By: Mariano Stephens

One of my teaching fellows in economics told me
He doesn’t believe in a minimum wage.
It hurts the economy.
It’s a privilege to work in this country.

The first night I worked a paying job — I was a busboy.
It was in a Tex-Mex restaurant
$4.25 an hour plus the nightly tip-out.
They made me carry a tray that hurt to hold up.
I spilled water on customers,
Broke bar glasses,
Was told that I was “too slow.”
That night I worked for nine-and-a-half hours.
I came home at 3:30 that morning,
Smelling like a slurry of salsa, sour cream, and Dos Equis.

My trainer was named Alejandro,
From San Luis Potosí.
He worked night shifts as well,
Plus a second job at McDonalds.
Every day after that was a different degree of awful.
I had to work night shifts by myself
Every night
A different manager told me the same thing:
“You’re too slow —
You’re the only one working and
I need those tables.”

Spilled water turns into spilled alcohol and
Spilled ranch dressing and
Spilled queso.
Broken bar glasses turn into cuts on my fingers.
The waste from dirty dishes fills the trash,
The plastic bags so delicate yet so heavy
That when I try to throw them in the dumpster they burst all over me
And I’m covered in the deplorable detritus of rude customers.
I wanna hide in the bathroom and cry and clean up,
But it’s barely 8 o’clock and the dinner rush is coming.
“Hurry up Sonny we need those tables clean now!”
They yell at me.
Every tray becomes a perilous trial of my own
Balance over and over again for nine hours.

And one night I just decided
The toilets didn’t need any more of my scrubbing.
And the next day — I grabbed my tip-out and said
But that’s not why my teaching fellow is wrong.
No, I am not the story that renders his comments wrong.
Alejandro is.
Alejandro stays in that restaurant and carries those trays like they’re weightless.
He’s strong enough to carry the trash
Carry the trays
Carry the business
Carry our country.
And it’s different for me
Because I could leave.
I could say NO
And walk right out of that building
And have a roof on my head
And food in my mouth.

My teaching fellow is wrong because of Alejandro.
Alejandro is not privileged to work in America;
America is far too privileged to have workers like him.


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