Meet Mr. Toothpicks
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."
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 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."
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