Cream City Hustle: Chapter Two, Part I

Cream City Hustle. A Personal Finance Thriller. Available at Amazon

A listing of released installments can be found at the end of each installment

Although you will find some working-class families and elderly residents in the Johnson Square Apartments, the majority of the residents are unemployed – or underemployed – single mothers. When he moved in a little over a year ago Marcus wasn’t the only weed dealer in Johnson Square, just the latest. Multiple dealers worked the Square. However, once he moved in, things began to change. Marcus knew early on he would have to get creative and out-hustle them. In this game, the early and late bird got the worm.

The first few months he worked the hours nobody else would. Anybody could work 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Not many were willing to burn the midnight oil and be hustling, especially when it’s cold, at 2:00, 3:00, and 4:00 in the morning. Initially, to draw in new customers and peel away some from the competition, he offered discounted samples. Not free, but discounted.

His strategy worked. Within a few months, he had built up a sizable client base, driven out some of the low performing competition and clearly established himself as the top weed dealer in the area. He didn’t believe that was necessarily anything to be proud of. After all, his ambition was not to be the best drug dealer he could be. However, the end – if not justified – was served by the means.

Startled awake by the blare of his alarm clock, Marcus rolled over and smacked the snooze button. Seven minutes later, although he wanted to hit snooze again, he hit the off button instead. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he sat up and let his feet fall to the floor. He knew it was going to be a long one, but he was ready to face the day. He was scheduled for the mid-morning shift and only had about two hours before he had to be at work. Walking, stretching and yawning, he headed to the kitchen to get a glass of water.

If he hustled he would have just enough time for a quick three-mile run and a fruit and vegetable smoothie for breakfast. He didn’t want to press his luck with Vanessa, the store manager, this morning. He could hear her now, “Late again, Marcus, you’re going on probation!” Though the pay sucked, he needed the money and there weren’t a lot of options out there for a brotha with just a high school diploma. You didn’t need a degree in economics to know that the economy wasn’t producing good, full-time jobs and if you were smart, you held onto the one you had. Yep, he thought to himself, be there on time, be productive and keep your head low. Just like the weed hustle, working McDonald’s was a means to an end.

Although he was not satisfied with his $7.55 an hour job at McDonalds, $0.30 above the state’s minimum wage, the job was another activity that served the greater purpose. While he was sympathetic to the cause, he wasn’t about to join any of the protests. Two of his co-workers participated in the rally last December over at the store on West North Avenue. Stood out in the cold and held up their homemade signs, ‘Living Wage = $15/Hour.’

No doubt that you couldn’t make ends meet on minimum wage. However, he didn’t see any way these fast-food corporations, or their franchisees, were going to pay anywhere near the $15 an hour that was being demanded. And accepting unions? Wasn’t gonna happen. Anyway, between working 25 -30 hours a week at Mickey D’s and putting in time on his side hustle, he didn’t have the time to spare at a protest. Hell, he certainly wasn’t going to make fast-food a career. Not only would it not be a career, he was planning to be done with McDonald’s and Milwaukee within the next year.

Stepping out his front door, the cool air engulfed his head causing his eyes to reflexively squint. He had half a mind to turn around and grab another 30 minutes of sleep. He knew better though. He knew he had to stay physically fit, just as he was making moves to get financially fit. After pulling down his knit cap a little and slipping on his lightweight running gloves, he stretched briefly. Nothing too intense. He had heard that more people injured themselves before a physical activity by trying to stretch too hard before the muscles warmed up; particularly in cold weather. And this was definitely cold weather.


Taking off at a leisurely pace, he settled into a nice rhythm after a few minutes and started to warm up a little. At this time of day there weren’t a lot of people out in the hood, just a few folks headed to work, either making their way to the bus stop or making the short walk if they worked close enough. Though cold, it was a nice crisp morning and it felt good to be up and active.

Turning for home he ran past Carl, one of his first steady customers.

“Can you square me away today?” Carl called out. Running short on breath, “Gotta do that 9:00 to 5:00,” (which was really 7:00 to 12:00 in his case), Marcus shot back. “I’ll be around about 1:00.”

Picking up the pace for the last ¼ mile, Marcus felt his heart rate rise and the first trickle of sweat fell into his eye as he approached the Square. Slowing to a walk, he took some deep breaths as he made his way to his apartment door. Though he was a little tired, he felt good. I have never regretted a workout when I was finished. Although some go better than others, it always felt good to get a workout in, he thought to himself. After a quick shower, a smoothie and watering his plants, he grabbed his backpack and was out the door.

