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We Need to Start at Home, BTW, Not in Iraq!!
Published on June 5, 2004 By 6969jimbo6969 In Current Events

Gambles and Rambles Among Chance’s Brambles

Mo will make the perfect barkeep when he arrives in Toronto. He’s never tasted the first sip of wine and has no intention of imbibing anything, ever. Islam imparts a lot of discipline. His beautiful wife and “little bird” son are cooing from Canada for him to come to them. But first, he has cash to collect and a few menial skills to add to his capacity with computers and data. Most folks I know whose luck includes a small family fortune are very practical in this fashion. At the opportunity to add another layer of defense against poverty and perdition, the response is automatic. “OK! Free training for bartending? Sign me up!!

His daily schtick at an Uncle’s friend’s convenience store, meanwhile, provides brutal and brilliant insight into the hideous ignorance and falsity that are rampant in the United States just now Eight hours a day, six days a week, from four until midnight, he sits at the chechout counter that sits in a store that sits astride one of Atlanta’s color and cultural and economic boundaries. Gas is a primary purpose of his presence of course, especially as prices have begun to exceed $2/gallon.

But other markets, both formal and informal, have assumed approximately equal weight as petrochemicals. The scene on a Friday and Saturday night, in particular, is surreal and intense, he tells me. The two bazaars that at least occasionally give gasoline competition for first place on the balance sheets are drugs and gambling.

As in most aspects of U.S. life, both a legal and aboveboard and an illicit and underground expression of these activities are present in the heart of suburban Atlanta, a combination of George Bush country and the wildest frontier ever to have existed. A large number of the cars, many of them late model and American-made, sport either the Stars-and-Stripes or the Stars-and-Bars, for example. Still, every possible range and combination of color and ethnicity and language pass through on any given evening as well, and many are the wary eyes, watchful of where the words their ears don’t comprehend originate.

The legal drug trade equals alcohol---mainly dangerously toxic wine cheap enough to appeal to both the callow and ne’er-do-well element, and twelve packs of beer---with cigarettes striking a minor chord, and various ‘legal’ speed, ‘patent medicines,’ and caffeine drinks offering a consistent counterpoint to the larger volume of booze and nicotine. He watches over dozens of instances, of course, every weekend evening, in which high school students and other underaged youth in search of a buzz contract with intermediaries to obtain firewater for their youthful escapades. Some of this takes place under the watchful gaze of Clayton County and State Troopers who regularly wander through on their normal rounds.

“Two, t’ree times since I start working dere,” he laughs, a Trooper made a DUI arrest of some hapless idiot driving drunk out of the parking lot.

A small meth operation, his uncle’s buddy tells him, sells out of the men’s restroom, although Mo’s never seen evidence of it, except in scrawls on the walls and in the stalls. “Trucker’s Friends are available NOW!!! 770-555-1212.” His boss says the lab cooks product at a nearby national apartment chain, gated access and landscaping and short-term corporate rentals mixing with students, new hires at the airport, and different working class families trying to imagine a way out of wage slavery---one of which is a couple with some experience with beakers and bunson burners.

This trade is to the main drug exchange what cigarettes are to legal liquor(‘white lighting’ is available in the parking lot if a passerby times his arrival right, BTW---it’s still Dixie, ya’ll!). The main contraband moneymaker is crack, Mo says to me. I find this difficult to countenance. “Believe me, if I’m telling you. And if you don’t believe, come over any Saturday night.”

Believing what I read, mostly, I ask: “so the buyers are Black?” Mo looks at me levelly with a little grin. “Less than one in ten!”

“Are White, right?”

“No. Listen to me, if I’m not talking right at you.” I smile at this tortured sytax. “Dey are almost all White, da users.” He lets this sink in, we both know the contradiction with the popular image. “Da sellers, DEY are Black dudes,” he laughs hear, a hearty chuckle. “But dey never use it; dey don’t respect people who do.”

“How the hell you know that?” I can imagine the ‘Opium Wars’ karma ready to settle into the entire suburban scene, but doubt his observation.

