[Author's note: Odd Jobs Cooperative (OJC) will be a monthly series that will hopefully develop into a shared world narrative. Other contributors that would like to write within the world about other cooperatives or collaborate on OJC chapters are welcome. If interested, please contact GEO for more details.]
When Ira was sixteen he worked at this little convenience store in his neighborhood in South Boston. He mostly stacked the ice box and used the price gun to label the items on the shelves. Other times Len put him on the register when he had to go to the bank or take inventory.
Ira worked a few hours after school for spending money, so at the time he didn’t recognize it as a particularly pleasant work experience. Len was a nice guy, the work was slow-going, and sometimes his wife Sarah would come in and they’d talk about books and television shows, which was always nice. Len didn’t give him a hard time when he broke drink bottles while stacking the box, which Ira appreciated, and sometimes Len would even give him a candy bar.
“Here, you earned it,” Len would say in his strong Ukrainian accent, grabbing a candy bar with his thick fingers and sliding it across the counter. Ira took whatever he offered, even the Butterfingers.
Of course, it could have just as easily been a terrible experience. Len could have been an asshole, insisting on a brutal efficiency while doing tasks, making it a torturous few hours after school. But it wasn’t, and Ira didn’t know enough yet to appreciate that blissful part-time job.
Years later, he’d find out from his mother that the store closed down, that the kindly owner could not afford the growing rent and cost of utilities, and that Len had lost most of his business to the CVS and K-mart that popped up in the intervening years.
“That’s awful,” he remembered saying.
Were they all right? Did they land on their feet? Ira didn’t know. He couldn’t find them online. He asked around the neighborhood, but no one knew where they went. Ira hoped they were well, that they had simply retired, and tried not to imagine the worst.
Ira was out of college and working at a superstore that sold clothes, shoes and other cheaply-made accessories at surprisingly low cost, likely due to near-slave labor in sweatshops in some distant part of the world that Ira tried not to think about.
What he did think about was the monotonous days being thrown at a series of retail tasks by his vaguely condescending supervisor, the terror he felt when witnessing the carnage perpetrated by a day’s worth of customers, the deep ache in his bones when he finally trudged his way home, and the fitful dreamless sleep he entered at night only to wake up to repeat the cycle all over again.
When he did dream, it would be of Len smiling at him from behind the counter, pop culture conversations with Sarah, Len and Sarah standing before their little convenience store, saying goodbye to over two decades of their life’s effort. Sometimes in his nightmares, he found himself falling, Len and Sarah falling with him, his family and friends on some other plane of existence wondering where he went, his college degree and all his hopes and best intentions helpless to save him from the abyss.
Once a month, Ira would invite his friends, roommates, and some of his favorite co-workers to his apartment. It was bring your own beer and Ira would bake some cookies or a cake for people to nibble on over the night. His best friend Laura always brought cider, chips and guacamole and his roommate, Alfred, would disappear at some point in the night and return with a box of pizza from Veggie Crust down the street.
It was during one of Alfred’s absences that the conversation came up. Some of Ira’s coworkers were complaining about work, which wasn’t unusual. Ira took the role of nodding in agreement at the appropriate moments and laughing at the off-handed jabs at their supervisor. But midway through their tirade about the horrors of changing room duty, the conversation took a turn. Ira had a passing thought about Len and Sarah, about falling through the dark, and then he turned to them and suggested that they should start their own business. It was mostly a joke. But the living room went quiet and his coworkers stared at him for what seemed like a long time.
“What kind of business?” asked his co-worker Jasmine.
Ira laughed nervously, but stopped when he saw the seriousness on Jasmine’s face. “I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“Yes,” Jasmine said.
“It would need to be something fun,” said his coworker Marcus, taking a swig of his beer. “And something we could all do.”
Jasmine nodded, sat back in Ira’s armchair and stared up at the ceiling in thought.
“Starting a business is hard,” Ira said. “Maintaining one is even harder. It would have to be something that could be successful long-term.” He thought again of Len’s little grocery. Definitely not that. That would be too difficult. Was he really considering this?
Laura was sitting on the carpet between everyone, drinking a cider and stuffing chips heaped with guac in her mouth. She took the time to chew and swallow and then offered her own question: “who would be the boss?”
“I hate bosses,” said his other coworker Rebecca. “And I’m not about to make any of you my boss.”
For the next few minutes the room erupted into what Ira would best describe as a lively role-playing game where they were all workers in various fictional businesses. Ira looked around the room in wonder. His throwaway comment had become a full-fledged conversation. Up until this point, the only person that had not weighed in was his roommates friend Denis. He was sitting in another one of their armchairs, his hand cupping his chin, a half-full bottle of beer resting on the lamp-table next to him. When he finally spoke, it was a clipped suggestion that cut through the noise of the whole conversation: “What about a cooperative?”
The room quieted again.
“What’s that?” Jasmine asked.
“We’d all be owners of the business,” Laura said. “And we’d decide on the running of the business democratically.”
“So we’d all be the bosses?” Marcus asked. “Like a board overseeing the business?”
“Not exactly,” Laura said. “Hypothetically, the future workers would also own the business, and would have a say in the decision making as well.”
“That sounds great,” Jasmine said. “Who’s in?”
“Wait, what?” Ira asked, taken aback by the huge leap in the conversation. “Are we serious about this?”
No one in the room said anything for a moment. Then Marcus shrugged. “I mean, what would it hurt, right? I’m not doing anything better with my life.”
Ira considered this. He saw his future stretching out before him. Maybe he might get a better job. Maybe he’d go back to school if he could find a school that wanted him and would be willing to pay his way. Possible futures all outside of his control. In someone else’s hands, not his. He was tired of leaving it up to someone else. He’d do what Len did. He’d try, even if he failed.
“I’m in,” Ira said. “Laura? Denis?”
“Sure,” Laura said.
“I think I want to know more about cooperatives first,” Rebecca said.
Over the next fifteen minutes they all talked about cooperatives. Ira gave some examples he knew about, mostly grocery stores. Laura talked about a bike repair shop she’d visited that was a cooperative. Rebecca mentioned a bookstore that might have been one though she wasn’t positive. Jasmine and Marcus asked a lot of questions. Denis nodded a lot, furrowed his brow in deep contemplation, and suggested that they find members outside their age group. “More work experience,” he said.
“I still am not sold on any of these ideas about what we would do,” Marcus said. “I’m an artist. I’d like this business, whatever it is, to allow me to make art.”
“You can still do this and that,” Jasmine suggested. “Let the business feed your art.”
Marcus looked disappointed.
Denis furrowed his brow. “What if this was that?” he asked.
“I can’t draw,” Jasmine said.
“You could do something else,” Denis said. “We could all do whatever we want.”
Ira watched when Laura’s eyes got wide with excitement. He thought he knew what she would say, because the revelation was hitting him at the same time.
“We could make it an odd jobs cooperative,” Laura said.
“Is that even possible?” asked Jasmine.
At this point, Alfred entered with a box of pizza. He froze at the door staring around the room at all their faces. “What’s going on?”
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