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Difficult Life of Windshield Cleaners

Street windshield cleaners are controlled by older “cousins”, who are also involved in other hardly legal activities.

“Remember this car and never come near me again, let alone try to clear my windows. If you come near, I’ll break your head”, the driver of a “fleshy” jeep poured out to the boy E.I. (17), who has been earning his living for six years on the crossroads of the capital city, cleaning windshields.

This is not an isolated example that the boys, mostly Roma, are faced with working on, as they call it, traffic lights and wipers.

– We work since the morning until very late, even if it’s windy or if it’s snowing. Still, the worst is in the winter, when we are freezing and we can’t even handle the sponge. In such situations, we use buses’ tailpipes to heat our hands or we rub our hands against our hair – says E.I.

His friends S. A. (15) and V. I. (13) agree that this is a difficult way to earn money, because they encounter different drivers.

– Sometimes we may collect more than 30 EUR a day. It can happen that the customer likes our work and decides to be generous and gives us as much as 50 EUR. Again, there are days when we earn nothing. The drivers often swear, shout at us and sometimes even physically attack us – explains S.A.

They say that they have most problems with the police – as soon as they spot them at the crossroads, they start chasing them.

– One police officer especially can’t stand us. Some time ago he caught me and beat me up. Since then, when we see them, we run in all directions. Also, those driving expensive cars don’t let us do our job. When they stop their cars and don’t say a word, we know that nothing good is going to happen – says E.I., stressing that the best tippers are the poor, those in bad cars.

These children have mastered their skill.

– We have already mastered the skill and in three minutes, which is how long the light remains red, we manage to clean up to three cars – explains E.I.

They keep the water in bottles and buckets and replace their sponges regularly so that the customers are satisfied.

– I say “good morning/afternoon” to everybody and ask if they want me to wash or not. If they say no, I don’t try to pressure them – says E.I.

He and his friends dream of working in the car wash, since their hands are already used to working with water.

The story of two Roma boys at the crossroad in Zvezdara is a bit different. When they get a tip, they only have a glance at it and put it in their pockets.

They claim that they don’t share the money with anyone, but every one of them make his own earnings, but they are soon proved wrong by two older boys who, hand in their pockets, approach and ask “Is there any problem?” They don’t clean windshields, but stand on the pavement couple of meters away and present themselves to be boys’ cousins.

– We’ve been working here for ten years and we don’t allow “outsiders” to come just like that and take away our job. Sometimes parents bring their children and order them to beg. We estimate who and what kind of people they are, and depending on that, we let them stay at the crossroads or send them to the Vuk’s – says a young man who started cleaning windshields when he was nine, showing us a tattoo he made in prison, when he was 18.

– When our “stool pigeon” goes to the police, we gather the crew, Roma and Albanians whom we consider to be “ours”, and beat him up so badly that it wouldn’t occur to him to grass ever again.

He admits that he’s been in “business’ for a long time and that he has contacts through which he may provide “a job abroad”.

– The price for Italy is EUR 1500. We cross the border through the woods, we have our “crossing” which is not protected. We do the transfer to Germany for EUR 800, but we also “do” Sweden – he claims, but refuses to reveal what specific jobs are in question.

When the two older boys left, he boasted about earning enough money to buy Nike shoes, modern clothes and help out his parents. But he ended with an hesitant question – if we can find him “some safe job where he can make 15 thousand dinars”.

B. V. – M. L.

(Politika, 27 January 2009)

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