Monday, October 24, 2011

The Degen Market

By Pauly
San Francisco, CA

A slanted photo of a bloody Al Pacino in his role of Tony Montana from Scarface hung high up on the wall above the check-out counter. The weathered photo sat inside a plastic cover, like one you'd use to protect a comic book. Pacino, adorned in a pinstripe suit, held a machine gun in his right hand.

The photo is hung so high up on the wall, it's almost at the ceiling. Pacino hovers over the top shelf, where the "expensive" booze was stored -- mostly a couple of dusty bottles of Patron and one bottle of Johnnie Walker Red. I couldn't figure out if the photo was an homage to the owner's favorite fictional character, or if he left it there as a message to would-be robbers. Maybe he was bragging about being a fourth-rate drug dealer? After all,no one believed he was actually paying rent on a corner store in Pacific Heights by inflating the price of cigarettes and selling cheap wine that might cause unexplained bouts of blindness. The owner had to be doing something shady -- either laundering money for a criminal enterprise like an off-shore online casino or using the store as a front to move a significant amount of weight of an illegal white powdery substance that's none of my fucking business.

Above one of the four clear-doored refrigerators that lined the wall, another photo inside a plastic cover where the overpriced generic milk and orange juice were on display. Shaquille O'Neil, grinning ear to ear, stood next to the store owner. Both of them wore snazzy suits. By the looks of it, the photo was at least a decade old, when Shaq first arrived in Los Angeles to play for the Lakers. Plus the owner looked much younger and had significantly more hair then. He was actually smiling. In the two or so months I lived around the corner I never saw him even smirk. He was the type of guy who woke up with a scowl on his face and he only grew angrier throughout the day.

It was obvious that the bodega owner's two idols were Shaq and Tony Montana. It could've been a lot worse, like Kobe Bryant and Charlie Sheen.

* * *

Growing up in NYC, I was spoiled with the convenience of a local neighborhood bodega. When I lived in Las Vegas, I missed bodegas the most because Vegas neighborhoods, a few miles away from the casinos on The Strip, are so spread out that it's impossible to walk anywhere, besides, it's always 110 fucking degrees outside. I didn't have an authentic bodega experience in Los Angeles because big business muscled out all of the immigrant-owned stores and replaced with a low-frill, generic version known as 7-11. Sure we had a 24-hour one three blocks away, but a homeless guy was camped out in front and if you wanted to buy anything, you had to pass by the puke-inducing grey meat-like tubes roasting on some sort of grill contraption next to the cash register.

I moved to San Francisco a couple of months ago and realized the corner bodegas are essentially liquor stores that also cigarettes, condoms, soft drinks, and junk food. Yeah, you can buy hard liquor and wine in bodegas here. In NYC, you could buy a six pack at a bodega, but you could only buy hooch at a liquor store. And in case you were wondering, the 7-11 around the corner from me in the Slums of Beverly Hills didn't even sell beer or wine.

A couple of bodegas are located within walking distance of my house. The closest one is something that we call the Degen Market. True story. My roommate Halli gave it its nickname because the owner is a degenerate gambler.

Halli refuses to buy anything in the store after she got into a verbal joust with the owner. He was fretting over the score in a baseball game while shouting into the phone (presumably to his bookie). All she wanted to do was buy a pack of smokes and get the hell out of what she described as "the creepiest store north of the Mission." But the owner, originally born in Jordan, was more focused on bitching about his bad beat in mixture of Arabic and baseball lingo than ringing up a pack of of cigarettes.

During her self-imposed ban of the Degen Market, she'd walk a couple of extra blocks to a different bodega. There's one with a beautiful new awning and colorful murals on the walls outside the store. It's better lit, smells much nicer and has plastic baskets to put your fruit and other "real" food items in. The nice corner store even had a deli counter and that owner was more jovial and shot the shit with you while he made sandwiches. He had an extensive selection of cheap and expensive wines and almost thirty different kinds of beer.

It was a totally different scene a few blocks away in the Degen Market where the only bottles of wine were in jugs or cardboard boxes. The selection of booze was sparse compared to the average bodega. The primary liquor shelf was stocked with cheap spirits -- lots of Smirnoff products and a brand of Caribbean rum that I never heard of before.

The Degen Market is an anomaly for the yuppie neighborhood that had a smattering of hipsters and neo-faux-hippies (a.k.a. Trustafarians). You know the types -- the elite one-percenters who felt like they were doing their civic duty by voting for Obama. On any given moment, you'll find someone pushing an uber-expensive German-made baby stroller that cost more than the blue book value on your car. Every sixty seconds, three women in black yoga pants stroll down the street with a tightly, rolled-up mat tucked under their arm.

The Degen Market is also on the same block as a couple of antique stores and a pet spa designed especially for the spoiled pets of Pacific Heights that prescription-pill riddled wives of hedge fund managers bring in once a week for a full-on treatment, which transform their canines into spiffy and pristine ornaments. You don't want the neighbors to think you have a mangy dog, which is a dead giveaway for subversive anti-capitalist activity. Otherwise, the plutocrats will rat you out to Homeland Security for being a pinko-commie hash-head who spends their weekends downtown in front of the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve building with wooked-out anarchists angrily chanting for the end of the corporate welfare state.

