The first time my eyes graced wealth was the Duck Tales theme song, Uncle Scrooge and his signature swan dive into a sea of gold. He wasn’t like the other cartoons where money didn’t exist. Cash didn’t rule everything around Donald Duck, Wile E. Coyote didn’t need a job to acquire Acme weapons for the defeat of his nemesis, but Scrooge McDuck had a vault full of fortune. My attention was grabbed. The big and small screen would continue to feed my brain images of fictitious wealth, movies like Blank Check and Richie Rich were a glimpse into the lifestyle that benefited kids with riches. Sitcoms like The Jeffersons and Fresh Prince looked more glamorous than Good Times and Rosanne, where money was always in a drought. My mind recognized that there was more JJ Walkers than Will Smiths in the world and I wanted to be Will. How can you have a show called Good Times when the times are never good? Give me the mansion in Bel-Air over the playground in Philly. I didn’t know how it would be achieved but at an early age, I knew I wanted to be rich. The rich had no worries.
As I got older I didn’t have any worries, but I didn’t have an allowance like the kids on TV. My brothers and I used to ask for money and my dad would begin this endless monologue starting with, “Did you eat today? Do you have roof over your head? Do you have clothes on your back?” He would literally count our blessings from top to bottom until we felt like giving our toys to Goodwill and our clothes to the homeless. But once I got into high-school I saw an opportunity. Early in my 9th grade year there was fights, food fights, gang fights, street fights, you name it, and the penalty was the removal of the vending and soda machines. I guess they figured it was the sugar that was encouraging the influx of rage and destruction, but the lack of candy only made the masses madder.
So my older brother and I would fill our book bags with candy and sell during lunch to the kids that knew eating cafeteria food was more dangerous than not eating at all. I was also getting really into rap music, I found new idols to look up to. The lifestyles they spoke of wasn’t quite what I saw on television but the concept was the same - get money. Get a lot of money. Jay Z as Scrooge McDuck. So I started getting creative with my merchandise. Soon I was selling Jolly Rancher suckers to fashionistas that matched the color of their clothes. I couldn’t sell enough, they would walk around with suckers pinned in their hair. I thought I was a genius, I thought I was Cassidy, a hustler who could sell a Happy Meal to a vegan, a hustler that could sell a book of matches to a scuba diver.
Candy was moving, but I soon found another market that was also open for the taking. Before iPods and Zunes got popular I started selling CDs. Being internet savvy came in handy, there was a lot of kids that couldn’t download albums or make mixtapes on their own. I was moving the newest albums and hottest songs and making enough for video games and oversized clothes. Once I taught myself to burn DVDs and had the quality bootlegs business boomin, I was even selling movies to teachers. We were watching Chris Brown get shot in Stomp The Yard instead of taking test in art class.
The next big move came when my best friend started getting Ralph Lauren Polos from a cousin for the low, and I mean low. This was Atlanta in the Young Dro era so they sold with ease. I was going to school with a book bag full of Polos, CDs, DVDs and candy, with just enough room for a book or two. For the first three years I thought I was building an empire, Walter White without the meth, but the reality is I never made any real money. I could buy a new Playstation and a few games but not a car. I could buy shoes but nothing of value. That mansion in Bel-Air still felt miles away. I was doing all the hustling, supplying a demand, but where was the riches?
By senior year I stopped selling. I came to the realization that I didn’t have the passion to run an operation, to dedicate my life to the profit. I was more entertained by the rush of defiance than the money in my pocket. I thought I had what Jay Z has, what P. Diddy has, what 50 Cent has, that unquenchable thirst for money, the mentality of getting rich or die trying - I don’t. I have moments, when I play Reasonable Doubt, I want to be enormous, when I watch Paid In Full I want to be Money Makin Mitch, and I barely got through watching American Gangster without itching to make a million, but the entertainment always ends. I didn’t want to do the work it took to be rich, I wanted to be Will, adopted into wealth.
