I’m in the mood to work constantly but don’t feel like writing, which leaves my Emmaus electronics job being the only useful work at hand. Was that task not available then I would likely pack my backpack in the middle of the night and walk to the freeway.
Each workday begins just after 7AM and ends just before 7PM. The comrades don’t like seeing each other laboring beyond the regular schedule so I work only inside the electronics workshop at those times. The view between the living and working spaces is blocked by dumpsters, trees and trucks so virtually nobody notices my unusual behavior. The assistant manager does discover me building a shelf on a day off, but himself being somebody that works all the time, he just gives the shelf a thumbs up.
The workshop has become my one “private” indoor space, at least until my coworker Sammi returns from vacation next Monday. I make myself at home by clearing the floor space and work benches of obscene clutter. The overwhelming disarray of shelf spaces must be blocked out of my mind for now. There’s no time to tackle that problem this week while working by myself, too many regular tasks to deal with.
The trucks unload first thing Tuesday morning, which had been sitting full of donations all weekend. A huge new pile of electronics forms where I had worked hours last week to remove a pile. The majority of new mass goes straight to trash or recycling.
“Computer not work. You look?”, the manager asks as I’m knee deep in new arrivals. I reluctantly follow him, worried that I’ll end up spending a great amount of time working on his personal computer. But he leads me to the office computer and the problem is obvious. The poor machine is choking to death on a giant dusty hairball that’s attached itself to the CPU fan. A temperature display shows that the CPU is nearing the boiling point. No hairball, no problem.
My fifty new square feet of shelf space for electronics that need to be tested quickly fills up. There’s not enough time to test everything upon arrival when the donations are coming in this fast. The only other weatherproof space available is the floor of the storage shed that I cleared last week. It’s refilled by the end of this week but at least a path remains through the floor.
Within the first couple days working alone I find myself talking to prospective machines of all types, expressing to them my disappointment or pride in their behavior. I’m especially proud of a refrigerator that one of the truck crews just presented. It stands tall out in the electronics yard, plugged into an extension cord, running below freezing in the bright sun. The machine warmly receives a pep talk while I thoroughly clean its surfaces for the first time in years. His name is Stan.
I cart Stan into the thrift shop and carefully center an 70-Euro price tag at the top of his door. That doesn’t seem like too much since he’s the only machine of his kind available for sale right now. Some days later a woman grumpily purchases Stan, unhappy about his price. She will surely deal with him coldly for the rest of their lives together, but Stan doesn’t mind, he’s a refrigerator.
A man in a little car drops off Frank just before the store is set to open on Tuesday. Frank is an impressively modern Bosch washing machine carefully wrapped in styrofoam.
“Function?”, I ask.
Knowing I don’t speak French, his response includes many hand signals and head nods, seeming to strongly indicate that Frank’s only problem is his main program switch. I offer Frank a quick dusting then immediately roll him straight from the yard into the thrift shop. Using translation software on my phone I make a simple sign, “Remplacement Necessaire”, which I tape over Frank’s program knob alongside a 100 Euro price tag.
I’m apparently not the only one to suspect that Frank is expensive as hell when new. The store is only open five minutes before a woman locks lustful eyes on Frank and sweeps him off his little metal feet. My time with Frank was brief but I am content knowing that he has found true love once again. He has led a privileged life unlike most of the other battered and abused machines of his kind languishing all over this property. They usually come dead on arrival or near death if they’re lucky, delivered with deliberate contempt by our truck drivers. But Frank’s relationship with his former lovers ended amiably, ultimately giving him this chance at a new life today. Take care my bulky friends Frank and Stan.
I write “1 Euro” on two boxes, throwing cables into one box and random small devices into the other. There are tons of small low-value items all over the workshop that never get a chance in the thrift shop, things like little calculators, old VGA digital cameras still in the box, cheap flashlights, mini desktop speakers etcetera. As for cables, they are normally just recycled for a few cents each. My two little grab boxes generate extra sales of about 30 Euros this week.
Other objects buried in the workshop include two small metal angel lamps(sold 15 euros), a 30-year-old plastic Batman joystick(sold 3 euros), a VHSC camcorder(sold 10 Euros), portable plastic record player(sold 5 euros), mini-kegerator(40 euros, not sold because it quit working while on the sales shelf), and a first-generation electronic cash register(40 euros, not sold), one portable and one desktop reel tape recorder(5 euros each, not sold).
