By Michael E. Miller
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Toward the end of his story, after three cups of coffee and half a pack of Marlboros, Mr. Toothpicks leans back in a vinyl Denny's booth in Hialeah. "You know," he exhales in a cloud of smoke, "I'm the only one who's actually seen the whole million." He leans forward again. "Not even Frank has seen more than a quarter of a million at a time."
One million tiny slivers of wood, meticulously counted and recorded, bound and set between thick sheets of Plexiglas and wooden frames. This is the meal ticket for Mr. Toothpicks, a.k.a. Anton Solar, and his buddy Frank. This is their big scheme, noodled out over countless beers at Churchill's and bottomless cups of coffee at the International House of Pancakes. The premise? That thousands of people will pay one dollar apiece to see what a million toothpicks looks like. That a couple of abstract thinkers low on capital can get rich with not much more than a good idea and sweat equity.
"This started with the idea that you can open a viable small business in Miami for under $2500," Anton explains, remembering a night almost two years ago when he was trying to persuade Frank, a day laborer living week-to-week in a seedy downtown hotel, that he could get out of a personal rut by becoming self-employed. But Frank, beaten down by life and bad choices (related to wine, women, and other common vices), was convinced he'd need at least $50,000 just to make a start. Might as well be a million. "I told Frank: 'If you use your noodle, you can do it for under $2500,'" Anton recalls, tapping a finger to a slight crease in his forehead, which runs well back into a half-moon of wispy white hair. "He said, 'It can't be done.'" Anton pauses, pushes his slipped glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "I said, 'You're on.'"
Anton currently runs the computer system at a local electrical contractor, but bumped into Frank while playing bass in a local band called Space Hippie, which used to gig at Churchill's in Little Haiti. One day, while driving his ancient beige Cadillac to the venerable pub and music venue, he gave a ride to Frank, waiting miserably on a corner for an overdue bus, in the rain. Frank, in his midforties, had been living in the same low-rent hotel for seven years, working day-labor jobs and existing in a short-term world without end. The two men became friends, partly because Anton considered Frank's fatalism a challenge. "We figured that everything obviously worth doing is already being done by 50 other guys in Miami," Anton says in a nod to Miami's rampantly entrepreneurial nature. "So we had to do some thinking first. I mean, you don't build a sailboat in your basement."
But if they were going to create a profitable business for under $2500, there had to be rules. Fortunately Anton -- a diminutive 48-year-old of Germanic stock, raised a Mennonite in rural Texas, subsequently a world traveler and itinerant entrepreneur -- was not at a loss for rules. "I said to Frank that over the years I've learned fifteen rules of business," he reveals. "You can ignore them, but you can flush your money down the toilet too." The top five rules were the most important: Don't borrow money, don't hire employees, don't depend on a perishable product line, don't make anything that's not portable, and for the love of God, don't do anything requiring government regulation.
Eventually they stumbled onto toothpicks. The toothpicks themselves weren't important; they were merely the easiest way to test the idea that people would pay money to see one million of something counted out. "There is a profit motive," Anton concedes. "We're red-blooded Americans. But it was really proof of concept. We wanted to see a million." The toothpicks represent what Anton calls "Project 21" (they have other endeavors in the works). There were several other objects they thought to count first, but rejected for various design flaws. Grains of sand? Too small. Pennies? Too expensive. Bottle caps were rejected because their complicated display (glued to 77 sheets of plywood and built into a house) would have broken one of the many rules Anton came up with to govern the project -- that all million items had to be visible at once.
"That was the masterstroke," Anton divulges. "That you could stand in one place and just move your head and actually count every single one." The pair had looked into the claims of other counters who said they had a million of this or that. "We found fourteen claimants and they all had problems," he asserts. "All their items were displayed in a heap, or a stack, so you just had to take their word for it. Like one guy said he had a million bottle caps, but underneath the top layers was a heap of dirt."
Once committed to the idea, the pair started buying toothpicks in bulk from the Smart & Final near Biscayne and 79th Street. Then they began counting, several days a week for hours at a time in a booth at the IHOP on 24th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. It took them eight months, two weeks, and two days. "By the time we got to 150,000," Anton recalls, "we knew all the others who said they had a million were liars."