Cream City Hustle. A Personal Finance Thriller. Available at Amazon
A listing of released installments can be found at the end of each installment
MILWAUKEE – 17 MONTHS LATER
“Damn!” Marcus swore under his breath as he blew into his cupped hands, trying to warm them and fend off the cold October air. One day, not soon unfortunately, he would leave this city behind. As much as he loved catching the occasional Brewer’s game in the spring, spending time at Lake Michigan in the summer and watching the Packers in the fall, he hated winters in Milwaukee, his hometown and the place he had called home all 20 years of his life. Absolutely hated it!
“What did you say?” asked Train.
“I hate the snow and it’s too damn cold out here,” Marcus told him, blowing more hot air into his cupped hands. “How much longer will we have to wait?” It was a rhetorical question of course. Like him, Train had no idea how much longer they would have to wait for Trevor, Marcus’ supplier.
As he looked up and down the street, he thought about his most recent visit with his folks a few days ago. Of course, they had no knowledge of his side hustle. His brother did. His parents did not. They would be mortified if they knew. They only knew about the McDonald’s thing. Though dinner that night was outstanding – as always – his father repeatedly pressed him on his plans now that he was out of high school. When was he going to get a better job? Was he saving money for college? Had he applied to any colleges yet? Did he have a major in mind?
He answered as he always did. “Right now I’m just getting my money together. I plan on going to college, but I don’t want to be burdened with a ton of debt right out of the gate.” Marcus loved his father, however, the cramped living space wasn’t the only reason he moved out right after finishing high school.
The constant barrage from his father was too much. He was the type of person who just didn’t know when enough was enough. As always, his mother gently rebuked her husband.
“Robert, you leave Marcus be. He’s fine. He’s a young man that has time to figure things out. He doesn’t need to plot out the next 30 years in the next 30 days.”
“That’s true,” his father replied. “However, he doesn’t want to wake up 10 years from now wondering where the time went.”
They followed dinner with a game of Dominoes, the Mexican Train version. Along with Scrabble, it was a family favorite. Although there was a lot of trash talking and the competitive juices were always flowing, there was more laughing and a sense of family cohesiveness during these times. There really is something to the idea that a family that plays together, stays together, Marcus mused.
Following the short game with his folks and younger brother, Marlon, he headed out, hoping he wouldn’t miss the 7:25 p.m. bus.
“How ya doin’ tonight?” Marcus asked as he boarded the bus. The driver smiled and gave a slight nod. On the ride home through downtown, in between thoughts about what his future might hold, Marcus had glanced out windows with their frosted edges at some of the city’s older buildings and their cream-colored bricks.
Unlike a lot of people, even some of Milwaukee’s longtime residents, Marcus knew the real story behind the city’s nickname. While many mistakenly believed ‘Cream City’ referred to the State’s pre-eminence in the dairy industry, Marcus understood that the moniker was derived from the cream-colored bricks from which many of the city’s buildings, particularly the older buildings, were constructed. One of the properties of the red clay that runs along the western shore of Lake Michigan is that it contains elevated amounts of sulfur and lime, and when formed into bricks, the rich clay turned a light golden-yellow color after firing. Cream City indeed.
Cold and a little tired, Marcus’ patience was wearing thin. “I might as well do something constructive with my time,” Marcus called back as he started walking toward the corner. “Keep an eye out for Trevor, I’m gonna make a quick run over to the M&I Bank. I’ll be back in 10 minutes.”
“What do you need to do at the bank?” Train called out after a minute, but it was too late. Marcus was just out of earshot. Walking quickly, he was hoping Tracy was working this afternoon.
Walking into the bank and shaking off the cold, Marcus spotted her. Other than an older couple talking to one of the loan officers, not much was going on. The place was just about empty. Pausing before heading to the customer service counter, he grabbed his phone to check a new text message: from Trevor – be there in 10. Putting his phone away and stepping to the counter, he spoke first. “How are you Ms. Tracy on this cold, cold afternoon?” he asked as he approached her.
“Very well, Mr. Williams. How can I assist you today?” She was always so formal. Instead of being frustrated by her formality, Marcus found it endearing. A true professional.
