There was a time–a very specific time–in my life when I almost became a drug dealer’s lackey.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t, but how I found myself facing this decision — to be, or not to be — is one of those fun memories from back in the day.
See, I was 20 years old. A month shy of 20, but close enough. I had wanted to move to San Francisco a year earlier because I figured I was gay (my relationships with guys were on the “meh” side), and, well, gay people lived in San Francisco, right?
It took me awhile to get all the way to San Francisco. I first got myself across the country by doing an exchange semester at San Diego State University (hey, southern California was closer to San Francisco than Maryland was); then I went cross country and back with two short-term friends (a trip like that can put some strain on ya); and after dropping them back off in their home zone of San Diego, I drove to San Jose–inching closer, inching closer–and the home of two women I’d met while at some party at SDSU–both whom I knew, for sure, were gay, as they were partners and lived together. They said I could stay with them in San Jose while I figured my situation out.
I was, as I mentioned, 20 (almost) and earning in the $3.35/hour minimum-wage range at the time. I’d been in college for the past two years, and I’d gone through a chunk of change paying for school then footing most of the bill (not by desire) for the various expenses involved in the cross-country-and-back trip I’d just taken. In other words, I didn’t have a lot of dough. But, somehow, I was going to move to San Francisco.
Of that, I had no doubt.
“Joannie” was a Mary Kay makeup consultant, selling makeup and skincare through one of the more durable and well-known MLM businesses of the time. She might have had a “job,” as well; I only remember the Mary Kay part of her life. Her partner, “Carrie,” (substituting the names here) worked in a semiconductor plant on some assembly line, or something.
Joannie encouraged me, of course, to become a Mary Kay consultant. I knew–just knew!–skin care for men had to become a thing. It just had to. It was logical. It made sense to me. (I don’t think there was a single brand focused on men’s skin care in 1983; if there was, it was hoity-toity and not for the masses.) I had no interest in the makeup aspect of Mary Kay, but my eyes saw piles of money selling products to under-served men. And who better to sell skin care to (and maybe a really light foundation or dab of concealer) than to gay men? And where were gay men in abundance? Well, they were in San Francisco, of course. These things my 20-year-old’s mind knew incontrovertibly.
So I plunked down my starter $500 (not a small amount for my income and budget) and began my miserable adventure as a Mary Kay consultant.
I knew it was going to be tough covering rent. I’d only ever lived with my parents while in school and then in the dorms at college. It would take a lot of hours worked at $3.35/hour to cover rent, even if just renting a room, which is about all I had my sights on at the time.
My creative mind hatched a plan! If I could find someone who would “rent” me a room in exchange for work around the house–maybe some cleaning, or babysitter, and such–I’d have my biggest expense covered. I knew it would take some time, but I could build up the skin care sales (gay men, I figured, wouldn’t mind as much the pink packaging iconic to the Mary Kay brand); and, eventually–maybe even soon–I’d be making good money. I’d be golden. Good to go!
So I began my search in everyone’s go-to place of 1983: the newspaper classifieds.
get out of jail free
As Luck and Life would have it, I saw a classified ad offering free rent in exchange for some work. The stars were aligning. It was all going to work out! I got the address, drove to the location and met the man who had posted the ad.
He was middle-aged, Black and looked to be one of the iconic characters, a hustler, from those Blaxploitation movies from the ’70s. He explained to me that I would need to be at the home during certain hours of the day each week. I would be receiving packages and giving them to other people, as well as answering phone calls. He told me he was a drug dealer. (I don’t recall what product(s) he was moving; cocaine, likely–not something I cared for at all.)
He was rather calm about it all and explained that if the police ever came and I got put in jail that it wasn’t any big deal. He had lawyers who knew what to do. I’d be out within the day, he comforted me. He wanted to show me the rest of the house.
I’d already taken in visually what I could see of his living room area and ground floor of his home, and it was clear we had rather different tastes and style in home decor. I also could tell, when driving to his place, his home, while located officially in San Francisco, wasn’t in a part of the city my mind associated with “city.” It was a suburban neighborhood in the (inaptly named) Sunshine District.
As I walked upstairs with him, I couldn’t help but notice the entire upstairs level was covered in a found-everywhere-in-the’70s, “sculptured,” avocado-colored carpet. (I’d grown up in a house filled, top and bottom, with this carpet and had long-since had my fill of it.)
But the carpet was just one part of the bizarre scene before my eyes. The room–mine, if I were to take him up on his offer–was decorated in a tragic medley of bright pink for the tastes of a 10-year-old girl. A pink bedspread. Pink throw pillows. Pink curtains. A dresser painted pink. A pink rug. (No two pinks being the same hue.) It was horrible. Just horrible.
a polite “no”
I did my best not to gag, or guffaw, upon seeing the room. Clearly, he thought nothing of it. I did my best to listen along as he explained his operations and to show me the rest of his home. (I was already uncertain whether I wanted to live here when I first saw his living room decor, and I was certain I wasn’t going to accept his offer when he mentioned the part about possibly having to go to jail, but I stayed and listened.)
He continued to explain how it could be a great situation for someone such as myself going to school (I ended up not enrolling that semester). I could stay at home for the packages and calls, do my homework, get free rent and still have time to do other things. He was sellin’ it!
But I wasn’t buying.
I don’t recall if I told him “no” then and there, or if I called him later to follow up, but this wasn’t for me. Maybe, maybe, maybe if it had been a nicer house and nicer digs. I don’t know. That’s all speculation, and clearly My Life didn’t want me spending another second thinking about how I might make it work. I did know, for sure, I wasn’t going to live in a weirdly decorated home, in an avocado-and-pink bedroom decorated for a little girl a decade or more earlier, and be a drug-dealer’s lackey. The stars, it turns out, were not aligning, though I had no idea then what else I might do.
As Life has its way of doing what it does, that “no” opened up a “yes” for me to live at Dean’s place on Noe Street. Another story for another day.
a side-hustle side story
Selling drugs was not new to me. Not totally.
I had attempted to sell “drugs” a year or two prior. In early 1982 when I was a college freshman, I had somehow, somewhere, from someone, purchased a pound of marijuana. I think it cost me about $2,000 at the time, and that price was a steal, a bulk deal! I guess I figured I would package it up into eighths, sell it and make a killin’! (GenX entrepreneurialism at its finest.) I didn’t have a scale to weigh the marijuana. I hardly knew anyone who smoked. I didn’t had a customer base, and eventually, and essentially, I lost most of my money giving it away because I started to get nervous having that much cannabis on me. Live and learn.
And times change. Now, I’ve regularly purchased an ounce or two of cannabis and thought nothing of it. (Yay for ending the prohibition on cannabis. Come on, all you laggard States. Get with it. De-criminalize cannabis!)