Four Dollars and a Microwave
Montreal doesn’t have a Subway. Montreal has a Metro. I’ll be the first to admit that pulling in $12 an hour to hand out event promotional flyers at Metro station ‘Parc’ wasn’t the type of career I had in mind. I entered the station and decided that the enclave at the top of the bank of escalators was the spot to maximize on passer-by. The jealous glare from the ‘Watchtower’ pusher who arrived moments after me confirmed my suspicions. This was the spot. When you enter university, you don’t visualize yourself upon graduation frequenting public transit facilities in order to compete with middle-aged Jehovah’s Witnesses for the best place to distribute promotional literature. If only they could see me now, the dozens of people who’d had the nerve to question: “So what do you plan to do with a Bachelor’s Degree in geography?”
I realized my obvious skills for sensing a good location were being unceremoniously wasted and made a mental note to find a better form of employment. Correction, I made a mental note to find any other form of employment. While debating whether a hot dog or ice cream vendor was a more profitable venture, a curious man with an East-Indian accent approached and motioned to my stack of flyers.
“Are you having a job?”
“Are you working?”
“Uh, I’m working right now if that’s what you’re asking…”
“I see, you are already having a job. I am looking for somebody who needs a job.”
“Well I kinda have this flyer thing going on right now. It’s only a short contract though, and today is my last day.”
“Can you fold things?”
“Yeah, sure. Why?”
“I have a job for somebody who can do folding.”
“I’ll be done with this at ten o’clock”
“Here is my phone number. Be calling me back at ten o’clock. I am Sasha. You will work for me. You will do folding.”
When you’re standing at a metro station pondering employment improvement and a sketchy guy offers you a job, you’re either going to land a good job or a good story. Today was going to be a sure-fire winner. By five after ten I found myself in the passenger seat of a 1991 Dodge Caravan equipped with shiny running boards and dark tinted windows. “This is good van. Dodge. I am selling it. You might want this van. Two-thousand and five-hundred. Good price my friend.” We commenced making the rounds of Sasha’s ‘hood’ by searching for the elusive store-owner-lady who hadn’t paid him for her last order of t-shirts: “She’s not selling my shirts again. She is a bad lady. She doesn’t be selling anything for me.” Then we knocked on the door of an obviously closed and deserted restaurant, apparently owned by his brother, where supposedly there was, “A job in this restaurant for you if you be wanting it.”
By this point I’d taken a liking to Sasha. His unorthodox entrepreneurial style was inspirational to say the least and I was curious to learn more about the promised ‘folding’ activity. It took Sasha exactly ten minutes to get from the metro station to another continent altogether. It may have been the basement of a modest house in the north end of Montreal, but from my knowledge of international workplace safety standards cultivated from a lifetime of reading National Geographic magazine articles, I was in India. The basement was a scene of disarray rivalled only by a Calcuttan garment factory. Boxes were piled to the top of the seven-foot ceilings and at every step was either a spliced electrical cord or a ramshackle sewing machine. The house may have been deserted, but I imagined how a handful of workers could turn the basement into a sweatshop at the drop of a hat. Still unsure of the legitimacy of the business, I searched but could not find the two elements that could prove this was a true illegal basement sweatshop: labour exploitation and smouldering fire hazards.
“I have plastic for you to fold.” said Sasha. Now I, like every other kid in my grade 8 science class who owned a ‘BIC’ pen the first day our science teacher let us use the Bunsen burners, knew how to fold plastic. The premise is simple: Heat the plastic until it’s soft, then bend it. Scoffing in the face of existing safe heat-producing devices, Sasha had invented his own electric ‘folding’ machine. A car-battery charger was plugged into the wall socket and its live leads were placed on a nearby table. Instead of attaching the live leads to a dead car battery, as is the usual style, Sasha ingeniously attached them to a pair of nails connected by a thin piece of wire. As the current began to flow, the wire quickly became red hot. To add danger to beauty, the entire heat-producing assembly was mounted to a piece of wood, which began to smoulder. “Why buy a safe product when the firefighters have nothing planned for the day?” I reasoned. After showing me his invention, Sasha looked at me with a dead-serious look on his face: “Do not tell ANYBODY that you are working for me. OK, we are be starting now.”
