When I was just out of my teens I hit the road, wanting to see all the great places I had read about, or heard about. What I hadn’t heard was that a lot of motels won’t rent rooms to anyone under 21, most places won’t hire people without a permanent address, and most things you would never think about are illegal. It didn’t take long before I was homeless in the great city of New Orleans. For a lot of people I met, that was the end of their story. It very well could have been mine as well if it were not for a chance encounter in the line of the Salvation Army Men’s Shelter. The going rate for a cigarette was one for a quarter or two for a bus token. Unlike Eric Garner, selling singles saved my life.
Each morning a private charity on Broad St in New Orleans gave out two bus tokens to anyone who wanted them, each token was worth one dollar. I was young, clean cut, and personable; it wasn’t hard for me to sell them for seventy-five cents to anyone standing at a bus stop. That first day after finding out about the “illegal” black market price of cigarettes I went down and collected my tokens, promptly selling them. I went back, not to try to trick them into giving me more, but to offer to buy tokens from people who might not be able to approach strangers as easily as I could. I offered them fifty cents per token, and quickly bought three more. I walked towards the Central Business District, selling my tokens, and checking cigarette prices.
I found a market by Lee Circle that sold a brand of cigarettes known as Broncos for just under two dollars a pack, two dollars seventeen cents after tax. While I might have sold them for a flat fee, taxes were paid on those cigarettes. I made my way to a shelter close to the CBD that served lunch and stood outside selling cigarettes for the going rate, the pack went quickly. In my pocket I now had three dollars, and four bus tokens. It took me about twenty minutes to off load the tokens, now I had six dollars.
Responding to market demand I returned with a pack of full flavor regulars and a pack of full flavor menthols. As word spread that I was more than happy to take bus tokens I sold out to the after lunch crowd in short order. Now I had three dollars and seventy-five cents plus 12 bus tokens (I smoked one myself). As I wandered around looking for bus token customers I found the intersection of Loyola and Tulane, constant bus traffic.
Within a week I had regular customers for both cigarettes and bus tokens, I was now buying cigarettes by the cartoon for a savings, and changing the market rates. I now offered five cigarettes for two tokens, and seven dollars for ten tokens. Within a month I had an apartment and a normal job.
You could say I exploited a charity. The purpose of the tokens was to find work, which in a roundabout way they did. Without an apartment and a phone, no amount of traveling to fill out applications was going to get me employed. You could say I was no better than a beggar because I was taking money from beggars. I can’t think of a business out there that asks its customers where they get their money from. I believe in privacy rights, so it wasn’t my business to know where their money came from. I doubt people were committing crimes to buy twenty-five cent cigarettes, so I slept easy. (As easy as one can under a bridge.)
You can without question say I was a criminal. I never sold cigarettes to little kids, but I didn’t ID people either. I figured if the system cares so little for you as to leave you on the streets, it really has no say in what you put into your body. Of legal age or not, taxes paid or not, selling single cigarettes is a crime almost anywhere you go. I never thought of the legality of it. When I was a kid a lot of places did it and I never questioned why they quit.
My story didn’t end in tragedy, it didn’t end in my death. I used the free market to quickly bring myself out of poverty, and I did get to travel the country as well as a few parts of the world. Today I am a thirty four year old Uber driver about to build my own tiny house, I guess you could say I will always be an outlaw.