On the surface, this will appear to be a simple and personal story. The lessons, however, apply to the larger story that is going on now with the financial meltdown. Sit back and enjoy.
Back in my earliest college days out in the Midwest, I met a 2nd cousin for the first time when I was barely 18. I'll call him Gerald. He's three years older than me.
Gerald was both handsome and slick. Lemme tell you how slick this brotha was. For one, he mainly had white friends and only white girlfriends. I thought that maybe he just really liked white people and wished he was one himself.
Nah. That wasn't the case. He liked everybody, but he mainly liked comfortable living. In this small city, black folks didn't live nearly as well as white folks. They didn't have the generational wealth passed down to them by inheritance, or the easier job opportunities. Many had never been to any of the two colleges and university right there in town. Not a single black in my school came from there; most were middle class or had scholarships and came from the larger cities further away.
If Gerald ever took a few college classes, I can't recall him talking about this. He was an only child, raised only by his mother because his father, my 1st cousin, died when he was young. They were marginally working class and had little.
But Gerald had some special gifts to compensate for this - cunning, charisma, and sexual magnetism. His character defects is what tripped him up. Had he been doing today what he did back then, he might still be in jail.
Bro loved money, sex, and weed, in that order. All are related to pleasure and comfort, in case you didn't notice. Maybe this is because he had so damn little of it as a child, so as an adult, he pursued things that made him feel good.
Giving up his time to do something productive, like applying for a school loan, going to classes, doing all that homework, was not a sacrifice he was willing to make. I don't think the word 'sacrifice' was in his vocabulary unless he was persuading someone to sacrifice something for him. Oh yeah, he was slick.
Gerald almost suckered me out of $500 in the first few weeks I was in college. That doesn't sound like much now, but back then, it was equivalent to a lot more, maybe $1,500. Keep this in mind.
Nigga begged me to loan him my clothing and pizza allowance that my father gave me for the school year.
"I have some friends who have a great reefer," he said with his killer smile. "I can triple my return on it in days. Loan me the money, and you'll double your investment. You'll walk away with your original investment and an extra $500, and so will I."
"How much are you buying?"
"Five hundred dollars worth."
"You're not putting up anything?"
"Not this time. I have some bills to pay."
"Uh, I don't know," I said. "We could go to jail."
"That won't happen," he replied convincingly. "Trust me. I've done this before, lots of times. I've never been arrested. The police don't care about white kids smoking reefer. If I got caught, they'd get caught. They don't want that."
"I'll think about it."
I thought about his friends. Bunch of white hippie potheads for the most part. He had one black male friend in med school who had a white girlfriend. Everyone was very nice and liked to party.
That night I called him and said I wasn't ready to venture into those waters.
"That's fine," he said. "I've already lined up another investor. I'll be celebrating tomorrow night."
My cousin had a knack for making drug dealing sound professional. I was jealous of the easy money and wondered if I hadn't made a big mistake. Like a shark, he could smell my unspoken regret and greed.
"I might be able to get you in on the next deal," he offered. "Hang onto your money, okay?"
With that one word, okay, the deal was struck.
He was the broker. I was the investor. He would put up none of his own money, but be rewarded with a huge cut. Finding buyers was virtually guaranteed. Unless he snitched, most of the risk would be his. He'd been doing this for quite some time. Had no job, but had a comfortably furnished two bedroom apartment, nice clothes, and convertible.
In my young eyes, he was amazing, if not dazzling. Anyone who can easily acquire money usually is. I drove over to his crib the next afternoon in the old car my daddy had loaned me. I planned to let him know that I was most definitely in on the next deal.
Luck rode with me on that visit.
I knocked on his door. No answer. I could hear music on the other side, but no voices. As family, I was comfortable in trying the door knob and walking in. It turned easily and I stepped into his apartment.
"Gerald?", I said, not seeing anyone at a glance. "Gerald?"
I walked down the hallway to check the bedrooms and bathroom. Empty. No one was home. Maybe he had stepped out to visit a neighbor in another unit.
I walked back to the living room to take a seat on the sofa. That's when I saw it. Bags and bags and bags of marijuana covered the coffee table. I couldn't believe he left his door unlocked with all this shit out in the open.
There is no loyalty among the greedy or the dishonest. I had unexpectedly wandered into this new world, and was surprised at my own thought: I could walk away with his shit and sell it to the kids I had met on campus.
The thought surprised me. I had never stolen anything from a friend. In fact, the only thing I had stolen were candy bars once in awhile until I stopped in 4th grade after a store owner caught me. He said nothing, and had only stared at me with surprise and then sadness. I felt ashamed and didn't do it again.
Somehow this situation was very different. My mind quickly rationalized that since Gerald was breaking the law by getting the reefer (that's what we called it back then in that area), then I could be dishonest and take it from him. It didn't occur to me that if he hadn't paid his 'investor', he could get hurt or killed.
All of these thoughts of being an opportunistic criminal and preying on my own damn cousin took place in 60 seconds or less.