As promised, my job description was simple. Folding. Sasha instructed me to fold 4-inch square pieces of paper-thin transparent plastic into a sort of a name-badge holder. By placing the small pieces of plastic over the radiant wire, they became linearly malleable. Two quick folds and they could hold paper nameplates. After 45 seconds of training, Sasha felt I was capable to work alone.
“If you are leaving, turn electricity off. We don’t want be wasting money on electricity.”
“Or give the firefighters something to do”, I thought.
Feeling productive, I started to work pretty hard and was well on my way to becoming the best-illegal-basement-plastic-badge-bender in the East, of Canada. After an hour, I stood proudly over 200 completed pieces. Sasha strolled downstairs with a coffee in hand, sized-up my output, and put me in my place.
“You are too slow. My child is faster than you. He is seven. Maybe one day you will be good.” He said, grabbing a piece of plastic and showing me his expert technique. “Do like this: softly. Yes, this is better. For each bundle of 100 pieces I will be giving you one dollar.”
Still shocked by the myriad of workplace safety, tax and labour laws being broken, the economic reality of Sasha’s statement meant nothing to me. Clearly the melting plastic and the smouldering wood had placed me in an inebriated state. Slowly crunching the numbers through a fog of plastic smoke and basement dust, I calculated that being paid one dollar for each 100 pieces was going to net me two dollars per hour at my current rate. Being currently jobless and with nothing else better to do, or more accurately, nothing else worse to do, I decided to continue. The only thought that entered my plastic-fume riddled brain was: “Well, I’ll just keep at this until I get a free lunch then, won’t I?” After another hour of contained amazement, I had a pile of 400 name plate holders. Good enough to buy my freedom with a $4 lunch.
Being a good businessman, Sasha sensed my onset of lunchtime hunger and began promoting his post-lunch work opportunities. “Sorry. I have many jobs for you. Painting is one of these jobs. Twenty dollars each room. I also have many things for sale to my friends. Would you be needing couch, bed, television, microwave?” Now a microwave was something I could use. I’d been putting off a microwave purchase until the right deal came along. Clearly, this was the deal I’d been waiting for.
“How much you want for the microwave?”
“Ten bucks eh?” I said, weighing the options. It was a pretty low price, all things considered, but I only had $4 worth of work under my belt. I was out of cash so unless Sasha accepted Visa, I’d either have to work another three hours at my current pace to earn enough for the microwave. I hadn’t remembered seeing an “Accepted here: VISA” sticker on the front window of the house so I scratched my head and contemplated another three hours of plastic fumes. Sasha saw the look of concern on my face and realized he’d lose all chance of me ever returning to his ‘factory’ again if he didn’t act quick to sweeten the deal just a little.
“Okay, ten dollars for normally, but for you my friend: no price. Free.”
OK. Time out: Imagine it’s the mid 1940s and we’re inside the laboratory of the scientist who is designing the world’s very first microwave. Imagine the following is his prediction for the ‘space-age’ technology:
“Microwave technology will be expensive at first. The microwave oven will change the way housewives cook their meals. Never more will she face the rigor of slaving over a hot stove all day. Being a revolutionary food-warming technology, it will primarily be an appliance for the rich, but over time, the cost of a microwave oven will drop steadily. By the start of the 21st century, microwave ovens will be the preferred currency for sweatshop proprietors employing illegal-labourers in basement fire-traps.”
Minutes later I found myself walking down the street waving goodbye to Sasha with $4 in one hand and a microwave in the other. My lunch? — Two microwaveable frozen burritos.
And that’s how you get $4 and a microwave in Montreal.
Since it wasn’t hot enough outside that day and because the plastic bender did not produce adequate BTUs for me to break a sweat, I have yet been able to proclaim that I’ve worked in a bona-fide sweatshop. All a university grad can do is dream.
Copyright 2004 by Kyle MacDonald