Meet the table busser who’s worked at the same Wilmette, Illinois pancake house for 54 years

Othea Loggan came to Chicago and got a job bussing tables and washing dishes at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Wilmette. One of his brothers-in-law was the chef. Loggan lived on the South Side but he didn’t mind the long, early morning commute to the North Shore, clear across downtown Chicago and Cook County. He was just happy to be free of Mississippi, where he had grown up poor, one of 10 kids. Walker Bros. was relatively new then, and a fast success, establishing itself in less than four years as a breakfast staple for businessmen from Glencoe and hungover graduate students from Northwestern alike. Loggan himself had been in Chicago only two weeks.

He started March 30, 1964.

“The Outer Limits” was on TV that night. The No. 1 song was “She Loves You.” The battle of the Gulf of Tonkin, which cemented the United States in Vietnam, was six months away. And two weeks earlier, Lyndon Johnson, new to the Oval Office, proposed to Congress the first War on Poverty.

Loggan’s starting salary was $1.15 an hour, the federal minimum wage, but enough, he recalls now, to save up and buy a small house, if you got lucky. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 40 percent of Americans in the early 1960s stayed in a job for 10 years or longer. Loggan never really intended to stay that long. He was only 18.

He didn’t really have plans.

On a muggy July morning, Othea Loggan walked into the kitchen at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House. He arrived as he had for decades, through a side door, at 5:50 a.m., a headlong wave of motion among a staff still getting adjusted to the hour. The president was Donald Trump, the No. 1 song in the country was “Nice For What” by Drake, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average job tenure in the United States was just four years. Or, if you worked in a restaurant, it was closer to two.

Loggan, however, was still a busboy.

He was 72 now. He had never left, never graduated to serving tables, never became a manager or a chef — he says he never asked to do anything else. So, he had stayed a busboy, for 54 years. The title had evolved since 1964; he was now a “busser.” But he still wore the kind of throwback paper hat that a busser wore in 1964. He made whipped butter, and squeezed the oranges for OJ, but mostly, he still bussed plates and glasses, tidied up the same dark wooden booths, passed the same windows inlaid with the same stained-glass foliage, noted the same line of customers snaking out of the front doors, received waves and hugs (and sometimes Bulls tickets) from the same regulars. He had seen generations of customers and co-workers pass through; he’d been there so long he watched Bill Murray go from neighborhood kid to superstar to venerated elder. When he squinted, the same teenagers were still curled into the same booths, the same infants tossed crayons under the same tables, the same captains of industry put away the same post-workout pancake stacks.

His 2018 commute wasn’t even that different than his 1964 commute. He lives in West Gresham, not far from 89th Street. He takes two trains and a bus in the morning, then back in the afternoon, four days a week. He rides the Red Line almost perfectly from one end to the other. Door to door, that means a roughly two-hour commute, each way.

Naturally then, for at least a decade, he’s fielded the same questions, all the time. Like, Why? Who busses tables that long? Why not find a job closer to home? Or retire?

Eventually people stop asking.

Because the more you talk to Othea Loggan, and the more you think about clearing plates of pancakes for half of a century, the more details seem both too obvious and too complicated — there are few satisfying explanations. There is only a man whose choices (amid a systemic lack of choices) offer snapshots, of the changing nature of work, of the lack of opportunities for people of color, of the assumptions we make about ambition.

“He could retire now,” said Javon Chambers, his grandson, himself a Walker Bros. busser for 15 years. “He’s financially straight and everything. I just think he knows when people retire, they die. That’s what he’s said: Old people don’t have nothing to do, they see their friends retire, and then they retire, and that’s when they die of boredom too. It’s like people who are married a long time — if one dies, the next goes right after. That’s like my grandfather and this place. He doesn’t want the will inside him to dry up.”

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