Readings — From the February 2019 issue

Opportunity Cost

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From Survival Math, which will be published in March by Scribner. Jackson is an associate professor of writing at New York University and the author of The Residue Years. He won a 2016 Whiting Award in fiction.

What the fuck we gon’ do now? That was the question top of mind that summer of ’93, a summer we—the “we” being me and the brother who out of love I’m calling Brother A—were the newest alumni of Jefferson High School, known as the School of Champions and, so it seemed at that time, a school of fledgling dope dealers. What we gonna do? The most attractive answer was make some loot, make some major loot if we could, and with that goal in mind we’d gotten our hands on a few ounces of powder, or what we hoped was powder cocaine since as neophytes neither of us could be sure it was. Neither of us knew how to cook it either, which was no low hurdle. We needed a tutor, needed a tutor quick, fast, with the hurry-up, but our options were hella finite because both of us were sans a Rolodex of dudes who knew how to chef. Because, directory or not, we couldn’t just call up any dude. Because we needed somebody who wasn’t an outright competitor, who we believed we could trust, who was down for a tutorial, and who wouldn’t tax our light pockets too tough for the tutelage. We mused candidates. We resolved our safest bet was to recruit one of our kith, and who better, or so we believed, than Uncle Henry. Uncle Henry, our ex-pimp, ex–drug-kingpin of an elder. Uncle Henry, who had long ago fallen from the glories of his “Stateside Hank” days, had a legend that remained aloft in our impressionable minds. (No pseudonym for my uncle, and trust me when I tell you, he prefers it that way.)

We found him at his brother Jesse’s apartment, which was just a block or so from Jefferson High. Brother A and me hopped out my hooptie and scrambled up to Uncle Jesse’s crib. Uncle Henry answered and let us in and asked us what was up, and we told him. He said he could show us how to chef, could hip us on how to sell it too. He bragged that in the blink of an eye he could shepherd us to making more scratch than we’d know how to spend, promised sage mentorship for the nominal fee of a few pieces of our dope—whether he’d sell it or smoke it we didn’t dare ask. We obliged, of course. We were green, but not so naïve that we thought we could negotiate.

Maybe Unc sent us to a corner store to fetch baking soda and plastic baggies; maybe he had supplies on hand. Whatever the case, Uncle Jesse’s crib was dank and decked with furniture he might’ve had since his and Uncle Henry’s heyday, and soon enough, Brother A and me were sitting around a rickety kitchen table while Uncle Jesse sat across from us in a worn recliner snoring loud as an appliance, and Uncle Henry, as best he could, schooled us on how to rock our powder, a recipe, by the way, that I wouldn’t pick up for a good long while. He cooked it over a stove, and meanwhile warned us against stretching our dope because by his measure the better product always won. The rest of what he said while hovering over that pot remains hazy, but I’ll remember until I’m dust the sound of the water boiling and the dope’s fragrance. Unc finished and pinched his payment and set us to the task of cutting and packaging our product. We might have had a scale. We might’ve eyeballed it. In either case, we got it packaged and got our mess cleaned up and followed Uncle Henry across Albina Avenue to a house that wasn’t exactly a dope house, but it wasn’t exactly not one either. We sat on the porch and watched cars scroll by beneath a benevolent sun, our pockets weighted with blond pebbles tied off in baggies, our breasts nursing the silent hope that a lick would show and we could commence clocking the double-up profit we so craved. Sometime that afternoon Uncle Henry got to sermonizing. “Take all money,” he said. “I don’t care if somebody come up to you trying to buy a five piece and all they got is a paper sack full of nickels. If them nickels add up to five dollars, you take it.” Unc hopped off the porch and stood before us in his shirt and slacks, a little sweat donning his brow, his hooknose flaring. “Look here, nephews,” he said. “The fast ten beats the slow twenty. You understand? While you waiting around all day for twenty bucks, you coulda made ten bucks umpteen times. And them tens add up, trust me. The fast ten beats the slow twenty every time. Every. Time.”