“I just need to make a deposit, thank you.” He tried to chat her up a little, but she was having none of it. As always, she offered him her very best customer service smile throughout the transaction and dutifully handed him his receipt for the deposit. However, he did see what he believed was the slightest sign of a real smile at the corner of her mouth when he assured her he would be back. She hadn’t seen the last of him. Not by a long shot. “Take care, Ms. Tracy, and enjoy the rest of your day,” he said as he turned and headed for the door.
Exactly 10 minutes after he had left, Marcus reappeared.
“What did you need to take care of?” Train inquired.
“I needed to make a deposit. The final deposit to get my emergency fund right.”
“Your emergency what?” Train asked with a quizzical look on his face.
“My emergency fund. You know, we talked about the fund before,” Marcus reminded him. “It’s the money I keep in a savings account just for emergencies or to meet unexpected expenses. Should something out of the ordinary come up, I won’t need to dip into the money I’m saving for college and retirement. My goal has always been to maintain $3,500, about three months of living expenses, in the account. I just hit the goal with the $150 I just deposited. I’m good now.”
“How does …?” Train started to say, just as they spotted Trevor.
As they made eye contact, Marcus drifted back into the alley where they should be able to get some privacy and a dilapidated awning would provide a little cover from the falling snow.
“How long ya’ll been out here in the cold?” Trevor asked as he turned into the alley.
“Not long,” Marcus lied as Train briefly glanced back and then resumed slowly scanning the street left to right. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the nature of their work, Trevor was always a little paranoid. He claimed they had to meet out here because he was in the process of moving to a new apartment and he was late because he had to run down some former clients, looking for some money they owed. Who knew the real story?
As long as he had known him, Marcus only believed about half of what fell out of Trevor’s mouth. That was okay though because he always came through with the goods and his prices were reasonable. His product, a nice strain of Afghan Kush, was reasonably priced, very potent and clients loved it. Briefly they talked about their predictions for the Packers game that weekend, when the Bears would come calling.
“Packers in a blow-out, 31 – 10,” Trevor proclaimed.
“I don’t know,” said Marcus. “The Bears defense is a little beat up and we have a superior offense, but I don’t know if the Pack is 21 points better. My guess is it will be closer, maybe 24 – 17.” As the temperature continued to drop and the snow started to let up, they concluded their transaction and prepared to part ways. “See you in a couple weeks,” Marcus said as they turned to go in opposite directions.
“Yep, a couple weeks,” Trevor replied.
Walking along North 21st Street with Train, in their Avenues West neighborhood, the two friends represented quite the contrast. Tall, with an athletic build, shallow dimples in both cheeks, a strong jaw line and clean-shaven; it surprised many that Marcus had never considered modeling. Conversely, Train was considerably shorter, more pudgy than fat, and liked to maintain a tuft of hair – sort of like a black cotton ball – on his chin which he lovingly referred to as a ‘chin-fro.’ As they walked, Marcus’ relaxed demeanor, warm smile and new Chuck Taylors wouldn’t suggest he had $1,000 worth of weed and $500 cash stashed in his pockets and the lining of his coat.
With his supply replenished and Sal’s Pizza coming into view, Marcus started thinking about when he first started this hustle. He was so damn naive. He didn’t really know how or where to start. The only thing he knew for certain was that he was going to college and he couldn’t make the money necessary working fast-food, part-time. An older friend, Redd, who had recently got out of the game, told him the most critical items were a scale and a phone. He had a phone, he needed a digital scale. Redd suggested either a Vitra or Ohaus. Both made quality scales at reasonable prices. Marcus decided to go with an Ohaus.
“The main thing,” Redd said, “is make sure it can read down to tenths.”
With a phone and scale in hand, he needed some startup capital. Although he had a little bit of money put away, he had to borrow the rest from his boy, Train. With the foundation in place, he was ready to find a supplier. Again, Redd came through. He was the conduit to Trevor. Within a week he was cultivating customers. His first group of clients were mainly fellow students at school. At that time it was a small customer base and he wasn’t moving a lot of product. He was definitely small time.
However, once he moved to the Avenues West neighborhood, he picked up a lot of Marquette and Aurora Sinai Center clients and the business grew. Because of the neighborhood’s diverse population, his customer base included people from all walks of life. In a typical day, it was not unusual for him to cater to blacks, whites, Hispanics, students, college professors and a host of young professionals.
I will be sharing a half chapter or so of my first personal finance thriller each Sunday. Check back on Sunday, May 1st for the next installment.