Luis Motta and the Joys of Minimum Wage

In the fall of 1988, I moved into a cottage in Fairhaven Massachusetts in preparation for the start of the school year.  I had just finished a summer of working on the cranberry bogs in my hometown.  Although that kind of summertime manual labor paid well, it was one of my first orders of business to find a job right away so that I could pay rent and keep the college “experience” moving in the right direction.

Finding a job is never very much fun.  At the time, I had very few skills, no car (I bummed rides), and even less confidence.  So I ended up applying for jobs just about anywhere.  I applied at a variety of retail stores, a nursery, a tuxedo rental company, and golf course but nothing panned out.  It became a standard procedure – apply for jobs, get rejected, and head home.  As part of my routine I would stop at the convenience store a few miles from my house to buy a newspaper and a coke.

That was where I met a man named Luis Motta.  Although I didn’t know it, Luis was the manager of that convenience store and soon to be my boss in a job that paid minimum wage.

Luis was an outgoing fellow, always engaging his customers in loud conversations and laughing heartily as he tried to get them to buy a cheese danish or something that was on sale.  He was a small wiry man, with sharp features, and large eyes magnified by his somewhat thick glasses.  He always dressed casually, in jeans and a collared shirt, but his appearance was impeccable; and although he was completely bald on top, you could see that the black hair on the sides of his head was still a matter of pride.

The first time I stopped in his store, Luis immediately greeted me in a heavy accent.

“Hello my friend how are you?”

And so began our relationship.  By my third or fourth encounter with Luis, he was greeting me with “Hello Crease – how are you with the job hunt?”

“Hey Lou,” I would say sheepishly having been turned down by a sporting goods store or sub shop, “no one is hiring.”  This is the standard line I would use rather than:  I am a loser and no one will hire me.

“Crease, listen man – you work for me.  I can only pay the minimum wage.”

When you are poor like I was – this was a huge break.

“Seriously, Lou?!  How many hours can I get?”

“How many you want?  As many as you want.”  Lou was smiling waving for me to come closer.

I resisted the urge to say – you know what Lou, I have the feeling this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship; and started discussing the details.

The details were simple; I would work Monday through Friday from 3pm to 10pm, when I would lock up the store.  Lou would pay me the minimum wage, at that time $3.65, which meant I would be bringing home more than hundred bucks a week.   I couldn’t really expect anything better – maximum hours, no weekends to conflict with my Army National Guard duties and enough time during the day to be a full-time college student.

***

The job was not hard.  I would get to work and immediately take over the register, so Lou could do whatever he had to do in the office regarding bills, orders, etc.  Around 6 PM Lou would head home, and I would be in the store alone.  I would stock all the shelves, mop the floors, count the cigarettes (don’t ask me why – but every night I had to count every pack of cigarettes in the place).

Of course, there would still be customers, but honestly after 6Pm the store was rarely busy.  Lou was also cool with me doing my homework and I took advantage of that benefit as well.  Generally speaking, it was one of the easiest jobs I ever had.  Occasionally, pretty girls from the University I attended would stop in – not to see me but to get food – but I wasn’t complaining.  And there was also no shortage of crazy people.  Anyone who has ever worked in a convenience store knows what I mean – those places attract insane people.  But those are stories for another time.

The absolute best part of working at that store was getting to know Luis Motta.  Lou was a  hard-working guy.  He would roll into work at 5:30 AM every day and then leave at 6PM.  He kept his store immaculately clean; he knew his customers by name; and he never seemed to be in a bad mood.

Early on, I had made the mistake of asking Lou, “You are Portuguese, right?”

Lou’s eyebrows raised and he became more animated than normal, “Portuguese?!  I am Azorean, Man!”

“Azorean?”

“From the Azores – you know the Azores?”

“Oh yeah, of course,” I replied hoping he wouldn’t press me on exactly where the Azores were located.  He didn’t.

“What made you come to America, Lou?”

He looked at me like I was nuts.  “Work!”

Lou would spend his afternoons with me, listening to All things Considered on National Public Radio – there was no muzak in Lou’s store.  “I love dis show” he would say every day as he turned up the volume.   We would talk current events.  I was majoring in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth – but it didn’t take long to realize that Lou had more common sense and knowledge of how the world really worked than the goofy professors at the university.  Sure the professors were smart about their area of expertise (which was usually some ridiculous subject like Marxist Theory of the Fishing Industry in Yugoslavia – or something like that) – but Lou was the kind of guy who built America.

One afternoon, after stocking the milk cooler I emerged and heard Lou in a heated conversation with one of our regular customers.

“I tell you man – I gonna vote for George Booosh!  Dukakis?  He take all my money!  Tax, tax, tax!”

In Massachusetts, everyone is a Democrat; it is part of their commitment to diversity.

After the customer left, I looked at Lou and smiled.  “Lou, I didn’t know you were a republican.”

“Crease!  Of course I repooblican!  That Dukakis – he an eeediot!  He tax, tax tax.”

So I let Lou know, I was one of 7 (the rest were in hiding) openly republican students on the UMASS-Dartmouth campus.  “Well, my professors hate me.  You know Lou, I could get you some Bush-Quayle bumper stickers and pins if you’d like.”

“Oh Crease….you must get me that.”

***

The next day when I got to work I handed Lou a handful of Bush-Quayle gear.  He was thrilled.  He immediately affixed a campaign pin to his shirt.

“What do you think, my friend?”

“Lou, are you sure you want to where that at work?  You are probably going to piss off some customers with that pin.”

“Crease, I no giva sheet.”  He handed me a pin.  “Put it on.”

***

At 9PM that night, a BMW pulled into our parking lot.  I watched as a very well dressed couple in their early thirties walked into the store.  They grabbed a couple of sodas and I was ringing up their order when the woman muttered, “I can’t believe you would wear that.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am?”

“I can’t believe you would wear that Bush-Quayle pin.”

“Oh.  Well, that’s who I am supporting.”

“Maybe if you would wake up and vote for Dukakis you wouldn’t have such a crappy job.”

I wanted to slap her, but I didn’t.

***

Working for Luis Motta was not a crappy job.  It was a great job.  He was a good, fair, decent boss.  He treated me like a human being (he raised my salary to $4.50 an hour after a couple of months; which caused a small celebration).  If not for Lou, I’m not sure I would have financially survived that fall semester of college.

Luis was a hardworking immigrant to our country and he loved being an American.  He was honest, funny, and treated everyone with respect and kindness.   No, he didn’t drive a BMW and no he didn’t have a degree.  He had something better:  character.

I learned a lot from Luis.  He made me into a much harder worker than I had ever been before I met him.  He taught me to talk to strangers.  And he taught me that it was okay to have strong opinions and disagree with people.  Yes, it was a minimum wage job, but not everything of value comes from a paycheck.

Sometimes the value comes in knowing that you are working for a decent man, who loves the country, and treats his employees like they matter.  A guy, who traveled a long way to work in Fairhaven, Massachusetts;   a man who then enjoyed his work almost as much as he enjoyed All things Considered on NPR radio every afternoon in the fall of 1988.

– cj cheetham

P.S.

William F. Buckley famously said “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

I’d always liked that quote – but it never really made sense to me until I compared the eminently decent Luis Motta with that cruel woman who drove a BMW.

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