'Squeegee kids' cleaning up in Moscow Boys build bankroll one car at a time

November 10, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Yet another swashbuckling entrepreneur has taken to the streets of Moscow: the "squeegee kid."

With cigarettes dangling inexpertly from 10-year-old lips, and rags and soap in hand, gangs of boys have staked out the best street corners in this clogged city, hustling rubles from drivers trapped in mud-spattered Ladas and Moskviches.

"It's good money," Sasha said the other day while waiting for the light to turn red again at Pushkin Square. "The bus lady gave us the idea. 'Why should you wander around, kids?' she said. 'If you want to earn money, why not pick it up?' "

So Sasha -- and Dima, Ruslan, Vasya, Matvi, Yura and Lyosha -- gave it a whirl, plunging right into the new era of hard-bitten streetwise moneymaking that is what passes for capitalism here.

Like boys at intersections all over the center of the city, they're learning a whole new set of values.

The first thing they had to do, said Dima, was chase away the gang that used to hang out at Pushkin Square.

Then they started making money. Most drivers, they said, give them a ruble or three (because there is a three-ruble note). On a bad day that adds up to 50 rubles, they said, and on a good day up to 100 rubles.

And how much is that? A typical factory worker earns about 100 rubles a week. Even the mayor of Moscow makes only slightly more than the squeegee kids.

But a ruble buys little, and there's little to buy.

And there's the question of "taxes." They have to pay 10 rubles a day to "the big guys who live nearby."

Over at the Rossiya Hotel, near Red Square, "taxes" run from 35 to 50 rubles a day, Sasha said.

Does your mother know you're here? "Sure," said Dima. "She thinks it's a good idea."

He gives some of the money to her. And the rest? Well, the youths buy shirts, gum and cigarettes. And then Dima pointed to the beckoning arches of McDonald's, where a Big Mac costs just under 14 rubles.

The light changed and the boys fanned out into the lanes of traffic. They headed for the dirty cars, naturally, which are not hard to come by in Moscow. But foreigners' cars, easily recognizable by the color of their license plates, are always a prize: Sometimes the drivers pay dollars.

Moscow's squeegee kids are unfailingly polite to the customers, never badgering drivers for money. And, mud being what it is here, they are often providing a welcome service.

As winter begins, they have a new scheme in mind. They'll stand outside carwashes, oiling door locks to keep them from freezing in Moscow's arctic chill.

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