Hustle, metathesized from the Dutch hutselen, which meant “to shake, to toss,” entered English usage in the 1680s by way of “hustle-cap,” a game of pitch-and-toss in which coins are shaken in a cap. By 1840s America, hustle had evolved to mean “to get in a quick, illegal manner.” It took a few more decades for hustle to transform from a verb to a noun, from what one does to who one is—an evolution that makes perfect sense to me given the heed of the old heads: “Don’t talk about it; be about it.” Per the etymologists, hustler, as in, “one energetic in business,” entered mainstream usage—I’d bet the bank-certified hustlers were using it well before the squares—around 1884.

In the forty-odd years between hustle the verb and hustler the noun, old Abe begrudged an un-United States what might be its most historic event: the emancipation of 4 million slaves. Also during hustle’s etymological metamorphosis, one of America’s most famous former slaves was a featured speaker at the centennial anniversary of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. In his speech that April of 1875, the great Frederick Douglass declared this:

The world has never seen any people turned loose to such destitution as were the four million slaves of the South. The old roof was pulled down over their heads, before they could make for themselves a shelter. They were free; free to hunger, free to the winds and rains of heaven; free to the pitiless wrath of the enraged master . . . . They were free, without roofs to cover them, or bread to eat, or land to cultivate, and as a consequence died in such numbers as to awaken the hope of their enemies that they would soon disappear. We gave them freedom and famine at the same time.

Douglass’s dialectic is a bridge to this theory: the treacherous conditions (the hunger, homelessness, joblessness, lawlessness) that those 4 million manumitted humans faced compelled the first hustlers into being—those for whom the word was both who they were and what they did. Those first-generation hustlers had been born in
bondage, but believe me when I tell you, Reconstruction begot them.

The hustler is not—with heavy emphasis on the not—a scrambler. A scrambler is reactionary, impulsive, myopic. A scrambler is never not living moment to moment, never not losing days to the near-constant motion of dodging one unmerciful outcome after the next, never not chasing funds insufficient in sustaining them. See a scrambler on the street and make the mistake of asking, What it do? “Doin’ bad out here, boss,” they’ll say. “Let me hold somethin’.”

The hustler is also not—emphasis again on the not—a mere survivalist. The chief concern of a survivalist is subsisting from one period to the next—be it a day, a week, a month. The survivalist is so consumed with that subsisting that they never mature a vision that might transform their circumstances or at the least alter them in some significant way. Know a survivalist by their nearsighted-ass half-hustles: indefinite curb–serving, burgling apartments for petty shit, spending interminable seasons selling nickel-, dime-, and twenty-sacks of bunk weed. On occasion what thwarts a survivalist (this was me; oh, was this me) is the need to feel and look the part of a hustler before, if ever, reaching that rare status, a fault that leads to them blowing the ends they need for a true come-up on gear and kicks, on customized car you-name-it, on bejeweling themselves and other high-sightin’ tools. See a survivalist on the street, ask what’s up, and they’re liable to say, “Maintaining.” In the worst of times, that maintaining looks a lot like scrambling. In the best of times, it’s tough to tell a survivalist from an authentic hustler.

The real live hustler is—emphasis on is—at heart a transcendentalist, by which I mean at some point they gaze out at the world borne upon them and see beyond the moment, beyond the day, beyond the week, beyond the month, by which I mean they envision a future in which they’ve transcended their station. Hustlers, ever optimistic, ever ambitious, see themselves as the catalyst for that transcendence, though I don’t know one who’d use a word like transcendence, it being the diction of squares. The come-up, getting to it, making a way where there was no way—that’s what a hustler says, and there’s no higher feeling than that ascent, than that time in their maturation that most demands acuity, prudence, discretion, discipline, thrift. Hustlers, the ones who persist, mind doctrine meant to keep them alive, out of prison, prospering. Hustlers treat their underworld business as if it’s aboveboard. For a true hustler, there can be no such thing as half-hustling. The true hustler strategizes, intuits when to forsake the short-term for long-term, learns the rules of their enterprise, studies those who previously plied the same hustle.Wise hustlers heed the detriment of making decisions under duress and therefore keep their emotions in check. Munificent hustlers warn their mentees, foolish is the perennial apprentice—aka a long-term, small-time survivalist—that, after a certain point, if they ain’t came up, the come-up ain’t in them.

