Labor Day Celebrates a Long Gone Dignity
As a freshman in college, I worked at a gas station. Diamond Standard Station, proprietor, L. D. Diamond.
L.D. Diamond was in his late sixties by the time I started working for him. A shock of brilliant white hair and a dark farmer's tan made him seem a bit like a Vegas performer in a greasy blue work shirt. He was larger than life in so many ways, it's hard to relate the very idea of the man. Full of stories, relentlessly obscene, and one of the absolute nicest bosses I've ever had.
He and his primary mechanic, Snuffy (I worked there for a year and never found out what Snuffy's real name was) were a couple of old, salty guys who had been running that Standard station on the corner of Central and Oliver in Wichita so long, it had the feel of an old General Store. Instead of barrels, he and Snuff had stacks of Penzoil to perch on as they sat and chewed on beef jerky and commented on the world through the lens of the stream of customers.
Early on, my girlfriend, Kathy, came by to visit. She was in a mini-skirt and these two old fuckers had to pull their eyeballs back into their irregular heads. That said, both men were congenial to her, never crossing the invisible line from two older grandpa-like figures into creepy, fucking leering cranks. Once she had left, L.D. called me over.
"That your girl?"
Snuffy smiled a toothless grin. "You penetrate her?"
"Do you PEN–AH–TRAIT HER? Chew Deaf?"
"Um... well, yeah. I guess so..."
From that point on, my station nickname was "Penetrate" — as in "Penetrate! Go check that boy's oil!" and "Penetrate will fix that tire!"
Even regular patrons of the station called me Penetrate. For eight months on that job, that was my handle.
After working hard for the L.D., I found out that he paid me more than the legal minimum wage — by almost two dollars an hour. I asked him why because that seemed unusual for both a completely unskilled laborer just out of high school and hard to parse out in terms of the day-to-day business model of a gas station.
"I pay you more so I can expect more outta ya. Not so hard to figure."
Labor Day was created because the labor movement in those days was robust and focused hard on making things fair for the common laborer, and in the 1880s some guys decided that a day, with parades and celebration of those core principles was in order. It is unfortunate that in present day, many of those core principles are not politically in vogue — the Robber Barons are back in control, the banks are so predatory that it’s hard to believe that bankers aren’t equipped with shark teeth hiding behind their benign smiles, the gig economy is now being trumpeted as somehow new and distinct from the age-old practice of sharecropping, and I’m quite certain that no one who actually works in the labor sector has ever worn fucking white pants anywhere.
There is hope, I believe.
Political fights for increasing minimum wage across the land are winning. Loathe to praise our own Chicago mayor, I have to at least acknowledge that his insistence on raising the minimum wage here has demonstrated that all the handwringing and doomsaying about the destruction of small businesses is mostly smoke. The renewed interest in a Universal Living Wage feels like a possibility. Increases in kids eschewing college for trade schools is a potential bright spot.
As people across America who can barely afford to save enough to pay for a $400 emergency sit in their yards, grilling meat culled from mass produced animal penitentiaries on grills mass produced in China in celebration to the end of summer despite the fact that it’ll be 115˚ in Texas on September 29, it’s difficult to feel that hope.
So, I’m reduced to recalling a time in my life when I worked for a guy who owned a gas station in the 1980s who understood that paying people more than the minimum was about raising expectations and affording dignity to those doing the jobs we often take for granted.
And being thankful that no one calls me Penetrate anymore.