Side Gig

(c) February 29th, 2024, Dominique Millette, all rights reserved

The sign said the bulk store was closing at the end of the month. Ian felt bereft as he paid for his macadamia nuts.

“I’m going to miss this place,” he said to the owner, a slight man with an accent Ian couldn’t place and didn’t dare to query. “I hope you all land on your feet.”

The man shrugged. “They say every crisis is an opportunity. You know the story of Lucky Hans? It’s from the Brothers Grimm. After seven years of apprenticeship, Lucky Hans gets paid with a lump of gold the size of his head. He gets conned into exchanging it for a horse, and thinks, Well, that gold was too heavy anyway. I’m a lucky man. Then he trades the horse for a cow he can milk. The cow gets exchanged for a pig, followed by a goose, until Lucky Hans is left with a millstone which rolls away into the river. He walks away empty-handed. He’s ecstatic because the millstone was too heavy. And I have to say, this store had become a millstone. I feel free. No regrets.”

Ian raised his eyebrows and bowed slightly. “That’s certainly a positive way to look at things. Good for you,” he answered.

With the hair salon also closed, the whole centre looked deserted now. A homeless woman begged him for change, which Ian thought was hilarious, considering he might end up as her competition soon, what with the way business was going. He could see why there were fewer and fewer customers here. We are going to end up like Detroit when it went bankrupt, he thought, except with better lighting and garbage collection.

The closures were a trickle at first: the drugstore at the corner of the two busiest streets in the neighbourhood started the trend. Then the Starbucks went. Once the McDonald’s closed down and the whole building around it emptied out like a mall in a zombie movie, the trickle turned into a flood, hitting the second-hand furniture store that had stood for 25 years, then a gift shop, two clothing retailers, the jeweler, the local tailor, and then finally, the natural food store. As all these businesses shut their doors, the associated relationships also disappeared, Ian thought to himself, even if it was just a hello, how are you, thank you. Those small interactions helped people feel like a part of society.

It didn’t help that the pandemic had closed up the offices where the customers went to work, then didn’t come back to, at least not in the same numbers as previously. Just before that, the city had torn up the main street downtown to make it festival-friendly. It took months longer than planned, for two years in a row. Regular customers had a hard time navigating the chaos and went to more car-friendly stores. Finally, new corporate owners of residential buildings who wanted to maximize profits kicked hundreds of people out of their low-rent apartments. Dozens of the newly homeless ended up pushing shopping carts along the shiny new festival-friendly cobblestones and asking everyone for change, so more passersby avoided the area than ever before.

Ian slowed his pace as he exited the building, walking more gingerly. There were brown smears on the sidewalk in at least three places in front of him, maybe from a dog, but they looked human. He headed to his electronics shop. The letters of the Tronical Groove sign flickered in the window and the neon palm tree next to them winked out as he came in. Sign of the times, haha, thought Ian. At least he hadn’t used his name, Blezard, because if the B went out the place would look like it might be a pet shop that specialized in reptiles.

All the retailers on the street kept their doors locked so customers would have to ring the bell to get in. Jim and Irma, two local musicians who made their living with a karaoke and open-mic hosting company, knocked on the window to get his attention. He suppressed a scowl. One of these days the glass would break, and he would have to clean it up and pay for it. The professional respect he felt for the duo barely outweighed his irritation, but they were company, familiar, and talented enough, but not too proud to pay their bills with forced encouragement, copious applause, and a high tolerance for off-key covers of Sweet Caroline. He envied their easy partnership, though after his divorce he wasn’t inclined to try dating again. Don’t be such a pessimist, Irma would say, as she brought one woman after another in tow to browse products, to no avail.

Today, Irma needed a new laptop to run the scrolling lyrics with the big red dot that told you what word you were on. She was a singer and ran the karaoke side of the business. Jim, a bassist who also played some guitar and keyboards and sang if he had to, was the main open mic host. They could split up if they needed to get more gigs. Ian found her a Lenovo on sale, a barely used demo with a decent-sized SDD drive. Jim looked it over and added his approval.

“Would you like a stand with that? Brand new, top of the line,” Ian proffered.

“No, that’s all right,” Irma said.

It was a delicate dance between friendly chatter and a sales pitch. Networking. Be personable, he reminded himself. Customers need a reason to come to you instead of the competition. He grew to resent the need to point out, as indirectly and pleasantly as possible, that after all, they were in a store, and stores were where you bought things, especially when the rent was due and too little inventory had moved in over 30 days. The way some people looked at him rankled, as if he were emerging from lurking in dark corners, reeking of desperation, ready to drag them into an orgy of spending—or worse, to beg them unrelentingly.

