Living Large on Minimum Wage

We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness
in the ruthless furnace of the world


It was a night with no moon and he was alone, driving up the Interstate in northern Michigan, with an all-night radio station out of Chicago for company. He was in a mindless reverie until, suddenly alert, he glanced down and saw that the rental car’s fuel gauge was on E. It was after 1 am. He had no idea how far out of Lansing he had gotten. There were no lights ahead or behind, and he saw no signs. Minutes passed that seemed like hours. Finally, an exit.

He took the off ramp and, in the absence of signs, gambled and went right. He drove several miles on a pitch black secondary road with no indication he was getting anywhere. Afraid to waste more precious fuel, he turned around and got back on the highway.

More minutes passed, uncountable and agonizing. Then he saw lights in the distance that grew brighter as the car drew nearer, until he was exiting into an oasis of flood lit buildings, bright neon signs and gas pumps. Pulling up to a pump, he got out and went into the convenience store to use the restroom and pay cash for his gas.

The place was brightly lit and well stocked. The attendant, a middle aged woman, was mopping a floor that was already spanking clean. She greeted him cheerfully and chatted amiably as he toured the store for a snack and a drink. He paid for the gas and the merchandise and she bid him a pleasant evening as he left.

After gassing up, he pulled out of the station and spotted a Mcdonald’s across the road. He decided to treat himself to a late night hamburger. He entered the store, which was staffed by a young worker, a boy in his teens, and a woman not much older. They were busy behind the counter, apparently doing off hour cleanup duties. They stopped, took care of his order very pleasantly, and got back to their duties with a lot of good natured conversation as they worked.

Once back on his solitary drive down the dark highway, he wondered about what he had just witnessed. Were these people really content to be doing grunt work on the highway during those dangerous night hours?  To him, they seemed stranded on the remotest outposts of the global corporations they were employed by. Did anybody at their home offices care about them or know if they were OK? They were probably part timers, with lousy pay and no benefits, and yet they seemed to be thriving on the experience.

He could not know anything about the lives of these people. For all he knew, they might just be grateful  to be away from miserable home lives, or glad, in a poor economy, to have any kind of job at all. But these would be stressful situations, difficult to leave behind on the job. He thought, half seriously, that it was some sort of cultural peculiarity of the region-but probably not.

He eventually quit trying to sort it out, and he wished that their contentment came from simply intuiting the value of being useful. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive. And it is its own reward, as well, for it is the beginning of happiness, just as self-pity and withdrawal from the battle are the beginning of misery.”

Then he remembered something else. Many mornings, as he was going off to school as a boy, his Dad would say, “All you’ve got is today, David, so make it a masterpiece!”

It was a thing he never really got, back then. He gets it, now. And maybe the night shift gets it, too.

Happy Thanksgiving,


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