By Michael E. Miller
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Each counting session would begin in the same way. Anton and Frank would sit opposite each other and order coffee. The supplies were laid out -- numbered boxes of bulk toothpicks, elastic bands, small round cardboard containers, and a log book. In the book would be recorded each numbered box, with an A or F to indicate who counted the toothpicks it contained, the counting start time, and the number of usable toothpicks in each box. (Rejects weren't thrown away; they were dropped into five-gallon water bottles. Anton has four full bottles, mute witness to shoddy toothpick manufacturing.) "It was a painstaking process," Anton admits. "Quality control is very important. For instance, the boxes of toothpicks said they had 800 picks in them. They never did. The average per box was actually 714."
The pair would each count 100 toothpicks. Anton was always the faster: "Frank seemed to hit his plateau at about 1600 to 1800 per hour," he says. "I can hit about 3000. I'd go through a box in thirteen minutes on average." Each hundred would be bound with a band and placed in one of the small cardboard containers. Two or three hours of counting was the norm. They were so ubiquitous that the waitresses and regulars adopted a mild enthusiasm for the project and the men strangely obsessed by it. "It was do or die," Anton allows.
Often on weekdays Anton would go in and count by himself. He found that Frank didn't always share his work ethic. That was a secret part of the project for Anton, in fact -- changing Frank's attitude from a kind of sullen-employee outlook to that of a business partner eager to pull his own weight. On Sundays he'd put on a suit, go pick up Frank, and they'd be at the IHOP for a marathon session that wouldn't stop until they'd counted 18,000 to 20,000 sticks of wood. Anton also wore a suit the day they hit the one-millionth toothpick. "Here it is," he says, pointing to a snapshot of Frank holding the prized sliver.
Once the counting was done, the pair built a display case. They divided the picks into four quarter-million lots, each sandwiched between sheets of Plexiglas and wood framing. Each of the four parts weighs 136 pounds and measures roughly three and a half square feet -- roughly because Anton and Frank are mathematicians, not carpenters, so the display cases aren't as precise as they'd like. Anton plans to arrange the four parts as a large square. "My thinking is that the human mind can only comprehend numbers that big if it's in a square," Anton ventures. "Just looking at it is dizzying." The cost for all this, if you don't count the time spent, runs just over $2330 ($1170.86 for toothpicks, $236 for elastic bands, and so on), all of it documented.
The plan, once Anton buys a small truck, is to carry the display to local swap meets or flea markets on weekends, hang a sign, and wait for the cash to roll in. "We've done small test markets with just one [quarter-million] section," Anton offers confidently. "We made twelve dollars in one minute in my yard."
Anton also has a marketing plan he's negotiating with Monica, a bikini-clad hot-dog vendor who targets heavy traffic areas near the airport. "The idea is we put the hot dogs next to the toothpicks and see if we each get more business."
Anton's unwavering belief in his idea garners mixed reactions. "Well, it's a kind of flaky idea," muses Dave Daniels, proprietor of Churchill's. It was all Anton would talk about for months, nursing bottles of Budweiser at the end stool. "All the hours they spent counting," he shakes his head. "I mean, whether it's a million toothpicks or a million and one, who cares?"
Anton acknowledges this is not an uncommon reaction. At the IHOP gawkers would sometimes laugh at his efforts. "What will you do with them once you've counted a million?" they'd ask.
"I'm going to charge smart people a dollar to see them," Anton would invariably reply.
"I wouldn't pay to see that," some of the slower thinkers would retort.
"Exactly," Anton would mutter.
But to Frank and Anton, the idea remains powerful. "We're trying to prove a small business on a shoestring can work, to show people it can still be done and that there's a reward at the end of all the hard work," Frank says. In the end that faith is almost as important to Anton as making money. "Somewhere 25 years ago, Frank went a different way than I," he muses. "He's a generally nice, sharp guy and there's no reason for him to be living his life out in a skid-row hotel. If I can pull Frank out of that rut and get him back on his feet -- that's my satisfaction. And it's me showing the system: You can't kick a man while he's down."