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The Quarter

When my wife told me the washing machine broke, I thought it was a joke. Wojtek had just fixed the dishwasher a couple of days ago, and before he left we were joking: When these appliances start to fail, they all fail: fridge, oven, dishwasher, you name it. It’s like they are pre-programmed to break after ten years of life. That was something I said, relieved that the reparation didn’t cost us too much. Wojtek replied with his temperamental style: Ten years? You’re lucky, guys. Nowadays they last three years at most! That’s what I was able to put together from what he was saying. In reality from his mouth was rushing out a stampede of words that were stepping on and pushing each other in an unstoppable frenzy: Rumble-thump-tlot-lucky-rumble-thump-tlot-nowadays-rumble-thump-tlot-three years at most.
Wojtek is Polish, we are Romanians, and that’s enough to make us feel part of the same team. We are on same side of the net, and they, the Canadians, are on the side across. They do lots of things we don’t like because they remind us of the things that made us leave our countries. For instance, they try to kill the independent contractors like Wojtek. In this particular case they are big companies like Whirlpool or Maytag, and the word kill shouldn’t be taken ad-literam. It’s just a fancy way to say that small businesses like Wojtek’s have a really hard time to compete with corporate businesses. What do they do to you, guys? I ask Wojtek completely uninterested, making conversation. They don’t sell you parts, unless you work for them. And if you work for them, they pay you peanuts while they overcharge the customer big time. This was the reconstructed phrase. The abstraction that my brain extracted from his verbal downpour. What my ears heard was: Rumble-thump-tlot-don’t sell you parts-rumble-thump-tlot-pay you peanuts-rumble-thump-tlot-overcharge the customer. From a spirit of solidarity with the oppressed, my wife is outraged right away by the immoral behaviour of the big corporations: Really? This is like they give us no other option but to use their services. Then she becomes reflective: What happens if we have an emergency? Do they have enough repairmen to service all calls? Wojtek smirks, and I can tell this is not the first time when he answers this question. If you call them you have to wait three-four weeks till they show up. That’s something my wife cannot take: And have your laundry become rancid in the washing machine! These people have no common sense… She said these people instead of they. After all, neither I nor my wife are fighting the mental guerrilla war against our country of adoption. We feel good here, but we are built in such a way that we are afraid to contradict those who do not feel good. We feel obliged to pamper their feelings and heighten their spirits. My wife is a Mother Theresa disguised as an accountant with strong computer skills. In her spare time she mends the damaged morale of many fellow Romanians who left their country, miserable and disgusted, only to discover far away from home that they actually love being miserable and disgusted. When she talks too much, too loud and totally agrees with what the unfortunate person says, she is running a therapy session. Helping the lost soul to find its way out of the dark maze of inadaptability.
While he’s fumbling with a lid attached to the lower part of the washing machine, Wojtek asks when was the last time we got that appliance fixed. That was five or six years ago, when the machine was still under warranty and a guy from Sears answered the call. What did he find? My wife recalls it very well: It was a quarter in the pump! Wojtek looks at her with an equivocal smile: Impossible! A quarter is too big to get into the pump! My wife wouldn’t dare to contradict him, neither could she tell anything else but the truth: That’s what he showed me then. He had a quarter in his hand, which he pulled out of the pump. Wojtek laughs out loud, with a squint in his eyes: Maybe he was pretending! We laugh too. Because we know already: those guys hired by the big companies will charge the customer for work that’s not been done.
Wojtek eyes the pump on the bottom of the appliance and he’s now unscrewing it. While he’s working at it my wife nudges me to take a look at the back of his hat where there’s a name embroidered in golden silk: Wojtek 007. Hmm, custom made hat. His name is Bond, Wojtek Bond. She smiles. I smile. Wojtek looks young. He also looks unmarried, a bachelor very much set in his ways. Grumpy and immovable. He also looks like an Eastern European immigrant fresh off the plane. In spite of using words that are not necessarily part of a newcomer's vocabulary. Like steady income. Or preposterous. These words come out when I ask him if he has many clients nowadays. He replies in his tormented way: Rumble-thump-tlot-like on a stadium-rumble-thump-tlot-steady income-rumble-thump-tlot-preposterous. This time, in spite of my best efforts, I am unable to make the logical connection between his work, his income and the events on a stadium. But I manage to link somewhat the steady income with the preposterous attribute. In the process of dismantling the pump, he tells us that he is married, has three children, and a small house with a large backyard on Browns Line. All this knowledge transfer happens before he takes off his hat for a few brief moments. That move exposes a pretty bald head and then Wojtek miraculously ceases to be young and available. Now he is a mid-forty regular looking chimp, with a traceable beer belly and an advancing baldness, lots of children who disrespect him and a mortgage to pay.
