“So, who do you think will win?” John Havlicek poked his head inside Pastor Walter Mitty’s door.
“Oh, good morning John. You’re here early.”
“Wanted to check the sump pump after all that rain we had,” said the custodian of Poplar Park Community Church. “Who do you think will win?”
“You mean when the Sox play the twins?”
“No, no,” laughed the janitor. “I mean on the big box vote in the Chicago City Council. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Mayor Daley. He’ll strong arm enough aldermen to defeat the thing.”
“We’ll see,” Mitty said as he headed out the door to the Mainstreet Cafe. By last Wednesday morning the rain had stopped and Mitty had decided to take a walk before it got really hot.
“Who are you praying for?” said Alice as he slid into the booth by the window that was farthest away from the smoking section. “That’s what you do when a big decision is being made, isn’t it Rev? You pray? By the way, you want coffee?”
“Well sure, Alice. I mean sure I want coffee and sure I pray. But. . . .”
“Well, you better pray hard that those crooks on the Chicago city council pass that big box ordinance.” Mitty smiled. He kind of enjoyed having his waitress preach at him. “Somebody has to do something so working people can earn a living wage. How can a person make ends meet getting $5 an hour.”
“But the minimum wage in Illinois is $6.50,” Mitty corrected.
“Not if you also get tips,” Alice replied. “And with skinflints like you guys around, I’m lucky that Aldi’s is down the street or I couldn’t afford to even eat.”
Ash and Erik entered the Main just in time to hear Alice repeat her weekly complaint about their tipping. “We left you $5 last week,” Erik protested as he slid in next to his pastor.
Ash sat down and said, “When I was starting out, Alice, I washed dishes in this very establishment. I learned what hard work is all about.”
“Yeah, well I’m not just starting out, ” shot back the waitress. “I’m pushing forty and have two boys to raise, and I’d like to see any of you smile if you got a paycheck as small as mine.”
All eyes turned to the street as Dominique pulled up to the curb in his new Prius. “Maybe Mr. Brooks Brothers will give me a decent tip now that he’s saving so much on gas,” Alice muttered as she left to serve a customer at the counter.
“So what is Miss Congeniality upset about this week?” Dominique asked as he slid in next to Ash.
“The big box vote downtown and a living wage,” answered Eric. “I am curious, though. You grew up in the projects, but now you’re a banker. A strange combination. So, what do you think?”
Dominique laughed. “You mean strange like a black Republican?”
Erik grinned. “Exactly.”
“You know how I think,” Dominique began. “You won’t have any jobs at any wage if you don’t have businesses in the neighborhood. And you won’t have businesses in the neighborhood if your aldermen pass laws like that. I mean, I want my neighborhood where I grew up to prosper, just like Poplar Park is now, but jobs come from successful businesses. And that is the bottom line.”
Pastor Mitty didn’t know much about business, so he usually accepted what Dominique said about economics as gospel. But he’d been thinking, “But what about right here in Poplar Park? I mean, in that column that Superintendent Schulz wrote. . .did you see it last week? About how thirty percent of the kids right here in town qualify for free hot lunches. And we have a Walmart and a Target a mile away, and lots of other retailers.”
“I hear you, Pastor,” answered the banker, “but artificial subsidies-and that’s what a living wage will be-are not going to solve the problems of poor black folk or any other poor people for that matter. Old Booker T. Washington had it right. You get an education or a skill-something the community really needs-and the community will pay you a fair wage for it. I mean, what does it say that in this country we are importing computer programmers from India? If people want to be paid a living wage they have to get equipped to earn it in a very competitive global market.”
The Men’s Fellowship broke up at quarter to nine. It was still nice enough outside that Mitty decided to take the long way home. Zaphne was reading the paper as she unlocked the front door to the Retro.
Mitty greeted his younger friend. “Good timing.”
“Oh, hi Rev. Didn’t see you. Reading about this big box vote in Chicago. Come on in. I left the air conditioner on all night. Should be nice inside.”
“So, what do you think?” asked Pastor Walt as Zaphne turned on the lights and started dusting the Coca Cola memorabilia.
The young entrepreneur in a tank top, short khaki skirt and flip flops continued dusting for another minute and turned to Mitty. “I’m against it.” She kept on dusting, moving over to the happy face clock and wastebasket.
“Why?” asked Mitty. He was in no hurry.
“Well,” she said, “what I think will happen is that they will start with the big companies and eventually wind up imposing those mandates on little guys like me. Rev, I have seven people working for me. All part time. None of them raising a family alone. Five are high school kids, some of whom have a better work ethic than others. But all of them need a lot of training. The two older women are here to help pay their mortgages off. None of them need this ‘living wage’ that everybody is talking about. I start them at $7.50 an hour and give them raises as they get better at their job. But I doubt I could stay in business if I had to pay $10 an hour minimum and $3 in benefits on top of that.”
Mitty sat looking out his office window at squirrels chasing each up and down the big maple tree in the parkway.
“Got the new one installed,” reported John Havlicek.
“You had to get a new sump pump?”
“Yup,” replied the retired machinist turned custodian, as he wiped sweat from his eyes with his sleeve. “You know, I’ve been thinking.”
“Thinking?” asked Mitty.
“Yeah, thinking that the only real question on this living wage thing is ‘what would Jesus do?'”
“Ah, yes,” answered the janitor’s pastor.
“And what would he do. . .I mean in this case?”
John Havlicek wiped more sweat from his face and looked at his pastor. “I don’t know. He didn’t give me a straight answer, at least not yet. But it seems to me that everyone involved is looking out for their own interest in this thing, and nobody is able to see the big picture.”