Nine minutes later he was on the bus headed to work. Rolling through the front door with three minutes to spare, he gave Vanessa his best fake smile, kind of like Tracy at the bank, with her customer service smile.

“You’re on drive-thru, Marcus,” Vanessa informed him as he walked by. That was fine with him. Although it was a little more intense than working the grill or front counter, Marcus liked the pressure of ensuring the orders were accurate and each customer was taken care of within 90 seconds from the time they placed their order. At least that was the goal.

Working under the gun helped the day go by faster. It was also good that he was working with Antoine, probably the person he got along with best here at work. Antoine had graduated a couple years before Marcus, worked at the store for three years and had recently been promoted to shift manager.

“How’s that promotion working out, man? You like working with Vanessa?” Marcus asked when there was a lull in the action.

“She’s alright,” Antoine responded. “As long as people get to work on time and don’t abuse their breaks, she stays pretty cool. She definitely knows what it takes to run the place. I didn’t realize there were so many little things to pay attention to; so many things to consider when running a store.” Taking advantage of the lull, Marcus let Antoine know he was going to take his 10-minute break. Unlike a lot of his co-workers, he wasn’t interested in grabbing a smoke. He used his breaks to stay on top of the side hustle.

Two of his co-workers were regular customers and Marcus noticed that one of them, Maria, had just headed out for a break. More importantly, the six or seven vibrations from his phone throughout the morning told him there were some clients reaching out. Two were from Train – he had to catch up with him later – one was from his moms and three were from clients. After checking the messages, he caught up with Maria around back. They made a quick exchange on a single bag, making sure not to draw any unnecessary attention and before anyone else came around back.

Lighting up a menthol, she asked, “When we gon’ hook up?” The question caught him a little off-guard, but he’d known for awhile that Maria had a thing for him. However, he was too busy with work. All his work. She was attractive – with a nice round backside – and had a good sense of humor, but she was kind of a drama queen and he didn’t have the patience for it. Plus, he didn’t really care for the smoking thing and of course, there was Tracy.

“You know me, girl. I’m too busy right now. Trying to work, hustle and figure out the college thing.”

“Maybe I can squeeze you into my schedule in a couple weeks,” he joked.

“Alright, Mr. Man, you let me know when you can find some time,” she said between long, deep drags. “When you’re able, block off a date and time in your little day planner for me.”

As Maria stepped off to make a call, Marcus chuckled, “Will do Ms. Ramirez. Will do.” The next order of business was to respond to his text messages, setting up drop-off times. With that done, he took in a few deep breaths of the cool air and headed back inside. Walking back inside, Happy by Pharrell Williams popped into his head and he started humming the tune. That song was like Ebola or something. Once it got into you, it was hard to shake loose.

The rest of his shift went pretty smoothly, even the normally hectic transition from the breakfast menu to the lunch menu at 10:30 a.m. He managed to stay out of Vanessa’s crosshairs and a half hour before his shift ended, the second co-worker, Pete, who was a regular customer, showed up for his. Crossing paths going in and out of the men’s room, they managed a seamless transaction of two bags.

Walking out the door after changing and clocking out, Marcus threw on his headphones, checked his phone – four more messages – and picked up a slow jog to make sure he didn’t miss the next bus. He had to put in some time back on the block and he had multiple house calls to make later that afternoon. He didn’t have time to be sittin’ around at a bus stop, just waiting. Time was money. At least that was what Benjamin Franklin said. He was pretty sure it was Benjamin Franklin. Or was it Thomas Jefferson? It was one of them dudes.

Stepping off the bus, Marcus ran into Carl as he was approaching his apartment complex. Tall, every bit of 6’8” and lanky, he was hard to miss. Marcus had heard Carl used to be quite the ball player at Marquette back in the day. Had to be way back in the day! His guess was that Carl hadn’t even touched a basketball in 20 years.“What up, young man?” the old-timer wanted to know. “Need to head upstairs first?” Carl asked. Reaching into his pocket, “Nope,” Marcus replied as they quickly conducted business. And just like that, Carl was on his way. Lurching down the street to who knew where. Before he had a chance to get upstairs and change clothes, two more regulars approached him. Busy, busy, busy.

I will be sharing a half chapter or so of my first personal finance thriller each Sunday. Check back on Sunday, May 15th for the next installment.

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