On a beautiful Monday morning I was ushered into the office of Lára, the grandmotherly Efling representative whose mission it would be to get me gainfully employed. I was puzzled upon meeting her. Where I’m from, union business is carried out by fat guys named Al in stained T-shirts. They handle your complaint and then tell you to ´get back to woik´. As I sat across form Lára, I felt as though I should have shaved. Or at least worn a sweater or something.
I explained my situation, that I had registered at the University of Iceland for the coming fall term, that I was now the proud owner of a newly minted kennitala. I told her I was fit and hard working, quite anxious to join the Icelandic workforce and that I would certainly consider any jobs she might have available. Lára smiled, offered me candy and said that was fine. She opened her book of available work, looked at me seriously and said ´You know, there’s work for everyone in Iceland.´
Not long after my meeting with amma Lára I stood on the work floor of ISI Shipbuilders talking to the Foreman. I had to shout to be heard over the noise and flying sparks. Being from America, I unconsciously used certain cliché job-requesting phrases…
ME- I’d be an asset to your company and uhh..
FOREMAN (watching sheet metal half the length of a soccer field being hoisted in)- Ha?
ME- I’m a self-starter…uhh..Highly motivated….
FOREMAN- What are you saying? Can you torch?
ME (looking up at the metal suspended over me)- Not yet.
FOREMAN- Eða weld? Can you weld?
ME- I’m a fast learner.
FOREMAN (looking down at my shoes)- Are they steel-tip?
ME- Uhh, yeah.
FOREMAN- Good, we don’t have to loan you them then. Monday 8:15. Don’t be late.
This was on a Friday afternoon. My girlfriend and I were so pleased with my new status as professional ship-building-guy that we broke out the Visa card and jammed until we were 50,000 kr. into debt. Jesus.
Little by little I got to know my fellow workers at ISI. Jói the Funny (who wasn´t), Young Kjartan (close to 70), and Atli the Pilot (who was). I learned to try and steer clear of Biggi, who whenever using the escalating platform, raised his arms and yelled ´Hallelujah´, Hallelujah´ as if he were ascending to heaven and not the wheelhouse. Oddly enough, this cat only wanted to talk about Jesus. We had a brief chat about my spirtual situation.
BIGGI- Tell me…are you saved?
ME- (changing discs in a grinder)- What?
BIGGI- Are you saved?
ME- (having trouble with it)- Saved from what?
BIGGI- I mean is Jesus your saviour?
ME (still wrestling with the grinder)- I dunno….probably. I never gave it much thought.
BIGGI- Are you a Christian?
ME- (finally unscrewing the grinder disc)- I guess…I was raised Catholic…But my father´s half Satanist. (laughs)
BIGGI: (walks off).
In the weeks that followed I learned to grind steel as smooth as glass, mount stabilizing fins to the bottom of fishing trawlers and snort Icelandic snuff without sneezing black snot all over my jumpsuit. You know, the usual. Eventually I also learned to blowtorch steel plate.
FOREMAN- Here’s how you open the gas, turn it one-quarter of the way. See?
ME- Why one-quarter?
FOREMAN- So that if the tubing catches fire you have time to turn it off before it blows up.
The flame is ignited, the foreman lights his smoke from the flame, hands me the torch.
FOREMAN- Don´t go too fast or you’ll spray melted steel on yourself.
ME- (Looking up from the plate, sweating) This speed good?
FOREMAN- Yeah, fine.
ME- (Utterly concentrated) Yeah.
FOREMAN- Your jumpsuit is on fire.
One afternoon I was called off the work floor and sent upstairs for a chat with the owner. It was payday and I was half expecting a raise. In spite of my terrible grasp of Icelandic and total lack of experience, I had worked hard and done well. I figured I may get up to 900 kr per hour.
OWNER- Where is your skattkort?
ME- My what?
OWNER- Tax Kort. Tax Card. Where is it?
ME- I dunno…I have a kennitala..
OWNER- Are you allowed to work in Iceland?
ME- Yeah, I am enrolled in University here.
OWNER- Do you have a student work card?
ME- No, I guess not.
OWNER- Punch out. Come back with both cards.
I contacted the Office of Immigration that day. As it turned out, I was working illegally. I was not eligible for work permission for another three months. I called ISI and explained my situation. I asked politely if they could keep me on and pay me black, off the books. They told me just as politely that they could not.
My limbo status put me and my girlfriend in a bad position. It would be three months until I was legally permitted to work in Iceland. According to our household budget, a three-month-long, non-paid vacation was impossible. This left but one choice. The murky world of….black jobs.
Next Edition, Icelandic Carwash.
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