Walter Mencken 12:02 p.m., May 30
- Community Blog
- Right Smack Dab in the Middle
Tough Times (or) The Rise and Fall of a San Diego Enterprise
So I'm standing there watching this transaction take place. A group of smokers across the street from the Fashion Valley Transit Station are puffing away like sailors on a break, and a guy approaches them. "Got a smoke I can buy?" he asks, and holds up a dollar bill. One fella hands him a cigarette and simply says: "Here. You don't have to pay. Times are tough." And I see the dollar bill slip back into the butt bum's pocket.
Damn right, times are tough, fella. It's a struggle to pay rent, utilities, and food until this stormy economy blows out to sea. If you don't want to stand with a cardboard sign at an intersection, or sleep in a tent by the river, you gotta have heads up for extra cash. A fool and his money are soon parted, the saying goes, and this ain't no time to be a fool. And you, fella, just turned down a buck!
On the bus, I did the math. I don't smoke—quit last year—but I know a pack of 20 cigarettes runs around six bucks, or 30 cents a stick. So if I can get $1 for a cigarette, I make seventy cents. That's a 70 percent return on a 30 cent investment. Sell the whole pack and I pocket $14. Sell two packs every day and I come home with $28 pure profit per day, $196 a week, $840 a month! Hell, I could get rich with those kinds of numbers. That's when my entrepreneurial brain lights up like the spotlight on a police helicopter. I imagine the fella saying to me: "I can't sell cigarettes to nicotine addicts and poor folks." Well, I thought, if you can't brother, I sure as hell can!
Besides, I could sell coal to Newcastle and ice to the Eskimos. I had moved (some say was evicted) from New York City years ago to laid back, surf-crazy San Diego. I wore a coat and tie and talked fast. Me, a street savvy "sales wolf" from the Big Apple, suddenly finds himself in a flock of sheep. San Diegans, whom I compared to gullible New Jerseyans, were going to make me rich.
But several sketchy business plans and poor career choices ended in financial debacle. The sales empire I was gonna build never got off the ground. And working for others didn't pan out because employers don't take well to goldbricking. The only way I was gonna get rich was winning Super Lotto. In the meantime, I was still hustling for odd jobs. And now I was riding the bus to the unemployment office, calculating that if I sold only 40 cigarettes every day, I'd bring in $840 a month. That's triple what I could get on unemployment! I must have squealed with delight because people on the bus turned to look at me.
I got off the bus at the Old Town Transit Center and I bought a pack of Marlboros, then planted myself in a conspicuous spot across the street. (It's illegal to smoke at bus stops and trolley stations, and the platform bulls can fine you $200.) I put a Marlboro between my lips and waited, pretending to be reading the newspaper, too engrossed to light up. I wanted to look like a citizen killing time waiting for a bus, not a salesman on the prowl.
A guy approaches. "Hey, buddy," he says, "can you spare a smoke?"
I had rehearsed my script. I was ready. I looked up from my newspaper and shrugged. "I would if I could, but I am down to my last few and won't have money for a couple days to buy more."
"If that's the case, can I buy one from you?"
"I well, gee, I hate to have to sell them to you," I stuttered, trying to sound apologetic.
But then—as scripted—I caved in. "Oh well, I guess so. How much can you pay?"
"How about a dollar?"
Bingo! I was back in business.
Over the weeks I learned my customer base and sales territory. The best customers, as it turned out, were the homeless, the slightly inebriated, commuters trying to quit, and sports fans. My territory was Mission Valley, particularly the trolley stations. Best times were evenings, and after any game. The homeless, after a successful day of collecting change, were on their way to downtown shelters or tent camps along the river and felt flush enough to splurge on a smoke, the way tycoons celebrate with cigars. The inebriated were coming home from bars and restaurants, where alcohol had diluted their will power. Commuters were fatigued after a day at the office, and believed they deserved to treat themselves to a nicotine rush.
I was there for them all. I provided a public service, helping folks span the gap between a momentary nicotine craving and shelling out $6 for a whole pack, only to hate themselves in the morning. Besides, that's the way a lot of people prefer to smoke these days—once in while—and I made that possible. Counting the dollar bills at home I felt I had found my calling.
