By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Tomas has been tattooing for over 20 years. He is well established in the industry and a master of his craft. But the pandemic was keeping him from tattooing. Two weeks ago he called me and said he was considering applying to the post office as a way to make money in the interim.
I asked him the last time he had a straight job. He said 1996. I asked him when he last had a job that wasn’t related to art. He told me 1991 when he was delivering phone books in Spain, where he is from.
“You know,” he said, “this would be a good story for that column you write.”
Back then Tomas was working as a graphic designer, doing everything by hand. At the time, using computers for graphic design was a new concept for a lot of people. He learned that he could study it in Milan and for around $6,000 he could purchase an Apple computer to help him execute the process. He needed a job. He was told that Yellow Pages was hiring people to deliver phone books, so Tomas applied and was hired.
In the warehouse he noticed a group of employees who were treated differently, treated with more respect by the others and seemed to do things according to their own set of rules. They were known as Los Manguis, which roughly translates to hoods or thieves. They had a reputation for getting results that other workers couldn’t. Tomas thought working with them would be less boring and a chance to make more money.
The guy in charge of Los Manguis came from the same poor, largely gypsy neighborhood where Tomas’ parents had owned a laundromat, and that was his initial way in. Los Manguis was mostly made up of junkies from the north of Spain who smoked heroin, but they were tough, they were strong. Their chief liked Tomas. Tomas was an artist, he had more to talk about than just soccer and women.
He made it into the crew and started working with them, traveling all over Spain dropping off new phone books and collecting old ones. The days were long, 14 hours. Work started early in the morning. They were supposed to unload all the books, deliver them to each individual apartment in every building, and trade them for the occupant’s phonebook from the year before. They were also to collect signatures from each person who received a book. Their pay was determined by the weight of the old phone books they brought back with them at the end of the day.
Los Manguis had tactics that would yield more money with much less effort than the other straight employees. One was to soak the old phone books in water to make them weigh more. Another was a bit more involved. The chief of the group had old phone books stashed all over the country, some in storage lockers, some in chicken coops, an abandoned tractor trailer on the highway. Some he even had stacked in closets in City Hall. With the uniform no one ever questioned him.
With all of these old phone books they could save themselves a lot of time. Instead of actually trading new ones for old ones, Los Manguis could just pick some up from one of these sites and deliver them to be weighed at the end of the day. Tomas would sometimes have his family members forge the signatures on the confirmation of delivery forms, or he’d bring the forms to the bench in Barcelona where the graffiti writers would congregate, and have them do it. A regular employee unaffiliated with Los Manguis would deliver an average of 150 books a day, on Tomas’ best day he brought 900 old books to be weighed. The chief of Los Manguis had someone let him know when the inspection officers were going to come by for their “random” inspections. On those days everything was done according to the rules.
After work Los Manguis liked to drink, liked to fight. There was one they called Tyson after Mike Tyson. He could fight, he could take five guys at the same time and win, Tomas had seen it. One night he picked a fight with seven or eight frat-boy types and was doing alright until he was stabbed to death.
Then there was the gypsy from Granada. He was 20 or 21, not handsome exactly but decent looking. He would tell stories about sleeping with the bored housewives. There was one, he said, who wanted him to keep his uniform on while they had sex. According to him she had a thing for Yellow Pages employees and kept telling him she wanted to be hit over the head with a phonebook during the act. He obliged. He slept with as many women as he could but what he really wanted was to get them pregnant. He wanted babies all over the country, all over the world if possible. He claimed AIDS wasn’t real because he had never seen it.
Once, following an argument with his boss, Tomas was put on the worst delivery route either of them could imagine. It was a shanty town on the top of a hill. The houses were mostly built from found trash. The hill was so steep that when he opened the back of the truck to unload the books they all just toppled out. His boss left him for the day with the pile and a dolly. Tomas was tired before he began, sweat drenching his clothes, the sun beating on him while he lugged the books.
When he reached the center of town he saw some young local kids standing in the street. He approached them and offered them a deal. They knew who had phones and who would want books. Tomas told them that he would push the dolly and they could run up to the houses and drop off the books. He said he would split the tips with them. They agreed and set off. While Tomas was walking around he saw a couple of tourists who were no doubt very lost. There was no reason anyone would visit this place on purpose. Shortly after spotting them, he saw what he thought of as an old-school junkie. He was dressed in a tracksuit, brightly colored and thin as paper. The junkie robbed the tourists at knife point right in front of Tomas. After doing this he began walking in Tomas’ direction. Tomas held the dolly with both hands ready to swing it if the junkie tried to stab him. He was only a few feet away. Tomas was tired but he had a firm grip on the dolly, ready.
“Hey,” said the Junkie. “I saw you help those kids, you gave them work.”
“Yeah,” said Tomas.
“Here, buy yourself a coke and a sandwich, buy them the same.”
The junkie handed Tomas the money he had just taken from the tourists. When his boss returned he found Tomas sitting with the local kids, all of them relaxing and laughing, eating, drinking Cokes, all the phonebooks delivered.
Tomas quit after he had saved enough to reach his goals relating to graphic design. Yellow Pages started cracking down and all the employees had to start following the rules. Many of the people Tomas used to work with had habits and were used to making enough money to pay for them. This was more money than they could get if they had to do things by the book. A few of them decided to rob a pharmacy. They were not difficult to catch as they robbed it wearing their Yellow Pages uniforms and using a Yellow Pages van as their getaway vehicle.
Now that Allegheny County has decided to open things up again, Tomas can get back to tattooing.