“No, believe me. Just tonight, a little dude came in. He had four girls. Pretty girls. With him in his car. One of dem was driving!.” White girls, I wonder? “Oh, yeah. And every one of dem? Dey ask for money for dis, dey ask for money for dat. He don’t give dem a nickel; he’s disgusted wit’ dem. He knows it’s all for ‘rock.’ He makes dem pay for his gas.”

“How do you know he was selling crack, Mo?” I still doubt the scene. The upshot of the situation, he explains, is the perfectly legal sale, a huge profit center for the store, of “incense burners,” advertised as “GREAT BARGAINS FOR $9.99.” Mo’s boss buys them for seventy nine cents apiece, and the incense adjoining them at the counter collects dust and finds three or four purchasers a month. Actually, functionally, the burners are crack pipes.

“Every single person who bought an ‘incense burner?’ Dey went to visit his Chevy,” parked by the car wash. A steady stream of girls came into the store to wander and finger merchandise and put their heavily rouged faces close to anything bright and wiggle slender assets barely covered in front of my handsome friend, while the incense holder’s new owner took the seat recently warmed by the wayward winsome lass, whose nervous fingers wandered over any trinket bright enough to attract a feverish eye, the only glances that lingered resting on Mo or the signs for all the herbal and less-than-Meth-Amphetamines.

After three hours of this, with the most recent burner buyer waddling out to take his seat at the bargain counter in the Chevrolet, “da little Black dude honks da horn t’ree times” and his wastrel womanly chauffer pulls around by the pumps next to 19/41---leaving the tubby crack buyer turning distressed circles in the parking lot---where the high-heeled, made up wobbler, recently ogling Mo, resumes her seat before they all leave together in quite a hurry. “Da Police were dere two minutes later,” noted Mo.

While the social impact and political implications of all these ways of packaging consciousness modification are extremely interesting---suburban CRACK! for goodness’ sake---the economic impact of the lottery, on this recent evening of real-world American commerce, swamps the other matters we are observing. Four or five thousand dollars in a shift are not unusual, more if a big jackpot is looming.

The smaller games, “scratch-and-sniff” Mo calls them, are overwhelmingly the choice of Blacks and Latins, whose sweat-grimed faces and dirt-caked fingers circumscribe the front lines of the ‘service economy.’ Weekly regulars commonly put ten to twenty dollars of a paycheck into the potential for a relatively big, and immediate, payoff. Non-gated apartments the opposite direction from the national chain await them, win or lose. Obviously, the chump’s odds are ineluctable, and most always the hopeful leave their money behind.

When a big-jackpot draw approaches, on the other hand, especially one that has not produced a winner for several weeks, the “suits and ties, nice shoes” and Whiter faces of the fabled American Middle Class come to the lotto counter for a ticket or two or ten. The actual odds almost NEVER really favor the bettor(although exceptions do exist), but “’it’s close enough for government work,‘ dey say,” according to Mo.

The fantasy may be worth the loss of equity---an escape from the hateful and hated work place such a delicious prospect that rationality and discipline make a hasty exit, right before the hopeful buyer pushes through the door, counting the ways he might spend the fortune as a Catholic considers God’s blessings on a rosary. What does it say that people loathe so much the jobs, which are the basis for much of what Americans value about their country? Mo tells me of a recent “Mega-Money” miracle in Virginia, worth $30 million(after all deductions, taxes, and fees, between $5 and 8 million)from which the Pakistani winner took the money and returned to Karachi within the month.

I also find fascinating that almost every jurisdiction now allows ‘games,’ which have such viciously predatory odds, that not one State in the nation would accept these precise ventures, if they existed as loans with comparably extortionate interest rates At the very same time, if I invited friends over to play poker, backgammon, chess, or bridge for lucre, and we bet regularly and high enough, the lot of us would be felons, even if we all paid every dime in taxes on our winnings. In such a light, Vegas, and the mob bosses’ numbers rackets, look like friendly fronts for entertainment, for which we pay a modest ‘rake’ of our ‘money at risk.’