This store runs on a ticket system where cash is only handled by one person at the front of the building. All customers first hand me the items they want, then I write a ticket. They present the ticket at the front for payment then return to pick up the merchandise.
I can only attempt this complicated explanation with whatever simple French words or gestures come to mind. At least three women want to purchase the angel lamps at the same time and do not understand that another person has already been given a ticket for them. The simple French word for sold, “vendu”, has no visible affect, with one of the ladies forcefully trying to pull the lamps from my grasp. This struggle further excites the other two ladies.
An observant English-speaking customer steps into break the melee with the correct pronunciation of “vendu”. The ladies all step back and laugh, attempting to teach me the word. It’s no use. They continue to appear unsatisfied although it sounds to me that I’m saying it exactly as they are.
I’ve been promised a helper on both afternoons the thrift shop is open this week. The idea is that I write the tickets while the helper does all the talking. On Saturday no help appears though. The first wave of customers rushes from the front gates to my little back corner of electronics, instantly surrounding me with questions about three laptop computers. Like magic they suddenly start speaking English. It seems that roughly 50 percent of the French population has the ability to speak English when money is at stake.
All the laptops were salvaged from the workshop shelves, covered in dust and buried under cables. They’re 2005-ish technology. One was missing a rare Dell power adapter that just so happened to show up in a box of random junk this week, nothing short of a divine miracle for one very lucky machine. The operating system failed, but on the third and final attempt the DVD drive accepted a Windows XP installation disk. Sold for 60 euros. The second laptop also had no adapter but ran on a generic one that I found in a box with 100 other random cables. The machine doesn’t seem to mind the two-volt difference. It boots no problem but the BIOS does not recognize the DVD drive. Sold for 40 euros. The screen opens limply on the third laptop and it boots to a Linux password screen. The DVD drive would not accept a bootable disk. Sold for 25 euros.
A flurry of children arrives all at once to push every button possible and shake up a lava lamp. Little boys ruffle up a dozen items they have no intention of buying, leaving them overturned with cords knotted across the floor. Their flirty preteen girlfriends are dressed as if they’re about to go clubbing, mobbing me with English before retreating in a wave of giggles. One of the girls is apparently the leader of the pack, she suddenly runs and all the children drop everything to follow. Electronics is suddenly devoid of a single customer because the kids have run all the real shoppers away.
The assistant manager calls an early morning meeting on Thursday. I sit confused for 20 minutes then my Romanian comrade Raymond translates. We’re supposed to drop everything and clean the property up. The grass needs to be mowed and trash is blowing around.
I’m assigned to rake the gravel with another man. After 30 minutes of decent work he then leads me behind a series of buildings and dumpsters to simply stand there in hiding. I notice that everyone else has gone back to their normal jobs except for two people mowing grass. Truckloads of donated electronics are piling up again.
I ask Raymond, “What am I supposed to be doing? I feel like I’m wasting my time now.”
“You need work with him till lunch, then after lunch I ask what you should do.”
Briefly I return to hiding behind objects with my raking partner. Raymond returns, “They say you work with him before lunch and you work with him after lunch.”
“I am confused. I thought I understood what I was supposed to do here but not anymore. I am wasting my time with this rake if nobody is working in electro(nics).”
“The boss say do so we must do.”
No we must not. I will pack my bag if they make me work in a mountain of electronic junk again for no good reason, and the growing pile is quickly turning into just that.
Raymond returns a third time, “OK you must clean up pile. He works with you in morning and in afternoon.”
No he doesn’t. My fellow raker has always been kind but I have no intention of working with him another minute. I’ll never get anything done that way.
“Raymond, I think I either need somebody who understands English or who already understands what to do with this pile. He doesn’t know and I can’t explain.”
With a single short sentence Raymond sends the man away looking slightly offended. After half a day wasted I’m finally back to business as usual. I no longer have an once of patience for misguided authority. This organization has up until this little incident proven to be very unique in management style, more or less self-managing in daily operations. A desire to understand how exactly that came to be is one of my main driving forces in staying here.
Hopefully today’s waste was just a fluke. There are over 20 people working here, some of which appear to have relatively little responsibility. Only one person working one day per week would be required to keep the property clean and trimmed.
