The opening to “Withholding: Scenes From A Minimum Wage Life.”

You can’t say I didn’t get regular warnings. Every time in my working life when I’ve thought things couldn’t possibly get worse I’d receive some revelation that the fun was just getting started, that the bosses would get meaner and more inept, that the co-workers would get stupider and the customers more demanding, and that the work would get more trivial and demeaning.

In the spring of 1986 I was working as a cook at a Moo-Cow’s Burgers-n-Ice Cream joint on Interstate 10 in Sealy, Texas. My parents had forced me to move to their country place in nearby Millheim after I’d flunked out of college. One week, after Charlie the manager had posted the next week’s schedule on the bulletin board, Greg, a tall teenager who also worked in the kitchen, guffawed,

–Oh James, that sucks for you!

–What?

–Thursday night you gotta close…with Shelly.

“You gotta close” are the three most chilling words to anyone who works a minimum wage job in restaurants or retail. It means a lot of extra work and trouble for no extra pay. It means you’ll probably get off a lot later than you’re scheduled, though you’ll not get overtime.

In this case it also meant I got to work under the Assistant Manager, who was about five feet, three inches tall, insecure, with a bad temper, imperious manner, and an unshakable belief that the other employees didn’t respect her. Everybody called her “Little Napoleon” behind her back.

Thursday night started off well enough. We didn’t have a great rush of customers, so that was a relief from my point of view. Like many managerial types Shelly believed she was the only one in the place who actually worked, that everyone beneath her was a slacker, and that it was her job to keep everybody busy all the time.

She came back to the kitchen and barked out a few orders, delegating each of us to do menial tasks that were pointless and not at all needed. I probably responded to her with a twinkle in my eye, a smirk worthy of Lee Harvey Oswald, and that haughty accent I automatically assume when I’m around people whom I’ve concluded are my social and intellectual inferiors. She could tell I didn’t take her seriously and she shot me a resentful look.

My co-workers and I worked on the first round of chores, pausing only to take our places to fill customers’s orders. We had almost finished when Shelly came back and gave us more to do. An hour or so later she returned with more orders. I asked a question, and it was obvious that it got under Shelly’s skin. As she walked away, Greg muttered,

–You do know that Shelly is only sixteen and still in high school?

–Are you serious? Man, I’ve got a nephew older than that!

The workers all started laughing. Shelly ran back, sure that we were laughing at her. The workers tried to explain the exchange, but failed to correctly report my tone of voice, so Shelly got bright red and decided I was trying to foment unrest and cause her to lose face with the staff. I didn’t really care enough to try to explain the truth to her. She then ordered me to follow her to the stock room, where she gave me detailed instructions on how I was to clean and re-organize it from top to bottom. I tried to be philosophical about the whole thing—at least while cleaning the stock room I wouldn’t have to fill customers’s order and run around in hectic confusion.

An hour-and-a-half later I finished and asked Shelly to come back and take a look. She was still very angry at me.

–Now I want you to scrub and wash the parking lot with soap and water, all the way from the entrance driveway to the back by the dumpster. I want it soaped up, scrubbed with a broom, all stains removed, and hosed off. And you better have it done before we leave at 10:30.

I was tempted to ask “or else what?,” but I held my tongue. I was pretty sure a teenager didn’t have the power to fire me. And the only reason I cared whether I got fired or not was that if I did my parents would give me hell about it. I went over to Greg and folded up my apron.

–It’s already dark outside. How am I supposed to know whether I’ve gotten the parking lot clean or not? There’s not enough light for me to see what I’m doing. Plus everything’s gonna be wet. How will I know when I’m done?

–That’s the whole point, James. You won’t know when you’re done.

So I found a mop bucket with wheels and filled it with dish soap. I picked out one of the older brooms and a mop, unrolled the hose that was coiled around the spigot at the back door, and filled the bucket with water.

I hosed down a section of the parking lot, lathered on the suds, made a perfunctory effort at scrubbing the concrete with the broom, hosed the area off again, then moved on. I was in a simmering rage, planning the resignation letter I was going to write when I got home. Maybe my parents would back me up on this injustice—this arrogant little bitch punishing me for a perceived slight.

I worked my way counter-clockwise around the restaurant, from the west side to the north. When I was on the south side by the order window I noticed a truck and a muscle car drive up, and some teenagers get out of them and go inside. Then Shelly came around from behind the counter and sat down at their table.

About fifteen or twenty minutes later I was on the back side of the restaurant, where the light was poor. I’d just tossed a food wrapper into the dumpster when I saw a short teenager with a puffed-out chest come around the corner.

–‘Scuse me. You named James?

–Yes.

–I’m Casey.

–Okay.

–Shelly’s been telling me you been givin’ her trouble tonight, making her upset.

Here it comes.

He stepped a little closer. I could just make out that he had a wisp of a moustache and was wearing a Night Ranger T-shirt.

–Shelly’s my friend, so when she gets upset, I get upset.

I am by no means a tough guy, but I know that I can kick the ass of anybody who’s wearing a Night Ranger T-shirt.

–Well, I don’t know what you’ve heard. I think she misunderstood something and thought I was trying to undermine her. But I’m not from around here. I’ve only been here for a few weeks and I’m not planning to stay here much longer. This job is just a temporary thing for me, so I really don’t take it all that seriously.

–Well, okay. I just don’t want anybody getting Shelly upset.

–I understand.

–Well, okay.

And off he went.

The next day I walked into the restaurant with my resignation letter in my back pocket, jaw set firmly, ready to argue my case. Charlie the manager was at his desk and when he saw me coming he started giggling.

–I hear you and Shelly went at it last night?

–Well, yes. I wrote you a letter outlining….

–Oh that’s all right. She can get that way sometimes. Don’t worry about it. I’ll just make sure not to schedule you to close with her ever again.

I felt a little silly. Charlie had deflated the problem in seconds. The events of the previous night, which had made me so angry, were now just the elements of a funny story. When I related all this to a friend decades later, he was astonished:

–Man, that was cool. You acted just like Caine.

–Caine?

–Kwai Chang Caine. You know, David Carradine? Caine on “Kung Fu.” That’s just the sort of thing he’d say: “I am a stranger here. I am not looking for trouble. I am just passing through.” Then a gang of bad guys….

–…Or a punk in a Night Ranger T-shirt….

–…Or a punk in a Night Ranger T-shirt would try to jump him and he’d have to put the smack-down on ’em. Knock ’em on their asses with his superior kung fu.

I wish that night had been as cool as an episode of “Kung Fu.” I wish I’d been as cool as Caine. But the million little indignities of the modern workplace are the seeds from which spring a host of Monday morning quarterbacks.

*******

Apart from being sexually molested by my biological father between the ages of two and four, the first decade of my life went pretty well. And in fairness, it was never entirely proven that he molested me. He may’ve masturbated or had sex with another man in front of me. The doctors never could decide.

And never mind that I didn’t have any real friends those first ten years.

All these things aside, the first ten years of my life were magical, bordering on the idyllic.

And before you clutch your pearls, cluck your tongue, and gasp in horror that I’m making light of sexual abuse, understand that I am not. Whatever happened to me fucked me up physically and psychologically for years and continues to do so to this day. I spent many years going to pediatricians, neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. I took strong doses of Phenobarbital twice a day, swallowed down with chocolate Snack Pack pudding in the aluminum single-serving cans. I got an EEG done every year at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

But I don’t remember the events that caused this trauma.

On the other hand, I do remember, and quite well, the awful events that have happened since my tenth year, and I see, with even greater clarity, the trauma those later events have caused, the trauma that resulted from decades spent in pointless, thankless, soul-crushing work….

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