While fast ten, slow twenty is a worthwhile lesson for a would-be hustler, it also reminds us that our hustle is often fleeting, fleeting. It persuades us to favor impulse and treat patience as a handicap. It indoctrinates us to judge hard labor anathema, to deem those who work nine-to- fives as suckers, lames, squares. In practice, it exposes us to the jeopardy of contact with more customers. Fast ten, slow twenty is a dictum that breeds recklessness in damn near every other aspect of our lives.

But ye unanointed jurists, be forewarned: it’s wise to adjourn judgment.

Fast ten, slow twenty is a boon for those who, for seasons, have ducked and dodged holiday dinners at our grandmama’s houses for fear of being forced to admit to a brother or sister or uncle or aunt or first, second, third cousin that we’re short on the few funky dollars we borrowed back who-knows-when. Fast ten, slow twenty is grace when we’ve known the shame of running into a homeboy on the street and having to admit we ain’t got a buck of the much dollars we borrowed yesteryear, that we won’t have nary a red cent of the debt till next payday soonest or, if we’re jobless, until our woman’s welfare check or our SSI check or our disability benefits or—praise, praise—our refund or settlement check hits the mailbox. It’s appealing to the apex after umpteen odysseys to an unemployment office to scout job after job after job after job, every one of which asks for a high school diploma when our school days ceased in tenth grade and the most we can offer is an alternative-school GED or a certificate from a trade program or Job Corps. It beguiles like little else when we’ve been bumming rides from friends and/or fare dodging on the light-rail or bus or suffering the soul-stomp of hoofing blocks in a city where the rain falls for what sometimes seems endless. Soon not hustling seems less of an option; soon enough, we’re boxed, or believe ourselves so, into trying our damnedest to wrest a life from the want bequeathed us—into chasing dinero, stacks, bands, bankrolls, C-notes, cake, cheddar, ducats, cheese, chips, scratch, feddy, dough, skrilla, large, green, guap, paper, cabbage, Fritos, spinach, lettuce, moola, bread, dividends; into following neoapostles who preach, “cash rules everything around me,” “get it how you live,” “get it from the curb,” “favor not them slow twenties over fast tens.”

And for those who succeed—the dream: a gold presidential Rolex, a herringbone thick as a wrist, a Jesus pendant the size of Jesus, chains made of diamond solitaires, wrists stacked with Gucci link bracelets, a megacarat pinkie ring. Stunna shades and silks and furs and reptilian kicks, and wool fedoras and cashmere sweaters and velvet sweats and bespoke suits and belts, wallets, luggage made of monogrammed canvas. Plus illuming around our city in an old–school customized in chameleon paint or a Cadillac on Trues & Vogues or a Benz, Beemer, or Acura on deep-dish chrome, or a Range Rover with TVs in the seats and a fifth wheel, or a Lexus with the premium package and a sunroof, or a drop-top Porsche or Jaguar, or for our get-money heroes, a Lamborghini or Ferrari buffed bright as a summer solstice. Plus flaunting our abundant liquid worth on dice, dominoes, or spades bets.

We believe fast ten, slow twenty will lift us off our knees, turn our meagerness into a muchness. Listen—and hear it imploring us to get all we can while we can, ’cause ain’t a spicule more promised to none of us, because should we endure, soon, sooner, the Keepers or their instruments will come to seize what we’ve earned by the scant means begrudged us, intent on repossessing our fresh freedom. If, that is, we ever had freedom to begin with.

