The Entrepreneur

Mario hated his job, but at the same time he was grateful to have it. He was the attendant at the WC of the circumvesuviana train station at Avella. It was the second-to last station in a small town on the line that linked Avella to Naples, and his was a government job, which meant that he would have it for the rest of his life. He couldn’t be fired and he couldn’t move forward.

Church and Tower in Avella
Church and Tower in Avella
Ruins of a Lombard castle overlooking Avella
Ruins of a Lombard castle overlooking Avella

All day Monday through Friday from 8 am until 4 pm Marion sat in the anteroom between the men’s and women’s toilets and collected fifty eurocents from anyone wanting to use the facilities.  After paying, the patrons were permitted to go through a turnstile which counted the number of people who went through. The clicks of the turnstile and the coins had to tally. No chance for the attendant to pocket a few extra cents. In the ‘thirties, he or she would have been shot; nowadays he would be suspended while undergoing a lengthy defense. Finally the government would find that he couldn’t be fired for such an insignificant misdemeanor.

Mario wouldn’t have pocketed the few cents in any event. He, like a lot of other Italian men, had trained as an architect. He spent his time between trains when he was compelled to remain in front of the toilets designing and his evenings repairing and building for friends and friends of friends. He had an income the government didn’t know about. He was quasi tax-free.

A lot of Italians contrive to be quasi tax-free, not making the connection to the diminished services provided by the government (although there many levels of fiscal irresponsibility within the government). Around June of each year, the train station’s supply of soap and toilet paper would run out. No more would be provided until January when the next year’s budget would go into effect. For more than six months Mario would be compelled to listen to complaints of angry patrons about the lack of carta igienica and sapone. He grew weary of apologizing and sympathizing.

Since he was also mechanically inclined, Mario liked to rummage through garbage dumps to find things to tinker with and repair. On one such excursion he found a coffee vending machine discarded by an office in Ravenna when the administrator had purchased an updated one. Mario’s machine, for sixty eurocents each, sold expresso, cappuccino, or hot chocolate. Sugar was free, but there was an extra button for this commodity.

Mario repaired the machine. Then he went to Spendimeglio (meaning “spend better” in English), a discount store that sells household products at very good prices. Mario stocked up on toilet paper, soap and hand cream. He rigged up the vending machine to sell a small stock of toilet paper for one euro and soap and hand cream for fifty eurocents each.

He set up the vending machine behind his table in the train station. In June when bathroom provisions ran out, Mario put a sign in front of the machine, indicating that they could be purchased here. Nobody cared. Patrons were in fact happy – they needed soap and toilet paper and the quality the machine offered was better than the standard issue. Mario gave these necessities to his colleagues for free.

Mario made sure to take his annual vacation in February while the government soap and toilet paper were still in abundant supply. He liked cold weather and could afford to go to Vermont in the US to ski.