* * *

I've been hoarding water. It's a little quirk that I've picked up ever since I moved to California. It's the fatalist in me. I figured I can survive a short-term emergency situation like an earthquake or tsunami with a shotgun and water. If it's only a temporary breakdown in the system, then I can successfully ride our riots and looting with a Mossberg at my side. The water is to live on, the shotgun is to keep a million or so unprepared zombies away from my water stash and my girlfriend. If by somehow the Bay Area is hit with an 8.0 magnitude quake or higher and I somehow survive the damage, then I'll have to walk out of the city several miles to a safe house. Blackjack insurance might be a stupid bet in any casino, but I'm gonna need a shotgun and/or a samurai sword to get the fuck out of dodge if/when the shit hits the fan.

I learned it's never foolish to prepare for a worst-case scenario -- especially when you live in city prone to natural disasters. I was convinced that I was not crazy after watching footage of post-apocalyptic New Orleans after Katrina blew the roof off the Superdome and thousands of refuges turned the football stadium into a real-life rendition of Lord of the Flies with walls covered in splattered blood and fecal matter.

I think the owner of the Degen Market is suspicious that I have been buying out large quantities of his bottled water. He hasn't said anything... yet.

* * *

The massive freezer in front of the checkout counter looked like it had not been opened in a few months, maybe even a few years. The ice cream inside was years past its expiration date. All you had to do was take one glimpse at the sketchy-looking freezer, and you'd know instantly that you didn't want anything inside.

That, of course, made me suspicious and curious. What was really in the freezer? If I were to hide something in plain sight, I'd do it in an obvious spot where no one would want to look. For example a large sum of cash, a severed head, or some sort of contraband hidden snugly underneath a couple of bruised cartons of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Didn't they go out of business a few years ago?

The Degen Market looks like it was hit with a first wave of hysterical people during an natural disaster. Most of the shelves were barren, save a few random canned items and microwaved popcorn that no one deemed a necessity during a potential apocalyptic situation.

Two TVs sat on top of the fridges and a closed-circuit screen was anchored to the ceiling. I had seen enough episodes of The Wire to wonder if the FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA, or DEA had tapped into his surveillance cameras to monitor the activity at his store. The more I thought about it, the more paranoid I got.

You could view the security cameras and both TVs while sitting behind the check-out desk. During the days, an old woman watched the news and talked on the phone. When the owner was minding the store, he always had on a different sporting event on one, if not both of the TVs. His viewing was not limited to American sports. I caught different European soccer matches and even one match that included two teams from the Middle East. The writing at the bottom of the screen was in Arabic. I tried to make small talk.

"Who's playing?"

"Shabab Al Ordon and Al Wehdat."

"So who do you have?"

"Al Wehdat."

I looked up at the screen completely puzzled at which team was which. I pretended to know who was who and nodded. "Ah, well good luck in the future."

* * *

The owner was not a drug dealer. He was not a money launderer. He was a run of the mill broke dick. Halli said that she's seen the owner play poker at one of the local card rooms just outside San Francisco. Ah, he's living the American Dream... leave an oppressive Middle East country, work your ass off to buy your own small business, drive around in a Detroit-made convertible, and then at the end of the day, empty out the cash register and drive to the closest casino to test your acumen at a card game against crazy Asian gamblers. Only in America.

As if being a degen sports bettor wasn't enough, he also had the fever for poker. If he had any skill, he'd be able to siphon off enough chips at the cash game tables to cover his sports betting loses, but the poker gods don't shine any love on him at all. Much like the sports betting gods, his prayers often go unheard and always unanswered. No wonder the owner sits behind the counter with a sullen grimace, like a man plotting revenge on the neighborhood bully who lit his puppy on fire.

I hatched a plan. By week 2 of the NFL season, I'd be booking bets for the owner. By the end of week 8, he'd lose so much money that I could go down to the store at any time and take anything off the shelf -- including the Patron. Is that what anyone wants in life? The freedom and power to walk into a store and take something without paying. Anyone can buy something with fiat currency. It takes a special circumstance to wield the sort of power like a druglord like Tony Montana or the hooligans from Goodfellas, and walk onto another man's property and take anything they want.

Of course, the main goal was to own the pink slip on his car by the end of the year and eventually own the store outright before the Superbowl.

What would I do with a bodega? I have no fucking clue, but the idea was so fucking crazy that I had to give it a shot.

And no. I didn't think about losing. If Las Vegas taught me anything it's that the house always wins. Always. Degenerate sports bettors will always be who they are. It's in their DNA. They've been conditioned by society to think that chumps are the working stiffs, and that they are the ones really living on the edge. No matter how much they win, they'll eventually donk it back off. The house always wins. Casino owners pad their pockets with every day addictions. It might take a couple of weeks, it might take a couple of years, but over the long haul, it's nearly impossible to out run the juice laying 11/10. Shit, it's a tough battle even if you're getting reduced rake at certain online sportsbooks. Bottom line it's a daunting task to remain a winning sports bettor over time.

Investing isn't that easy. If it were, the guys down on Wall Street wouldn't have to bend the elasticity of rules or put politicians in power to create new rules to make their crimes "legal." The financial services industry is so corrupt that very few people think twice about breaking so many rules to make a buck, and if by chance their outrageous bets shit the bed, then can simply extort ask the government for handouts (at taxpayers' expense) when they eventually go busto.

But grinding out an income as a bookie? As the saying goes, "It's a hard way to make an easy living."

1 comment:

  1. Why are you overpaying for bottled water at the Bodega? Buy it cheaper by the case when its on sale at like Costco. More efficient and cheaper