I graduated with a lot of worries, one question crushing me, what’s next? There’s nothing worse than being stagnant, uncertain, penniless, sinking in a pit of wonder about the unpromised tomorrow. There was nothing else to do but consume music and read literature while filling out job applications. Hip-hop was my gospel and the books my bibles. It was in those very books that I found my new idols. The authors and journalists that lived like pirates and wrote like poets. I imagined their pages stained with beer, chain smoking cigarettes, their pockets might be empty but their souls satisfied. The way Henry Miller spoke of orgies in Paris or how Hunter S. Thompson portrayed his fear and loathing in Las Vegas, how Bukowski spoke of barflies and whores in California, how Dave Hickey spoke of the glass-bottomed Cadillacs and art criticism was a different world compared to what I was reading on blogs. I wanted to write about rap and hip-hop with the same grace and passion as Miller and Hickey. I romanticized that if I could bring a level of writing to the blogosphere that could rival the quality of these men and others like them there would be riches awaiting me. If I couldn’t get rich trying to get rich, I’d just make great art and certainly there would be a great reward waiting.
When you don’t have any guidance or goals it’s easy to be lost in your own disillusion. I was high off my inspiration and insanity, somehow that attracted other artists and creatives that were driven by the same madness, screaming for anyone to pay us attention and then pay us in Benjamins. I was no longer in a circle of hustlers but artists, all believing we had something worthwhile. I did over 70 interviews in a year, wrote countless editorials, and innumerable blog posts. I didn’t know anything about SEO or analytics, I didn’t know anything about anything, but I was a writer and if I just wrote enough, if I improved and got better, someone would see. Right? Plus, I soon wasn’t quite like the writers I idolized. I couldn’t get sloppy drunk and pour my soul out, I couldn’t travel cross country and write about it, but I never lost the passion for words that they inspired. Life was moving regardless if my dreams weren’t. I had to work, which a weird feeling is coming from a family of entrepreneurs, but as Ab-Soul once said, “I tried to work for me and that didn’t work for me.”
So I got a job and hated every moment. I could feel the cancer of time killing every second of every day that I wasted away there. I would spend an entire shift staring at the door, the hands of every customer entering and exiting decorating the glass, I greeted each with a shy smile and a stale introduction, my eyes always on the door, peering to the outside, peering into freedom. Only the door separated me from the life I wanted and the life I was living, too jaded to see anything else. That job could’ve been a rainbow but I would’ve never noticed its beauty because I was transfixed on the idea of a pot of gold.
Then one day someone was kind enough to crack open the door and I was finally able to walk through. There was no riches or pot of gold awaiting my arrival, but I did receive a reward I can’t buy, the feeling of making it to the next phase. I was so elated, I didn’t consider writing a job, to call it that would be dirty and belittle this sacred art form I spent years chasing. I was in the honeymoon phase, that point of ecstasy where everything is bliss, but like any marriage it’s only momentary. It’s possible that once the jaded eyes come to focus, the person you thought would be your life partner becomes someone you hate, the angel halo is transformed to horns, the dream you spent years chasing turns into a nightmare. I love writing, it’s not labor, but it’s definitely a job. It’s been nine months of victories and disappointments, euphoria and melancholy, every day another illusion is dispelled, taking a bite out of the apple of knowledge and losing Eden, losing the idea of the dream. The reality is never quite what you picture in your head. I’m making money but not very much. I’m making art but not great, timeless art. I’m both content and restless, free and entangled, not sure where I’m going but enjoying the ride, ultimately learning what it truly means to be an artist and live by your art.
I sit in a pizza parlor across from a friend, her brand new Canon 7D sitting on the table. For a photographer to see that camera was like seeing Miss America standing in Motel 6 parking lot, devoid of panties and morals. She shattered the piggy bank to purchase her first camera on a passionate whim and was already asking about a reasonable price to charge for photo shoots. I stared in silence as she went on about being an artist, investing in self, going to New York for fashion week and making money as a photographer. She didn’t understand the basic functions of the very expensive piece of equipment but had glowing dollar signs in her eyes. In that moment I saw a fragment of myself and so many others that I know, the dreamers that want to make art and make money. I smiled, wishing her the best of luck like I do everyone else. We all need a bit of luck, that could be the difference between drowning and being a swan diving duck.
If I was still a dreamer that’s what I would say, but that’s not reality. To make it, truly make it, it depends on how far you are prepared to go, what you are prepared to sacrifice. The world owes you nothing. Hustler or an artist, man or woman, it’s hard on everyone, unless you have a rich uncle in Bel-Air.
“Some people are so poor, all they have is money” - Jack Kerouac