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Brief employment at an Amsterdam bagel shop


Summer 2000, The Netherlands

I was walking along the arc of Prinsengracht, one of the main semicircular canals that define the shape of downtown Amsterdam, when I saw a sign on a bagel shop that said "Personeel gevraagd." I knew that it was a "help wanted" sign.

I had been living for a few weeks on a houseboat on Nieuwe Prinsengracht, a 17th-century ("new") extension of the canal east of the Amstel river.

The walk along Prinsengracht was pleasant, and one whose geography I could understand. Cardinal directions are difficult in Amsterdam, even with some experience. The semicircular canals provide a rare consistent form. They are easy to backtrack, and they make it easier to remember locations found while en-route within the city.

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R_, one of the owners of Bagel Village, invited me to sit and talk. He got some cups of coffee and we went to a bench outside, overlooking the canal.

Do you have papers, he asked. No, I said. Oh, that's a problem.

Then he asked me how old I was. 36. That meant he would have to pay me 13.50 guilders per hour. The legal minimum wage in Holland is age-calibrated — and even though I was not legal to work in the country, he hired me at the legal wage for a 36-year old.

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I was mixing cream cheese. That was it. If I could learn to speak some Dutch, R_ said, I could work at the counter. There was no baking work available, because the place was not a bakery. The retail staff simply pulled bagels from the freezer, bagels purchased wholesale in frozen boxes.

I only worked about 12 or 13 hours per week. I didn't yet need income commensurate with my expenses, and didn't yet worry too much about it; so a little income to slow the decrease of my funds would be okay.

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I had some irritating conversations with R_. Two interactions remain in memory. The first, innocuous enough, was ridiculous in a sublime way. Quite simply, R_ urged me not to reveal the recipes of the cream cheeses I was mixing. I won't, nor do I remember them — they were not worth remembering. They were not recipes, even; merely a ratio of one ingredient to the other.

But I didn't say anything — I just found it strange, privately.

R_ showed his authority fixation later, amid an irritating discussion during some task. I told him, concerning something that he had said, that he was "treating me like a child."

He said "You're acting like a child."

Obviously the job was hopeless from that moment.

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