When tables need clearing at the Pacific Dining Car restaurant near downtown, Jaime Leon is there grabbing plates, putting down flatware and making endless orbits between the kitchen and dining areas.
"How many times do I go between the kitchen and the tables? A hundred. When I say a hundred, I mean too many to count, every night," said Leon, who has been doing this for 12 years. "You never stop moving."
Leon showers at 4 a.m. for his 5 a.m. start time at the Pacific Dining Car, a venerable L.A. establishment that's open 24 hours a day. Leon commutes from South Central, and upon punching in, begins to "prepare butter" for the day.
"Our butter is a large slab," he said, gesturing toward a block about one cubic foot in size. "We cut it up for the customers to use."
Other early-morning tasks include refilling milk or cream dispensers and placing fresh flowers on all the tables. Two days a week, Leon takes his turn making fresh juice.
"We squeeze juice," he said, "then I change into my busboy clothes."
For the rest of his nine-hour day, Leon is a blur, moving between the 11 tables in his bailiwick and the kitchen. He sets up tables, wipes surfaces clean and moves away dirty dishes. If another busboy needs help, Leon pitches in.
"We are a team. I will help on any table, if they need me. There are, let me count 42 tables here," said Leon.
After a dozen years on the job, Leon is able to visualize each dining area of the restaurant and recall from memory how many tables are in each. "The hardest part of the job is to make sure you have done it just right, doing the best we can do," he said.
All is not drudgery, however. Twice a day, he gets free meals a perk at a restaurant where customers routinely pay more than $30 for lunch. "In the morning, eggs. At lunch, maybe chicken. It is good food, I can tell you that," he said.
Free meals aside, working as a busboy, even at the Pacific Dining Car, is hardly the high life. Leon's pay is minimum wage, although because he works nine hours a day, he gets time-and-a-half in the ninth hour. Additionally, he collects about $35 a day in tips from waiters and waitresses.
"The waiters give 15 percent of their tips to the busboys," explains Leon.
The work may be hard, but Leon has seen harder. In Mexico, he worked for what he estimates was $5 a day in textile, iron and furniture factories. "You can't buy a house," he said of the pay in Mexico. "If you don't have a house, you pay rent. Then you have no money."
Like millions of his countrymen, Leon determined he had no future in Mexico. One could find a job, but never get ahead. He migrated north in 1984, ending up in farm fields near Indio. But the work was irregular. "You don't work every day," he says, so he moved to Los Angeles in 1985, working in Mexican restaurants and a factory that made picture frames. In 1986 he wound up at the Pacific Dining Car.
"These types of jobs provide new immigrants with not only an entry level into a livelihood, but also a direct experience with what is expected of them as employees in our society," said Bert Corona, chief executive of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, an organization devoted to assisting new immigrants. "Being a busboy brings them into contact with people who speak English and Spanish and gives them a wonderful opportunity to learn about the business so they can move up the ladder."
Leon is doing just that. His English is improving after 13 years in the United States, and the 34-year-old's manners are impeccable. Four months ago, the Pacific Dining Car promoted him to a waiter on the late-night shift, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
"I can earn $80 a night in tips," he said. "And maybe someday, if I am good, and other people (Pacific Dining Car waiters) leave, I can get a better shift."
Waiters on the day shift make better tips, noted Leon. "This is a good restaurant, and the customers are friendly. They have money," he said. "They tip."
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