The phone rang. I ignored it and kept thinking, but it kept ringing. Stupidity and grace made me answer it.
"Hello," replied the worried voice of middle-aged white woman. "Is Peggy there?"
"No one by that name lives here," I said.
"I know that," she said quickly and tearfully. "I'm her mother. I know she's been over there every day with that Gerald fellow. I know she's using drugs and drinking and not going to school or anything. Please put her on the phone, I'm begging you!"
I had been over to Gerald's place several times and knew he was sleeping with a bunch of girls. This was the era of free love, black light posters, smoky rooms, beer and chips and pizza and rock music, and even LSD. The only thing I liked was the pizza, posters, and lights on evenings when I was bored or tired of studying at my dorm.
"No one is here now," I said, "and I don't know your daughter."
"I think she's using LSD, too," her mama cried.
"I've never heard of anyone doing that here," I said. "I'll write down a message that you called, okay? I don't know if she'll see it because I don't know her."
"She's a good girl," her mother weeped. "Please, please, tell her to come home. We love her. We don't want to see her throw her life away!"
"Maybe I should call the police," she said.
Oh shit, I thought, looking at all the marijuana on the table.
"I really will leave her your message," I said. "I'll make sure she gets it. She's probably more likely to want to come on her own than in a police car, if you know what I mean."
"Yes, that's probably true," she agreed. "Thank you, and don't forget!"
I hung up, in shock. It had been like the phone call from ghost of the future, warning me of what could happen to me I became a player of this game... playing the law, the system, even my own cousin, all because of my heart discovered Greed. The words and tears of that woman could come from my parents if I took this road.
My eyes swept the coffee table again. The temptation was gone. I left, but even as I walked to my car, Greed whispered in my ear again, trying to seduce me.
"No one is around," Greed said. "Go back in. At least take some. Think of all the extra things you can buy."
I hesitated a few seconds.
"Nuh uh," I answered.
I got in my car and drove back to my dorm.
That evening Gerald called me. I could hear the music and laughter in the background. The party was on.
"You should come over," he said. "Great party."
"Thanks, but I'm studying," I said. "I came by earlier. Why'd you leave your door unlocked? Anyone could have walked in and ripped you off."
"No one would do that to me," he said confidently.
That's when I realized he was incredibly stupid in his judgment. If I was stopped only by a phone call from ripping him off, anyone would. If that mother had decided to call the cops and they walked in, his black ass would be sitting in the county jail. I sure wasn't going to bail him out.
"Some lady called too and is really upset. She's ready to call the police if her daughter Peggy doesn't come home."
"Hmmm. I take care of it."
I'm sure Peggy got a ride home that evening.
Now, the thing is, Gerald was under the correct impression that we had struck a deal from the 'okay'. He called me a few times during the next week, and each time I was distant and didn't 'have the time' to drop over his place. Suddenly I was getting a glimpse of another side of him.
"I'm in the lobby," he said less than ten days later. "Come on down. I need to talk to you."
"Oh darn," I faked, "I'm cramming for a test."
"We'll go for a drive and I'll have you back in an hour."
"Alright," I sighed, thinking that I couldn't avoid him forever.
Once in his car, he laid on that killer smile. "Why you been ducking me?", he asked.
I shook my head in denial. "Just been busy with school," I said.
He hit the back roads and began driving like a maniac.
"Slow down!" I yelled. "You're scaring me!"
I saw a horrible car accident as a child, and from that day on have been terrified of being in or near a speeding car.
He laughed and ignored this, and took death curves on the road that nearly brought me to tears. He finally pulled over in a remote area.
"Look," he said. "I need that money. Today, no later than tomorrow."
"You just made a bunch of money last week!", I yelled. "I know you did because I saw all of that marijuana myself! What happened to all of that?"
"Gone? How the hell is it gone so soon? That was a small fortune!"
"I had bills to pay."
Something about his eyes didn't look right. I didn't know the signs of cocaine back then, but in hindsight, I'd venture a guess that he was a cokehead.
"Well, I'm out," I said. "I thought about it. I'm sorry. I can't do it. I don't want the risks or that kind of life. You'll need to call someone else, maybe your last, uh, investor."
He glared at me hard. I looked out the window.
Suddenly he reached across me and unlocked his glove compartment. He removed a large, ugly gun. I wasn't terrified, but I was scared.
"Wh-wh-what's that for?", I stammered.
"I need the money," he growled. "If I don't get it, people will come after me."
I breathed a little sigh of relief. He was trying to intimidate me, but at least he didn't plan to kill me... I hoped. As I said earlier, I just met my second cousin for the first time only a few weeks earlier and realized I didn't know him well, even though he's family.
"Well I can't help you," I said. "Daddy will come after me if something goes wrong and I lose it all."
My father used to visit all of his relatives every other year. Gerald knew him well enough that he knew my dad - his great uncle, loved money as much as he did. My father was legit, but he had the reputation of being a hard-eyed businessman, even with family. He'd haul your azz into court if you tried to screw him out of a dollar on a real estate deal, which was something he dabbled in. I could see Gerald thinking about this.