To maximize sales, I employed business chutzpah like any self respecting street salesman from New York. I had a couple ploys—like the aforementioned pretending to read a newspaper. Another was to be on the cell phone, with an unlit cigarette flapping between my lips, seeming too much in conversation to get involved in a business transaction. In that way my replies could be curt without seeming rude. "I only have a couple left. Sure. A dollar. Thanks." Short and simple, and no time for arguments or counter offers. And although the cigarette was never lit, customers didn't seem to notice. Furthermore, the cigarette—usually a Marlboro—was not the one I sold. Unnoticed, I pulled out a cheaper brand from my backpack. Bait and switch, I think they call it. Caveat emptor, I like to say.
And I was hard-nosed. Or, as I like to think, an "equal opportunity vendor". There was one price for everyone: $1. Of course, like any modern American businessman, when I was offered more I never turned it down. Occasionally someone offered $2 a cigarette. And I still remember the night one desperate guy offered me $5. But I also remember the well-dressed lady, who—after a strenuous day at the office, she explained—could only scrounge 83 cents out of her purse. I simply walked away, and I think what she said to my back in Spanish was something about my mother.
Business boomed. I was up to three packs a night, pocketing $42 for just standing around. I was considering a couple employees. Maybe some advertising. Negotiating lower prices with cigarette manufacturers. To spiff up customers service, I included a free match with every sale. And I ended all transactions with "Enjoy!" My brilliant business plan was paying off. Playing lotto, I realized, had been a waste of money.
One old man, grumbling over the cost of things these days while handing me his dollar, had some words of wisdom. "If you had any brains, sonny, you'd go into business."
"Thanks, Pops. I'll keep that in mind."
Night after night I made the rounds of the trolley stations between SDSU and Old Town. But Qualcomm on game days was the gold mine. From halftime on I would lurk in the parking lot under the trolley station with an unlit cigarette in my mouth. Fans leaving the game always spotted me. At one college bowl in early December, I sold 4 packs in three hours. Do the math: that's $18.67 and hour. I could have sold more but I ran out of product. In the end I even sold the soggy cigarette between my lips.
For the final Chargers home game I loaded my backpack with a full carton; ten packs, or 200 cigarettes. Sales were hit and miss until the game ended and the stadium emptied. Then I quickly sold six packs. You're not supposed to count your chickens before they hatch, but I couldn't help touching the roll of bills in my pocket. As the departing crowd thinned I hung around for the stragglers, and managed to sell another pack. My last customers were three guys.
"How's biz?" one asked.
"Not enough to retire, but I ain't complaining." We all laughed at my wit.
They purchased three cigarettes at a dollar each, and watched me add their bills to my fat roll. Then they took the stairs up to the trolley platform.
"Don't forget. You can't smoke up there," I yelled after them, providing a little after sales service, free of charge.
"Don't worry," one yelled back. "We don't smoke." I could have sworn he had a New Jersey accent.
I was thinking about that when all three came back down the stairs five minutes later.
They walked right up to me. "Give us your money."
Caught off guard, I said something stupid. "All of it?"
One smiled. "No," he said with that accent. (Yep, he was from New Jersey.) "Only as much as you want to." Then not smiling. "Of course all of it, you bumpkin."
I did the math—three of them and one of me—and handed over my roll of bills.
"Your cigarettes, too," one said. I reached in my pack and handed him the last of the carton.
"And that pack in your shirt pocket."
And then, in what can only be considered as honor among thieves, he took a cigarette out of the pack and handed it to me. "Here's one for the road," he laughed.
I must have stood shocked for 20 minutes. Late leavers walked by and looked at me curiously. One guy approached and asked if I was the guy with the cigarettes. "No. No, he left already," I mumbled.
Eventually I went up to the platform. I sat on a bench, under a light, stunned, cogitating the sudden turn of fortune. Several trolleys came and went, but I remained seated, staring absently at the ground, oblivious to what was going on around me. At last I looked at the cigarette in my hand, the one the thieves had left me. "My consolation prize," I muttered. I lit it, and took long, pensive drags, exhaling slowly. A shadow came over me, and I looked up.
"You know you're not allowed to smoke on the platform," a very large platform bull said. "See the sign?"
"Oh, sorry officer." I dropped my cigarette in front of me and put it out with my foot. "I guess I didn't see the sign."
"Then you probably didn't see the sign about littering, either," he said, taking out his ticket pad.
So much for my business enterprise. But once I get those fines paid off I'm sure I'll come up with another brilliant plan. In the meantime, it's back to Super Lotto. And I started smoking again, too. So if you want to bum a cigarette off me it's free.
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- Tijuana/San Diego buses #3 — March 21, 2009
- At about ten, everyone was turned away into the rain, mostly to head for bridges under, say, Commercial Street. — Dec. 20, 2007
- Model Smoker — Jan. 17, 2002