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Workin' at the Carwash
Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief
Workin' at the Carwash

(TUZLA, Bosnia & Herzegovina) —If there is a racket to make money off the journalists, that is, something besides feeding and boozing them, leave it to the kids in Tuzla to ferret it out. Unlike other areas in Bosnia where the kids hang around, simply begging or waiting to rip you off, a group of kids outside Hotel Bristol in Tuzla have gone into the car washing business. Considering the condition of the roads in the area, they have found themselves a niche.

Led by "Fox," an older boy who sports a skater haircut and spends his days growing up on Tuzla's rough streets, this little gang of urchins straight out of Oliver Twist are at the hotel every day after school. Accompanied by Zamir, a mentally retarded fellow they let run with them, they can be seen scrubbing down anything — from the electric blue Range Rover from Reuterss, to beat up Ladas.

It is all very quaint, but there is a catch. Remember, this is Bosnia and a steady living is hard to come by. For regular guests of the hotel, it is a serious mistake to deny the car wash gang its labors. Several tires recently went flat, and those who refuse to pay the going rate or try to shaft the little urchins may find that their "enforcer," a nine-year-old with a bat, has paid their tail lights a visit.

Myself, I find the whole operation a pleasant switch from the usual rounds of begging children, many with plenty good homes to go to in any event. Actually, it seems that kids from stable homes are the worst at this sort of thing. Refugee parents insist on some standards of dignity. Here, you get something for your charity.

The going rate is five Deutsche marks for a wash job, but that depends on the weather and the kind of car. For example, "Fox" has expanded his business to include the front gate area of Tuzla AFB, sending a couple of his kids up there via the CNN or CBS shuttle. I was up there the other day and witnessed a funny scene involving Reuterss print correspondent Mark Heinrich and one of the little artful dodgers.

Mark drives a very nice blue Rover and it was literally caked with all forms of frozen mud and slush. It was about 20 degrees. "Dodger" washed most of the vehicle with his pail of muddy water and little squeegee tool, but couldn't budge some of the frozen stuff. This was due to the fact that the boys hands were frozen as well. I stood there watching the proceedings as they haggled over the price, neither speaking the other's tongue very well. Mark pointed out the road cake still encrusting the bumpers and fenders and the boy kept pointing out the climactic conditions. This went on for a until the boy simply said, "You Reuterss, TEN Deutsche mark." I guess there are times in this world when that corporate affiliation just seems to work against you. The kid was giving him that "you'd better pay up, dude" look and I made some offhand comment about the nine-year-old enforcer and the kid got his ten DM.

Being an American, I appreciate this kind of entrepreneurial sprit, so when the boy asked me for a ride down to the Bristol I said OK. On the way we talked as best we could and he told me his name was Damir and I told him how Bill Monroe, the bluegrass tape I had playing, was mountain music from a place in America very much like Bosnia. Damir is a good kid who lives near the bus park in Tuzla and was very pleased to be treated with a little respect, as are all 10 year olds. He showed me his hands and it was apparent that his was no easy task. Prolonged exposure to water, mud, and the frozen air had done a job on them. Nothing life-threatening, but definitely not good for the manicure.

I like these kids. They are as much a group of hard-working straight shooters as the situation allows. A lot of people get jaded by this kind of child labor and see these kids as little more than a nuisance. But I figure that they are providing a service and at a pretty fair rate. Try washing cars all day with ice water and no gloves and you'll see what I mean.

Yes, I figured I would give their little business a boost and give their hands a break, so on my last trip up to Vinkovci, I purchased a couple of pair of heavy-duty rubber gauntlets and turned them over to "Fox". Kids appreciate stuff like that, it shows that you give a damn and respect what they're doing. That goes a long way. Tonight after dinner I walked out to my little VW and low and behold — it was absolutely spotless — the cleanest ride in Tuzla. Tomorrow they're going to wax it and I'll have "Fox" run off the gypsy kids who blocked me in until I gave them a bribe. Yes, Tuzla can be a hard place, but a little elbow grease and a little mutual respect go a long way.