The incident seems to be related to yesterday’s police action against of our young Tunisian comrade Jamal. The property cleaning is probably just in case we’re invaded by a squad of immigration police. Jamal was working on one of our truck crews when the police profiled him for a random ID check. Unable to present papers, he was detained on the spot and is now being held for deportation. This is a huge blow to the positive image I had somehow held of the French government. I’d been led to believe this country has developed beyond unwarranted deportations.
I tell my comrades at dinner, “This is really disappointing. I didn’t think that happened here without a good reason. It could happen to me then too.”
“No, it not can happen to you. You American.”
Well if that’s true then the situation is even worse than I expected.
Poor Jamal. He went out into the world all alone to better himself and now he’s been kidnapped by state-sponsored terrorists who will send him back where he started. He wants to be here, not there, and nobody has the right to forcefully move him from place to place on this planet without just cause. He is now justified to fight those who did this to him, as are all the others suffering under the iron fist of our One World Kleptocracy.
On Thursday the assistant manager Terry leads me into the second living quarters, the newer building across the driveway from where I’ve been sharing a room. He has a key in his hand, stopping at a door near the end of the second wing. Inside is a single bed, desk and wall-mounted TV. A room of my own for the first time in recent memory, apparently possible because of multiple room trading that took place after yesterday’s deportation.
I begin cleaning at the end of workday, spending hours with a bucket of soap and water to remove a thick layer of smoke residue from every surface except the ceiling. Upon completion the bucket water is dark brown and visibly a bit thicker than normal.
There’s a rolling shutter stuck closed on the floor-to-ceiling window. It’s the type of shutter commonly used all over this part of Europe, a heavy-duty slated plastic panel that rolls up into an insulated housing atop the window. Turning the crank results in absolutely nothing. The shutter can only be lifted a quarter of the way by hand, then slides back down.
The room’s former occupant says that he never tried to open the shutter. He’s lived here for years, how long had be been in that smoky little room without ever glimpsing the beautiful rolling green views possible through that window? That sad thought comes to mind ever time I look at the yellow-stained closed shutter.
All construction here is just a bit different than I’m used to, so figuring out how to properly dismantle the shutter housing takes me three attempts on three separate days. One of the attachments to the rolling bar is broken and the other has come loose, the obvious result of someone trying to force the shutter up against great resistance after the first attachment broke. There’s a 100-euro room deposit taken from our weekly allowances, so my theory is that the problem was never reported out of fear. That may be even more tragic than not ever trying to roll the window up.
Another sad issue in this new building is a severe lack of hot water capacity and pressure. During the first four days in the new building I conduct a test during each bathroom visit, finding hot water on only one occasion. I return to the old building for showers. The sadness here lies in the fact that the building’s occupants sacrifice a great deal to be long-term members of this charity organization. Many have been here for years, comfortable and competent working every job position here.
These long-term residents are obviously capable of obtaining actual paying work but choose to work here earning just the small allowance. The ones who’ve given me a reason for their lifestyle simply said that they feel good about working here. The difference between giving these special people functioning utilities and an atmosphere where they feel comfortable reporting broken shutters is just a difference of pennies a day. This situation joins all the other notes taken in my head as I continue to consider starting a similar organization in the US. Whether or not it ever happens, I’ll always continue plotting for the rest of my life.
The chef that was here upon my arrival is no longer present, replaced by the one female comrade among 20 men. It’s impossible to ignore the blaring stereotype of white men being served by a black woman. Everybody appears quite at ease with the situation, though. She responds with good-natured laughter to someone’s joke in French about Africa. She does though tend to constantly hide her ears behind loud headphones.
A big dirty man unloads a high-quality studio keyboard built in the 1970′s, complete with the original stand and cover. Every part of the device functions nearly perfectly. An identical keyboards is listed on Ebay for $500, often used in vintage studios.
Sitting in the gravel underneath a pile of deliveries from our own truck I discover a Marantz amplifier, also built in the 1970′s and remaining in very good condition. Identical units are constantly drawing online bidding wars upwards of $500.
If I worked in electronics alone I would simply list these two items on Ebay then present a wad of cash to the thrift shop manager. That should be all the explanation he needs. But my coworker Sammi will be back next week so I must first explain the plans to him. I’ve mentioned online sales before and he seemed somewhat opposed. His cooperation must be insured before listing the items because there’s a chance he might insist on selling them in the shop.
