The Cigarette Cartel
Every corner of the public bus had been overpowered by the stench of dog fart.
Eyes rolled, and the riders laughed, gagged, and tried to avoid smelling the atrocious assault from the lactose, corn, gluten-intolerant Great Dane. Not like I had choice about his food. Cheap cheeseburgers and the cheapest dog food were on the menu. We were homeless just like everyone on this bus, the DASH circulator bus that runs from downtown Phoenix to around the State Capitol buildings.
All of this area is known to the homeless as the “zone.”
Every thirty minutes or so one of the DASH buses rolls down Jefferson to 12th Avenue. During daylight hours, a crowd of homeless await the DASH.
At the next available stop, the entire crush of homeless vacates the bus leaving only the driver and my friends and one Great Dane. My friends started laughing again, with the one who fed Thor the cheeseburgers still holding his nose and telling Thor, “No more cheese for you!”
The bus operator never even made a face nor a comment.
We exited the bus and headed through the entrance gate to the homeless service center.
“Hand rolled cigarettes, 5 Cents”
I was lucky to have a tight group of friends. There was Tiny (cause he’s not), Jon aka GI Joe (California “nasty girl” National Guard), Tom aka “Pops” (Vietnam Era Air Force Veteran, RIP—he died from methamphetamine-induced heart attack shortly after getting an apartment), the silver-tongued devil Tele-Mark, The “Girls”—Mirria, Kristina (Banana girl), Angel—and of course, Thor the dog.
We all sat at a picnic table crammed into the bench seats while GI, Tiny, and I used hand cigarette rolling machines, filter tubes, and pipe tobacco from the nearest reservation to make homemade cigarettes.
We would roll upwards of two cartons of cigarettes a day and sell them at 5 cents a piece. Usually, after putting money back into buying more supplies, we would average 50 bucks a day. In short order, we became kings of the homeless yard.
Referring to ourselves as the “cigarette cartel,” we eventually invested in an electric rolling machine which seriously increased revenues. Although hiding our business was difficult, we managed to do it when I rewired Tiny’s electric wheelchair with a few extra batteries and an inverter so we could use our moneymaker at the picnic table.
This went on for months and months. The Maricopa Sheriff’s Department has security guards on the grounds of the homeless center, and they would bust our chops regularly about selling cigarettes. They even went as far as banning GI for three days and lying to have my service animal taken away from me (however, he was returned quickly after the lie was discovered).
Eventually they gave up and started buying our $2 /pack deals in regular and menthol, longs and shorts, and packed with different blends of tobacco.
We’d inadvertently become tobacconists.
We hired the girls for rolling and sales. So now our cartel had even more manufacturing and even more pushers on the streets.
At some point we discovered that in the homeless service center proper they would sell you half-price bus passes once a week. But not too many homeless people had money when the passes were available. And many people needed more than one pass a week.
So we stepped in. We would give money to the people to buy passes and would trade them out cigarettes for their efforts. We then became the hub for discount bus passes at the homeless center. We would sell the half price pass to anyone, ID or not, and more than once a week.
Without trying, we had created our own legal tender—cigarettes and bus passes—that now powered a mini-economy free from taxation and draconian rules. What started as a ragtag group friends trying to make few bucks had become become a celebration of free enterprise that empowered poverty-stricken consumers.