Cream City Hustle. A Personal Finance Thriller. Available at Amazon
A listing of released installments can be found at the end of each installment
As Train opened the door to Sal’s, Marcus nonchalantly stole a peek behind him. It always paid to be mindful of your surroundings – the who and the what. Marcus understood all too well that the drug business favors extreme risk-takers, those who were willing to make gambles few other people, even the professionals on Wall Street, could handle. However, he knew it wasn’t a career. You don’t hear any stories about guys spending 20 years engaged in this lifestyle and then retiring to Miami Beach with their wife, 2.5 kids and dogs in tow. At least he hadn’t.
Stay too long in the game and you likely ended up dead, in jail or maybe worse, like being paralyzed. That’s what happened to Flex, a would be dealer on his way to being a bodybuilder. He caught a bullet in the back during a deal gone bad. “This isn’t something I plan to do forever,” Marcus told Train as they dipped into Sal’s Pizza.
The smell of fresh baked bread, the hint of garlic lingering in the air and the restaurant’s warmth immediately enveloped Marcus. “People always get caught. Someone rats you out or you get stupid and sell something in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
“Or the wrong place at the right time,” Train offered.
“Yep. No doubt.”
Over a couple of slices, the old friends reminisced about their days at South Division High School, home of the Cardinals.
“You were such a good student, always in them books. I always thought you’d find a way to go to college right after we graduated,” said Train.
“Was never in the cards,” Marcus responded. “My parents were never in a position to save money for college and there was no way I was going to take out a bunch of student loans. I should have looked into potential grants, but never took the time. I was considering joining the Army, even went to see that Army Recruiter over on North Oakland and took that ASVAB test. Did pretty well too. Also took the physical, but since I took Ritalin when I was younger, I couldn’t join and get that college money through the G.I. Bill.”
“What about takin’ out some loans?” asked Train.
“No way, kid,” Marcus responded as he lifted a slice of pepperoni pizza to his mouth, hoping its warmth would migrate through his body, knocking the chill off. I read something not too long ago that said the average cost of a college education had risen four times as fast as the rate of inflation.
“What!?” said Train. “That’s crazy!”
“That it is, my friend” said Marcus as he shook his head. “I will definitely get my college degree, but I won’t become a slave to debt to do it. Too many people out there graduating with degrees that won’t get ’em a job making enough money to pay back the loans they took out for the degree. Ain’t gonna be me. My plan is to get some type of engineering degree, which should make me employable, and leave college with just the degree and not all that debt hanging over my head.” Finishing up their pizza and the last of their drinks, they paid, slipped into their coats and prepared to face the cold.
“Peace,” Marcus offered as they left Sal’s. It had started to snow again as Train headed west to meet his girl, Renee, while Marcus headed north toward North 14th Street to make a delivery to Eric, a longtime customer. If the opportunity to sell a portion of his two-week supply to other dealers presented itself, he often took it. He would rather go for a quick turnaround and a small profit if possible. However, he didn’t mind if the opportunity wasn’t there. Ultimately his success was tied to maintaining his client base, currently around 65 people, and keeping them happy.
While most of the dealers in his neighborhood dealt only on the street, Marcus was unusual in that he dealt on the street as well as delivering to the homes of some of his more well-heeled clients, a practice he started a little over a year ago, after graduating. He figured it made sense to move into other forms of distribution, to expand his client base. It always struck Marcus as somewhat amusing that these clients would place an order for drugs to be delivered to their apartments as casually as if they would order Thai food.
Approaching the open apartment door, Marcus caught Eric’s eye. Dressed in a dark suit and a bold tie, as if he had just left a high-powered meeting, Eric motioned for Marcus to come in as he remained engaged in his phone conversation. Speaking softly, Marcus asked, “Why is your door open? It’s cold out there,” as he stepped in and closed the door behind him. Cupping his hand over the phone and speaking in a low whisper, “I figured you’d be here any minute,” Eric replied. Marcus already knew what the man wanted. As a regular, he had texted his order ahead of time using a predetermined pattern of messages. Unlike his street deals, which were often consummated on the spot, Marcus communicated and verified most of his business with his more well-heeled customers via text messages.
If an established customer, like Eric, had friends who wanted to make use of Marcus’ services, those new clients were introduced via a text message. The practice ensured new referrals came strictly from within trusted social circles, by way of friends who would vouch for the weed’s quality. That way, his customers ended up acting not only as a sort of advertising service, but it also provided a measure of security to everybody involved.
It was quite the contrast from dealing on the street where most of his deals were handled on the spot with no prior arrangement and security was essentially non-existent. Hell, Train wasn’t always around. Though he dealt on the street, he wasn’t a fool. He rotated between different spots and under no circumstances did he deal in parking lots. While it might be easier to agree to meet someone in the parking lot of a retail store, it was a bad idea in the age of video surveillance. Anybody that dealt in lots was just waiting to get caught.
He also did his best to stay clear of Neighborhood Watch groups. The most active one in this neighborhood was in the 18th Street to 20th Street three block area. The Watch Leader, Mr. Pemberton, didn’t play. He took the renovation and revitalization effort of Avenues West very seriously. The Neighborhood Watch was his contribution to the effort. That area was best avoided. At the end of the day, by working two distinctive niches, he increased his customer base, which meant more money, which meant the sooner he could get out of the game and on to his life.
Marcus reached into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out three baggies, Eric’s regular order. Eric wrapped up his conversation and greeted Marcus with an awkward fist bump and “What’s up, bro?”
Why did it always have to be, ‘bro?’ Marcus was pretty sure he didn’t greet all males that way. They spoke briefly, Eric bemoaning the recent downturn in the stock market, 3% over the last week, and Marcus bemoaning the cold weather.
“The damn Fed is making a mess of the economy and fucking up the stock market! It’s hard enough trying to figure out what and when to trade and nearly impossible when you throw in that damn quantitative easing. They’re killing me!”
Finished with the requisite chit-chat, Eric handed over his money and Marcus headed for the door. It probably would have come as a surprise to Eric, but Marcus was quite aware that the market had been down lately. Unlike the vast majority of dealers, in this town or others, he was quite familiar with the stock market. In fact, he was thinking this might be a good time to pick up more shares of the one stock he owned, Netflix, and maybe make an extra contribution to his IRA account.
Moving onto his next appointment, two bags for a chiropractor three blocks to the east, Marcus started thinking more about the proposal he had heard earlier on MSNBC. In a strange pairing, Rand Paul, the libertarian leaning Republican from Kentucky and Cory Booker, the moderate Democrat from New Jersey, freshmen senators both, were teaming up to introduce a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system. Elements of their REDEEM Act recognized that the War on Drugs had largely been a failure and a new approach was needed.
Combining that development with public statements by Attorney General Eric Holder advocating for commuting drug sentences and the fact that there were now two states – Colorado and Washington – where weed was legal, and 18 more where it was decriminalized, or approved for medical use, it seemed pretty clear to Marcus that there was a seismic shift underway.
Savvy dealers understood that a new environment – one in which knowledge of specific strains of the plant and medicinal applications would replace the need for sheer chutzpah – and a new type of entrepreneur may soon cut them out of the picture. For dealers like Marcus, this was quickly becoming a muddled time to be in this line of work. No doubt the sooner he got out, the better. “Yep, the sooner I get out of this town, and this cold-ass weather, the better,” he mumbled to himself as he pulled his Packers knit cap out of his pocket and hunkered down into his coat. Damn, it was cold!
I will be sharing a half chapter or so of my first personal finance thriller each Sunday. Check back on Sunday, May 8th for the next installment.