Thus, the poker machines, with their Dolby Casino soundtracks, high-resolution graphics, and interspersed barking from the embedded ‘dealer’ in the program---of which there are four at the store---are a fitting accompaniment to the rest of this bizarre bazaar of contemporary capitalism. Legally, no payout is permissible to folks who play the machines. “Da regulars know better, tho,” notes Mo.

These consistent partrons “always have resources,” Mo continues. “Dey are never de bums,” who might wander in to play a few hands for a dollar. My buddy doesn’t know the arrangement the ‘regulars’ have made with his boss, but once a week at least, following a protocol that the owner has explained as a simple one-piece-of-paper-for-a-stack-of-money deal, Mo will open the safe he supposedly cannot access and remove precounted bundles of between one and five thousand dollars.

Islam insulates against gambling about as well as against alcohol, so Mo has never tried to puzzle out the rules of the games going on here. He does recognize the players who come in with hundreds of dollars in cash and ask for my friend to turn a special key that activates a different program in the machine. Perhaps a ‘World Series of Poker’ style tournament comes into play. In any case, the machine itself continues to make the smaller payouts, as appropriate, until---generally---the customer loses everything, or---very infrequently---a competitor wins a big pay-day.

“Dis plumber, he comes in on my shift; he likes me and t’inks I make him luck. De other night, I saw he had many hundreds of dollars to start,” but as the hours advanced toward the finish of Mo’s shift, from when the beefy tradesman started at sunset, “he lost everyt’ing I could see how he sweated, like he was sick with fever,” said Mo. When the seemingly inevitable end of such a streak transpired, “he went to his car, rooting for change like an animal,” then proceeded to pick up discarded lotto tickets looking for uncashed free plays and other small outlays due.

“I told him, when I was about to leave, I said, ‘Here buddy! Take dis,” and gave him $10. Before I left, no more dan two, t’ree minutes later,” he ran up to Mo at his car window and tried to give him a $20 “tip.” He’d just won a two hundred dollar hand with the loaned ‘chips.’ “I never take the tips.” My friend’s impassive face was neither judgemental nor righteous, just clear. “Never,” he concluded, anticipating my question to confirm this.

What Mo described to me was only a part of the wild and weird scene his stoic Muslim visage countenances, more or less on each shift he works. Prostitution, teens on the prowl for all sorts of things---some of them clearly living hand-to-mouth on their own, hideously and hilariously abusive family interactions, these kinds of interactions and others, are also worthy of note. Convenience stores are not a huge part of the GNP, obviously. This vignette, in and of itself, merely describes a little bit of the color and action and social context of various legal and illegal business dealings, to which most of us, to say the least, rarely give any notice or thought.

Analytical thinking and policy pondering about this manner of seamy commerce, much of it underhanded and undocumented, is definitely possible and plausibly useful. My contention, however, is that such serious assessment and debate is impossible until we affirm and define the existence of the whole scene: hence this essay. As just one example of how this millieu might lead an observer to take a different tack than current procedures follow, one might think about gambling.

The only way to keep the lottery, for instance, from being a fraud that consistenly robs the poor to pay for the education of ‘middle class’ kids, is to return a massive amount of equity to the lotto. This, in turn, is only plausible if there are many billions of dollars additional for schools and universities, which is practically impossible as the military and prisons and police--- and other corporate welfare packaged as “security” of one sort or another---gobble up such increasingly large amounts of government budgets, that the total share of big-business giveaways approximates a hundred per cent of our purportedly collective expenditure of civic treasure. There’s only one way out of this grim conundrum.

It’s called democracy, as in the Leonard Cohen song of the same title, which has the ironic subtitle, “ the U.S.A.!”
“It’s coming from a hole in the air;
From those nights in Tianamen Square;
From the war against disorder;
From the sirens night and day;
From the fires of the homeless,
and the ashes of the gay!
Democracy is the U.S.A.!”
How do we contribute to this phenomena? Or does it take care of itself? I’m of the opinion we all need to witness and act, if what Cohen later calls the irresistible “Lunar Sway” of the pulse of democracy, an “amorous array” that we can no more stop than we can package, is to come to pass. Once again, then, “THAT’S MY STORY, AND I’M STICKING TO IT!!”

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