Before realizing the full value of the two items I place them in the shop at 50 euros each. Our one customer that regularly buys old musical equipment wanders in the door 10 minutes before closing time, magnetically drawn straight to the treasures. He’s still casually examining the keyboard at closing time when one of my comrades runs him out of the building. His bad timing is great for me, resulting in my online search that reveals the items’ true value. The man will surely be back first thing next week but he won’t find what he’s looking for if I can help it.
On Sunday I travel with my comrades to the Cabaret Vert music festival, a four-day event with nearly 75,000 attendees. We been given free passes in exchange for running an information booth about Emmaus International. I intentionally left my name off the sign up sheet for this festival but my presence has been requested anyway. After working in electronics all day everyday for nearly two weeks straight I now feel like writing again, not sitting behind an information booth where nobody speaks my language.
Downtown Charleville-Mezieres is crawling with thousands of backpack-bearing hippies, a drastic change from this farm town’s usual cast of characters. The sprawling fairgrounds is relatively barren of activity except at the gates. This light attendance is surely due in part to the miserable hangovers that many are feeling on this last day of the event. A great number of afternoon attendees are young families and middle-aged couples. The music hasn’t yet begun for the day, with the stage crews spending hours testing the lights and sound on their two elaborate stages.
The Emmaus information booth is in a gymnasium where dozens of activist and public service organizations have tables set up. The booth behind us contains a wide variety of condoms rolled out onto metal bars. Across from us is an open source software club. At the front doors is Greenpeace and the National Forest Service.
Unable to bear sitting in the booth, I fall asleep on the grass in front of the main stage as a comedian clown performs to a couple hundred people over a PA system. He flies a large toy helicopter while wearing a helmet and big aviation goggles. A sudden gust of wind crashes his craft into the crowd. He does a strip tease while balanced on bucket, assisted by a little boy and girl from the crowd. I awake to discover that someone has cleaned all the trash from the grass around me.
Now rested I decide to face the dreaded booth, glad to find that the gymnasium activity has picked up dramatically. One of my comrades has apparently informed the neighbors of my nationality as I slumbered. A smiley young guy from the condom booth named Leo is the first to come looking for me, followed by a perfectly beautiful young woman named Sabrina. She’s slightly drunk and completely intoxicating, “What I need to learn English is an English-speaking boyfriend.” She likely hasn’t the slightest inkling that I’m 15 years older and living in a commune.
Most of the other information booths are packing up by sunset. We follow suit, placing everything into a van then venturing back to the festival in search of food. One of the comrades distributes 5 red plastic tokens to each of us, the only currency accepted at the food and drink stands. The festival’s personality has changed dramatically from this afternoon. People are now constantly walking into me as if I was some inanimate object. There’s a guy wearing a cape made of packaging foam. My group of middle-aged comrades somehow draw in one flirty drunken girl after the other.
Not having seen my electronics coworker Sammi return from vacation this weekend, I finally ask somebody about him on Tuesday morning. Raymond breaks the news, “He come and get all his things on Saturday and move to another community.”
“You mean he’s not coming back?”
“No, he move to other community.”
End of conversation.
I had a suspicion this might happen. Sammi mentioned a girlfriend at an Emmaus community in Paris that he hoped to live with soon, but he didn’t want to leave this community in a bad position.
For now this means that I have the electronics section of the property all to myself, a great amount of space that I can more or less call my own. A place to do my own laundry and so not worry about some else loosing the convertible pants-shorts that Sarah and I spent a whole day searching stores for last year. It also means though that I have a huge amount of work into the foreseeable future, organizing the space while also keeping up with regular tasks.
I seriously considered leaving in the middle of the night all weekend but now my presence seems to be insured here for at least the next month. The change of heart is due to the fact that I can now have the freedom to make a reasonable impact on the operations here. It’s not that my former comrade Sammi would have held me back, but rather that I can make changes quicker now without having to ask permission. And it’s not that I’m any better at the job than he, but rather that I’m willing to work more hours.
My goal is to make electronics a turn-key facility, a place that my successor can take over with confidence and ease. If I can carry my backpack off this property knowing that happened then I’ll feel as if I’ve done something important for a group of very special people. Much progress has been made already, with 1000 euros in sales and much new workspace cleared after my first week working alone.