I said, "Maybe you should stop dealing and get a job or go to school. It's not like you're stupid."
"Tsk. Ain't no good jobs for black men."
"Then go to college. Daddy did, my brother did. They're doing fine. Or trade in your car for a truck like uncle Lou did. He got rich and ended up with a whole bunch of 'em and a good business. You can too, and you won't need a gun."
He put it away and drove me back to my dorm.
In the meantime, I met another cousin through an aunt. This girl, like me, was gorgeous, but she had a serious drug problem.
"I can't get out of bed in the morning without lighting a joint," she said.
"I never heard of that," I replied.
I learned she drank and used pills, probably speed. Most of my Midwest kin was doing fine, but those like her and Gerald who were raised poor weren't doing well. Their greatest poverty was not the lack of money, but their lack of dreams.
They simply didn't believe that the formula of going to college would guarantee them success. In their depression over feeling that being black and poor would keep them down forever, they sought relief from a lifestyle devoted to pleasure. I wasn't sophisticated enough to think like this at the time, but it clicked later as I got older and began a social work career. Poverty is a bitch in too many ways to count.
"Have you heard from Gerald lately?", I asked her. "Last time I did, he was having problems."
"Oh, that," she said. "He's doing fine. Real good in fact."
She filled me in. Gerald's credit with the bigger dealers had gone bad. He was unable to pay back his loans because he mismanaged and abused the trust they had in him.
He needed a bailout. He talked another dealer on his level into merging their business and clients together. Then they could expand and even do better.
Greed whispered in that guy's ear. The two of them worked as badly together as they had individually, because the way they did business was fucked up.
Like the stock market and financial institutions, these two dealers could always get plenty of clients. This is because a lot of people are as addicted to drugs as they are to money. Both bring pleasure and comfort.
Gerald and his partner were reckless. His buddy got busted.
Was Gerald worried? No. He ain't never put all his eggs in one basket. He had friends, and white friends with money at that.
The next time I heard about him was from his grandmother.
"You hear about Gerald?", she asked.
"No. What happened?"
"Read the paper today."
Gerald, broke again, did something the U.S. Government is currently trying to do to escape it's money woes: he hooked up with very slick guys who had made or got hold of a counterfeiting machine, and they were printing up their own money.
I've met a lot of people who committed a wide range of crimes, but to date, he's the only person I've ever known who did this.
My walking away that day from temptation of selling drugs was easy, compared to the temptation of having your own money machine. I honestly think I'd have been right there beside him in the money printing business if that 'investment' had been offered to me.
It also wouldn't surprise me if he set up his business partner to get busted so he could walk off with a bunch of cash to invest in the counterfeiting business. There is no honor among thieves, whether in the drug business or any other kind, so thus, had I been involved with him, I might have gone down on the drug level or later, the counterfeiting level.
Currently the US Treasury, if I understand it correctly, will have to print up more money since the US Government is broke. This is legal, but other countries are beginning to play the role of the feds by busting us. They can't arrest us, but they can stop doing business with us. They've been trying to detach their economies from ours and our dollar, but now no longer have to be sneaky or covert about it.
We and our bubble have been busted. Our prison will be called National Poverty when the Great Depression II sinks in. How will we escape this?
My cousin Gerald tried to escape prison when he went to court. He laid his charm on the judge. Pointed out that he was only 21, had no police record, and didn't understand himself how he got involved in that situation. If given a chance, he'd enlist and serve in Vietnam.
"I'd rather die for my country than rot in jail."
The judge liked this. War was the answer.
This was the last year or two that our soldiers were in Vietnam. Over a million Vietnamese lost their lives. Over 58,000 Americans died there and tens of thousands more returned physically and/or psychologically disabled.
I've often wondered if the judge agreed so easily to send him there, thinking that it would really help Gerald to mature while in the service, or if he figured he'd die there and would be one less nigga making trouble in town.
In my first visit to the Vietnam Memorial in the 1980s, I studied the wall.
My eyes swept across all of those names. I wondered about all of those lives. Flowers and letters and personal items from visiting families and friends who had lost love ones adorned the ground.
There was one name not on the wall.
Gerald, my slick young cuz, has always landed on his feet. The Lord must have been watching over him. The con man returned a new man. As such, he went legit, learned a trade, and married a young woman he met in Germany.
His eyes had seen what real hardship was in an unnecessary man-made hell across the sea. Once there, Gerald learned how to work as genuine part of team - not a pseudo partner with his own agenda to get over. He survived in a place and time where injuries and death were the norm, and everyone depended on each other to survive from one day to the next. He learned that his out of control greed led to an out of control life, and a damned dangerous one at that.
His life, the life of one young black male, is but a microcosm of the larger world. All that happened to him, and his nearly losing everything from his freedom to his life, finally woke his azz up.
What will it take to wake up the men in suits and ties who run Wall Street and Congress, and, have they finally learned to listen harder to voice of Consequence, rather than Greed, when it whispers in their ears?