August 8th, 2012
The sun blares through the big window in my room, rising just above the tree tops at 7:30. There’s nothing like feeling the power of that star first thing in the morning. Some experiences never become mundane.
Most comrades visit the dining room before the workday starts, concentrating primarily on coffee and chain smoking, not a single scrap of food on their tables. The only form of breakfast available is last night’s leftover stale bread in a plastic sack that wasn’t wrapped shut for the past 10 hours. Lunch and dinner at this organization’s facilities seem to be endless buffets, but it’s every man for himself in the mornings. Except for the coffee, which brews day and eternal night in a huge pot here.
I pace around the property, not having yet been assigned to work a specific area. Eventually I spot a spectacled little man with bent ears standing impatiently next to wardrobe in the massive old stone barn. We lift together as he communicates directions by grunting and pointing his nose. It’s the common language that I’ll have to get used to until learning a few words of French.
I help the man move unwanted furniture to the burning piles until the English-speaker Raymond appears with an assignment. The man with bent ears shrugs disappointedly, a good sign that help is actually needed here. I’m sent to join an overworked Algerian in the electrical department, the sole worker among an absolutely overwhelming disarray of cords and appliances stretching 60 feet out into the driveway.
Past the maze of piles inside a shoulder-high doorway is Sammi the Algerian toiling in his small workshop without a single uncluttered surface remaining. Each step is precarious among the devices spilled out onto the floor. Sammi stands in the far corner of the room among stacks of dismantled computers and dangling wires, testing a Windows XP machine he’s constructed from spare parts.
A front-loading washing machine spins in another corner with nothing inside, dripping water on the cement floor. Sammi drains it and pulls out the seal, then returns to his computer project. He is fluent in a few hundred words of basic English.
“I always format hard drive before sell computer”, he explains, “because maybe somebody put something bad on hard drive.”
He asks me to crush a mountain of damp cardboard boxes outside his workshop door and move them to the burning pile. I then follow him around as he prepares for the arrival of customers. The thrift shop is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, after 1PM. We move his completed computer, a small refrigerator, TV, 2 laptop computers, a washing machine and a variety of smaller devices from his workshop into the sales area. I become extremely bored and tired just following somebody around, barely able to keep my eyes open.
Among some 20,000 total square feet of space that comprises the sales floor, Sammi only gets a 25×15 foot section for electrical devices. A hand-painted wooden sign displays the word “Electro”, encircled with a half-broken tube of flexible red lighting. There he prices the new items; 60 Euros for the laptops, 40 for the desktop computer, 20 for the TV and just 1 to 5 for the smaller items.
“People here not have much money”, Sammi says, “things must be little money or they not buy.” He turns on a whole shelf of TV’s, setting the channel to an Olympic handball game.
The driveway gate is crowded with customers waiting to get inside. The one-acre red gravel parking lot soon fills with cars. I retreat to a corner of the “Electro” section next to Sammi’s desk as a dozen people fill into his little area. Everybody has a question and I don’t understand a word, constantly pointing customers to Sammi.
We’ve sold some 400 Euros of electrical items by the 5:30 closing time, including all of the computers. The entire store sales for the day total nearly 5000 Euros. Needless to say considering the past few years of my life, this has my brain suddenly racing with ideas.
August 9th, 2012:
The guy in charge of the place asks to scan my passport this morning. I don’t mind considering that nobody in the organization here or in Paris offices has ever asked for ID before now. I’ve been hanging out in their spaces for a week, no questions asked, so this feels more like a formality today than a “papers please” demand. My impression is that they would never turn somebody away for identification reasons.
The English speaker Ramon informs me that I’ve been assigned to work “camion”. It’s only after getting in the camion that I realize camion simply means “truck” in French. I’m squeezed on the bench seat of a box truck between Marice and Sebastian, neither of which speak any English to speak of. My two comrades are a study in contrasts. Marice the driver is thin, older and composed, while Sebastian the boisterous passenger is a big bald man in his early 40′s.
Sebastian is extremely pushy when getting his seatbelt on and off, but he’s so jovial that it’s obviously just an issue of personality, not aggression. He’s an above average sweater, keeping a neatly folded towel on the dashboard to wipe across his head when drips form. Occasional he nudges me, “Ca va?”, meaning something like ‘how are you?’. The response “OK” is apparently very unusual, causing him and Marice to laugh each time.
We have a white form containing a name, address and a few other words that make no sense. This basically seems to mean that some poor old soul has died and we get to load up all their stuff in the truck. It’s a 4th floor apartment in a highrise building. An old man greets us. If he’s the son then the occupant must have been a thousand years old. There’s a decade of dust under the furniture. One room contains fading plastic war toys that have not been touched by a child’s hand in battle since probably the 1980′s.
The old man clearing the apartment has not put anything into boxes, which is a requirement for us to take it. We also don’t take anything that’s obviously damaged. This rules out about half the stuff but we still fill several elevator loads with furniture, enough to pack the truck. Anticipating more, we also have a second truck on site, which is still very useful for the three pairs of extra human hands that rode in it.
We unload immediately upon return to the facility, pulling the truck ahead a few feet at a time to deliver the items directly to the correct “departments”. Small non-electrical items in boxes or sacks get taken off first, then sporting equipment goes 20 feet past that. It’s another short roll to the electrical sections then on to the furniture. Finally any toys or movie cassettes are dropped at the last building that sits right up against the cow pasture. The animals are so used to the activity here that they don’t even bother to look up from grazing.
We load a few dismantled pieces of sold furniture into the empty truck. “Finito”, Sebastian says, but it’s still an hour till lunchtime. I return to my coworker from yesterday, Sammi the Algerian, again hunched over a washing machine in his little workshop.
“They say I’m done till lunch. Want any help?”
“Let me tell you some things. Camion leaves at 7:30 but the other people do not start working till 8. Then after lunch camion leaves at 1 but the others do not go back to work till 1:30. So when you work camion you are done when you are done. You do not have to do any other work after. You can if you want to, but it is your choice.”
“Thanks for telling me but I think I want to work right now. If I get bored at a new place then I always end up leaving it, so I’m looking for something to do.”
“OK, yes, you can move all of the small things next to the door so I can start looking at them. Leave the big things, just move the small things.”
What Sammi speaks of is the ton of arrivals that came late yesterday afternoon, the combined electronics of several households now existing in a tangled pile on the gravel driveway. The place that I’m supposed to move the stuff appears not much more organized, where 1000 random items are poking out of crooked water-damaged cardboard boxes.
Sammi seems to be a very organized person by nature, which is evident from how precisely he handles the items and workspaces that are directly in front of him at any one moment. But with so many things flooding in and no help, that’s all he can focus on, what’s right in front of him at any one moment. There’s no opportunity to organize the bigger picture and that’s probably the reason he seems so somber all the time in his workshop.
After lunch the camion takes off again with several white forms and two pink forms. Pink means delivery, for the two pieces of dismantled furniture now sitting in the back of the truck. White means donation pickup, but we won’t be raiding any more senior citizen estates today, just picking up single pieces of furniture here and there.
After delivery to two ordinary apartment buildings we arrive to the underground garage of a government transportation office. A mildly heated conversation ensues between my comrades and a government worker. The worker lead us from room to room pointing at various stored furniture and building materials covered in cobwebs, much appearing unsaleable. Comrade Sebastian does all the talking, refusing to take the stressed items.
The government worker appears increasingly agitated then a second equally agitated government worker arrives. My educated guess based on body language and a few comprehensible words is that this is an “all-or-nothing” deal. We leave cordially, with nothing.