Liberation is at the heart of philosopher Paulo Freire’s essay “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” Freire explains the “banking” concept as a pedagogy in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” He explains that the teacher fills the student with information, and the student’s job is to record, memorize, and recall that information. Freire argues that this kind of teaching transforms students into receiving objects; that it discourages them from thinking; that it promotes the static, dichotomous roles of teacher-of-student and student-of-teacher; and that it submerges the consciousness and creates students that are dehumanized, which should be of major concern since, as he claims, our life’s objective is to become more human, since, as he sees it, authentic liberation is the processes of people taking action upon their world. He contends the banking concept interposes that evolution, and so maintains circumstances that allow oppression to flourish.

In the mid-Nineties, fast ten, slow twenty seemed like a maxim to help me eke out some autonomy. But these years later, despite its potential yield, I see it for what it inevitably, invariably, indubitably becomes: yet another pedagogy to keep us adherents oppressed. Fast ten is, in the end, a tool of the oppressor, not the oppressed, because it goads us into perceiving customers as little more than units of capital, and dupes us into believing, despite ample oppositional evidence, that the promise of short-term riches could be worth the almost assured endless consequences; fast ten, slow twenty is, after all, oppressive because, for a hustler to realize its greatest reward, he must sacrifice what Freire argues is a life’s project.

Fast ten, slow twenty is an economic theory of us disenfranchised. At its nexus, it supposes the economy (read: American capitalism) is rigged against us and that the fate of our liberation is seizing fiscal sovereignty from the Keepers and their instruments. There’s little doubt to me that Uncle Henry considered himself a capitalist, believed himself an entrepreneur following a doctrine not much different from the millionaires and billionaires who white-market-enterprise their way onto the Forbes 400 list, or the handful of rappers who harvest from their expertise in hustling a livelihood replete with the spoils of New Negro ascendance. The case has been made elsewhere and often that the crux of the difference between the moguls the mainstream media lauds and men like my old associates and mentors has been the systemic exclusion of the latter from legal means of building wealth. I wonder what the man noted as the father of capitalism would say to this logic? In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith describes the invisible hand that guides man’s natural tendency toward self-interest:

He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention . . . . By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Smith argues that if a businessperson pursues enlightened self-interest—an enlightenment that includes thinking long-term, thriftiness, and saving—the spur of the invisible hand will yield unimaginable wealth. Smith uses as example a butcher who provides meat based on the motivation of profit and not good-hearted intentions. He explains that the butcher recognizes that if he sells bad meat, he won’t attract repeat business, and thus won’t earn a profit; therefore, it’s in the butcher’s enlightened self-interest to sell good meat at a price customers are willing to pay so both he and they benefit from each sale.

Smith’s enlightened self-interest could also be seen as concern for others—aka being humane—or, in other words, a canny way for him to advocate for integrity and compassion in business.

Now, I’ve known dope dealers, my mentors among them, who’ve practiced thrift and saving. Have known those who seem to have made long-term business plans. However, I’ve known few that’ve preserved enlightened self-interest for a sustained period. Despite what they might believe—the “they” including Uncle Henry—a drug dealer can’t be one of Smith’s ideal capitalists. Because at some point their hustle will demand forsaking an enlightened business model, will necessitate treating another human
as other than human, will present them with moral tests.

About those tests.

The last one occurred after I’d paroled, after I’d put the kaput on selling that hard shit in favor of working a part-time square and pitching a little bud. One day an old hoop teammate—we shared acquaintances and a couple of friends—called me up for a half-pound. He was not a usual customer, and half-pound licks were hard to come by. Suffice to say, I was hyped, so hyped that no sooner than we had agreed on the price, I started planning what I’d do with the bread if he began making regular orders, and got to imagining him and/or dudes with equal means as conduits for the second coming of a come-up—though this time, so I reasoned, the money would serve the worthy purpose of financing my exodus East for grad school.