After a half a minute of silence, during which he keeps taking apart the faulty pump, I get worried that the entertainment level is getting embarrassingly low. So I change the subject. You are not affected too much by the recession, eh, Wojtek? My assumption is not clarified by his rushed reply, but proves to be a good introduction to a conversation that sheds light on a few things: a) the American government will power on the money printer in order to pay its staggering debt; b) the poor people will pay the heavy bills of the recession while the rich will become richer; c) his brother in Poland refuses to work for private businesses, because he hates the feeling of being exploited; d) Wojtek doesn’t see too much with his sisters who live both in Toronto, happily married and with children. Hmm! I reflect neutrally, discouraged by that deluge of information, and then I ask a question that doesn't do anything to restrain the flood: What about friends? You have many friends close by? Wojtek starts to say something but then stops short. He has found something inside the pump. Still focused on his hands, he continues: We, the Polish, are scattered all around the city. Man… It’s there, I can feel it! That’s why we don’t see each other too much. Almost got it! It’s the distance first, and then you cannot drink, because of the driving back… My wife joins in enthusiastically: Same here. The Romanians are spread all around the city and… Her sentence dies midair when Wojtek shows us a piece of screwdriver he extracted from the pump, wondering: Man! How did this thing get in here? Maybe the rubber strip is broken! That possibility scares me: the new parts are expensive. The new parts are expensive, eh? I speak out my mind. Yeah! Wojtek confirms immediately, leaving out any possibility of doubt. Yeah! my wife explodes, happy that we all are in agreement.
The rich people don’t buy new laundry appliances! he proclaims axiomatically while inspecting the pump rotor. The way he said it was like he has access to all rich people in the metropolitan area and is capable of giving us first hand statistics. It’s jammed, he concludes on a different topic and then scratches his head through the hat, like all skilled handymen do, when they need to think. I am about to ask what’s jammed, but he’s faster than me. Handing me the pump he asks me to try and push the rotor inside. See for yourself! He is right. As hard as I push, the rotor barely moves. Unless there’s something else inside… I look at him with big, hopeful eyes. My wife concurs with a brazen assumption, usually reserved to a professional: It may be. Wojtek introduces again his fingers in the pump, searching for another object. The rich people change their kitchen appliances, but the washing machine and the drier stay the same. I saw a couple of them which were twenty years old. I cannot even find parts for them anymore. And I have to improvise, he, he! It doesn’t look like another object is inside the pump. He is now lightly smashing it on the floor, to dislocate whatever may be stuck inside. They say: why would we change them? They’re still functional. They’re right: you don’t get better quality from the appliances they build nowadays. My wife disagrees to that with gentle caution: They have more electronics though. More buttons… She releases her last sentence with a laugh, just in case. To make the impact softer. She shouldn’t worry though: Wojtek laughs too. He totally agrees with that: Yeah, the flashy stuff! The rest is the same.
What a heck?, he blurts out while still fumbling inside the pump. He finally pulls out a small round object made of metal, all covered in a black slime. It’s a quarter! says my wife with a triumph in her eyes. Wojtek admits it reluctantly: Yeap, it’s a quarter. My wife cannot refrain her joy: So the Sears guy didn’t lie to me! Careful, Wojtek may not take it easy, I am thinking. Like reading my mind, she softens the remark with an inappropriate laugh. But Wojtek has a good explanation for it: This is an appliance made in North-America. The quarters can slip in the drain hose through the joins of the soldered cove. In Europe they make better washing machines. They cast the coves in iron, in one piece. These things can never happen with their machines.
My wife and I are nodding in full agreement.

by Anton Georgescu    2/16/2009


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