-eight years of age seemed like as good a time as any to attend my first summer camp. That was last year when Lori and I agreed to work in the kitchens of Bnei Akiva’s Camp Moshava in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. We served breakfast and lunch to some 1400 people. That is a lot of eggs to crack for the morning’s scrambled eggs – 2000+ to be exact. Tuna salad to go – open 200 lbs. of canned tuna, mix in 4½ gallons of mayo and pray. Who knows, maybe this summer will be even more fun?
Growing up I don’t recall any of my closest friends ever attending a sleep away camp. What today seems like a rite of passage for so many young people was, in my day, very much an exception to the rule. To be sure, most of us spent the majority of the summer months outdoors, incommunicado from any reasonable figure of parental authority. Beside the normal street sports, there was always some forbidding construction site to explore, not to mention the never-ending supply of mindless movies produced every summer for our benefit. Escaping the punishing heat in an air-conditioned palace while feasting on a chocolate Eskimo Pie – could life get any better? All the same, when Labour Day finally rolled around, although nobody would admit it, most of us were grateful for the reprieve.
Our true rite of summer passage began at ages 15 or 16 when most of us were expected to find some sort of gainful employment. Summertime Jobs. Summertime jobs were a license for many employers to create humiliating, demeaning positions that they reserved annually for the minions of youth who were all too eager to accept anything that might put some change in their pockets. I know this for a fact, because I excelled in applying for many of those positions. My first real job was washing dishes at my uncle’s tavern, The Junction Tavern on Beckley Street in Hamilton – tavern is a quaint Canadian term for a bar, a licensed establishment. In its prime, The Junction had the distinction of hosting Hamilton’s largest discotheque – no minor cultural achievement for its time. In spite of this prestigious accomplishment, my mother insisted that I work there only during the day shift, presumably to preserve my precious innocence. It was a valiant effort on her part, but it was all in vain, because I was now officially, a gainfully employed student. That summer I washed dishes and pots until my fingers were raw. I learnt how to devein shrimp and how to peel a 50lb. bag of onions without passing out. I also learnt how a lot of respectable businessmen occupied their lunchtimes.
From dishwashing my summer career was pretty much a downward spiral. I hit rock bottom after my last year of high school when I joined a group of friends to work in one of the city’s largest scrap yards. To this day I suffer flashbacks when I stumble across a piece of scrap metal. I’m not sure if the work we performed was actually profitable for the company, or if it was designed as some sort of social service to keep young, potentially delinquent males off the streets. Maybe it was a combination of both? Seven thirty every morning we were greeted by a mountain of scrap telephone parts which we were supposed to separate into grade 1 scrap or grade 2 – knowing what criterion actually distinguished the two grades was way above my job level. As soon as the sorting process was completed, the piles were promptly removed and then replaced by another mountain identical to the previous one. We could hardly contain our excitement. Fact was, we signed on only for the summer, but we worked alongside some pretty desperate characters that performed these menial tasks day in and day out, year after year. Most of our conversations centered on the human anatomy and were somehow connected to the quantity of beer one could consume on any conceivable occasion. It was almost a shame to part ways that summer.
Character-building: that’s pretty much how grownups pitched the whole concept of summer employment to us children. Fair enough. I value humility as much as the next guy. One of my more memorable summertime bosses drove that point home very clearly. After I was hired to drive the delivery van for a leading clothing jobber in the garment district of Toronto, I was invited into my employer’s office for a bit of a pep talk. Chomping on his ubiquitous cigar – the trademark of any serious shmatta dealer – he proceeded to inform me that the job I was about to perform required minimal intelligence; therefore, he will pay me what I am worth to him, which in my case was really not that much. What could I say? I thanked him profusely for taking a chance on me, and decided that I will devote my summer to showing him just how worthless I could be to his company.
As far as I am concerned, the real payoff for all those years of drudgery was the payoff. Financial independence: not having to justify to anybody why it is imperative that you purchase auditorium-strength stereo speakers for your tiny bedroom. Few occasions in my life matched the thrill I experienced after I purchased my very first car with my hard-earned money. My gold-coloured Cutlass Supreme, 350 V8 cost me less than $1000 but it felt like a million. A gas guzzler with power to burn, I drove that baby until the white flag came up. Today, we drive a Nissan Micra – I think the entire car could fit under the hood of my old Cutlass. It’s practical, economical, and eco-friendly, but, to be honest, the thrill is gone.
Nice one on the joys of working for peanuts. My minimum wage life guard job in 1969 paid $1.49 an hour. And it rained only twice that summer. One of those was on my day off. RobB