Courting the solace of a public space and its witnesses (not that I didn’t trust him, but forreal, forreal, who could I trust?), I arranged to meet him at the Lloyd Center mall on the bridge above the ice-skating rink. He arrived a couple minutes late wearing an oversized T-shirt and a baseball cap tugged low. “You got that with you?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said, and told him we needed to find a place to make the exchange and suggested my car, which was parked out in the lot. He slugged out behind me and we climbed in my Lexus. Once inside, I pulled the weed from my sleeve, handed it to him, and asked, more as affirmation than question, if he had the loot on him. He sat quiet for long enough to unsettle me and torqued his face to menacing. “There ain’t no money,” he seethed. “What? Nah. You can’t be serious,” I said. He drew a deuce-deuce from his waist, jammed the barrel into my ribs, and asked if I wanted to die. “Aw, come on, bro. Not this,” I said. In an instant, I wondered if his gun was loaded, if I could survive a bullet at close range, if he had the nerve to shoot me in a surveilled lot, if getting licked yet again was also foreboding—plus, what I was losing in cash and pride. Survive! He opened the door, eased out of the car, and sauntered across the lot and into the mall. When I couldn’t see him anymore, I banged my fist on the wheel and head against the seat, saying, “FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!”

Soon thereafter, I confessed the robbery to ballistic-tending Brother A. He was quick, as I suspected, to remind me of what I knew, that if I let another dude take something from me with no consequence, it would happen again—and again—that I was well past due on delivering vengeance.

Strapped, we drove to where we believed dude lived, parked nearby, and waited for him to appear on the porch—coming, going, no matter. We lurked for what could’ve been hours or an eon, and in that waiting, I mused possible perils: shooting and murdering dude; shooting and wounding him; shooting and missing him; shooting haphazardly at the house and hitting an innocent. Biding till the ambush, I mused which way I’d speed from the scene, whether I’d get away from the scene, what shape dude’s retaliation might take if it happened that he lived, imagined police arresting me and having to explain to close kin why I was headed back to penitentiary, this time for major time, imagined decades in a prison too distant for regular visits, imagined my conscience dogging me ceaseless, eternal. In the end, I realized, even exasperated as I was with being a mark, I couldn’t yet (and might not ever) summon what it took to kill.

Unc, those years ago, never mentioned nothing about murder. For whatever reason, he never broached the myriad ways employing his maxim would lead to our misfortune. But an equal truth is, all we—Brother A, me, whoever—had to do was pay even loose attention to his life to glean what becomes of a lifetime full-hearted, full-minded hustler.

Henry Jerrell Johnson is itinerate as ever, which I know because for more than year I tried to track him down for an interview: calling up his oldest son to query his latest cell number. Calling Brother A to inquire about possible sightings. Flying home and tracking Unc to this or that place he wasn’t. Calling Uncle Philip (his closest brother) to ask if he’d seen or heard from him.

Eventually, Brother A called me and told me Henry was in the hospital, on life support. Damn, Unc OD’d, I thought, and whispered a prayer for him. The next time I checked on Unc, Brother A said the doctors were unsure of how much brain damage he’d suffered and that, since Uncle Henry’s wife claimed he’d told her he didn’t want to live as a “vegetable,” the family was debating whether to pull the plug. The next time I checked on Unc, Brother A said that they wouldn’t be pulling the plug because he’d moved his toes. The man’s got some kind of will, I marveled. Brother A and I chatted again, and he told me he’d gone to check on Unc and found him recuperating into too much of his old self.

That visit, Uncle Henry sat up in his hospital bed. “Say, Nephew, I got some firewood and alternators for sale,” he said.

“But I don’t need an alternator or firewood, Unc,” said Brother A.

“Aw, come on and take it off my hands,” Unc drawled. “I’ll cut you a deal.”

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