The International Writers Magazine: Survival story
and a Microwave
Montreal doesnt have a Subway.
Montreal has a Metro. Ill be the first to admit that pulling
in $12 an hour to hand out event promotional flyers at Metro station
Parc wasnt 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 dont visualize yourself
upon graduation frequenting public transit facilities in order to compete
with middle-aged Jehovahs Witnesses for the best place to distribute
promotional literature. If only they could see me now, the dozens of
people whod had the nerve to question: "So what do you plan
to do with a Bachelors 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. Its
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."
"Ill be done with this at ten oclock"
"Here is my phone number. Be calling me back at ten oclock.
I am Sasha. You will work for me. You will do folding."
When youre standing at a metro station pondering employment improvement
and a sketchy guy offers you a job, youre 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 Sashas hood by searching
for the elusive store-owner-lady who hadnt paid him for her last
order of t-shirts: "Shes not selling my shirts again. She
is a bad lady. She doesnt 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 Id 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
its 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 dont 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
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,
Ill just keep at this until I get a free lunch then, wont
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. Id been putting off a microwave purchase
until the right deal came along. Clearly, this was the deal Id
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
"Okay, ten dollars for normally, but for you my friend: no price.
OK. Time out: Imagine its the mid 1940s and were inside
the laboratory of the scientist who is designing the worlds very
first microwave. Imagine the following is his prediction for the space-age
"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 thats how you get $4 and a microwave in Montreal.
Since it wasnt 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 Ive worked in a bona-fide sweatshop.
All a university grad can do is dream.
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