What was going through their minds? That he only wanted their money? Ian wanted to shout that he needed both money and friends, but the world wouldn’t let him simply smile and wave away opportunities for the sake of propriety. Too often, his exchanges with people led to awkward pauses and a poorly concealed pout of discouragement when the friend-customer left without buying anything. Jim had called him saturnine one day. Ian had had to look it up and didn’t want to do it in front of Jim, so he only got offended after it was too late. Then he’d thought: Try being stuck with all this inventory and you’d be saturnine, too.

As Irma paid, Jim harrumphed.

“Have you ever thought of a side gig to bring in extra money? I mean, no offense, but there aren’t a ton of people here.”

Ian glanced up and answered with a twinge of annoyance in his voice. “Why? Do you have something in mind?”

Jim took a canister from his knapsack and set it on the counter. The label read “Bernie’s Protein Powder.”

“As a matter of fact, I do. And believe me, it brings in the dough.”

It was hard for Ian not to roll his eyes. The pitch sounded like something an Amway or Tupperware salesperson would say.

“Seriously? You’re hawking protein powder now?”

Jim looked offended but replied with calm confidence. “I made a few thousand last month, so seriously, yes.”

Ian was impressed. Tupperware didn’t usually bring in that much. Maybe Jim’s suggestion wasn’t such a bad idea. Just five years ago, everything had been coming up roses, the sky was the limit and all that. Tronical Groove was helping to rejuvenate the neighbourhood, not gentrifying it, just adding colour and funk and style, along with the dozen or so other new retailers moving in for the affordable rents and new-possibilities vibe. Now, the store was running one blowout sale after the other, selling at a loss half the time, with accessories the only potential profit point.

Still, Ian was skeptical. “I bet you have to pay all this inventory up front. I wouldn’t have the money.”

Jim shook his head. “Nope. They front you the inventory and give you hot leads, not cold ones: people who’re already interested in buying. All you have to do is stash the product, call the initial sales leads, then people confirm and come in and pick it up and pay for it. You get a commission. I get my inventory from Bernie. You’d be getting it from me.”

Ian felt a wave of uneasiness. “Sounds like some kind of pyramid scheme,” he ventured.

“It’s multilevel marketing, which is not the same thing,” Jim insisted. “And the product is a lot better than Amway. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to move this stuff. It isn’t like those other outfits where you end up with boxes in your garage with the mice crapping all over them. Trust me.”

Jim wouldn’t lie about the money, Ian decided. He might be patronizing sometimes, but he was no liar.

“Well, if it’s working out that well for you, count me in.”

For the first time in a while, he felt hope, like in that line Irma used about the feathers perching in your soul.

It was a rainy Tuesday when the bell rang in three short spurts and Ian glanced up from his wreck of an accounting folder to see a new face that looked like money. He opened the door expectantly. The well-coiffed stranger smiled with perfect teeth, just the right shade, not too bright white, and thrust out a manicured hand.

“Hello, there. I’m Bernie.”

“Ian. I’ve heard good things!”

“They’re all true. Like Jim should have explained, we front you the goods and you just have to follow up on those leads we give you and pass it on. When would you like the product?”

“As soon as you can drop it off.”

“Great. I’ll be giving you the list of customers when we bring you the merch.”

Bernie walked out in a wave of merino wool.

The next day, he came around with two hulking guys in sweats to drop off the boxes of protein powder. He handed Ian a list of names and phone numbers. “Call these guys today. You don’t want the leads to get cold.”

Ian smiled. “Absolutely. I know all about that.”

Bernie winked. “One business is a lot like another. Once you move this stuff, we can bring in some more.”

Within a few days, the customers came in. Most of them looked like jocks, with thick necks and sweat suits, which made perfect sense. They said they were gym owners and personal trainers and swore up and down that this particular powder was magic, as hot as chia seeds or goji berries, which even Ian knew were a solid trend.

As Ian waved the last customer out of the store, his heart pounded with gratitude. The commission he’d earned in one day was as much as a week’s worth of sales from the shop. He’d been right to take a chance on life, as Irma would put it.

The next drop-off was Monday. Monday came and went. No Bernie. Another week went by, with still no sign of his newest business partner. Maybe Bernie had got sick, Ian speculated. Maybe he’d been called out of town and had an accident. At least Bernie had paid him, Ian thought, and immediately felt guilty for being relieved he didn’t share any of his potential misfortune. He called Jim but had to leave a message.

The bell rang insistently at opening time the next day. Police officers waved at him through the glass. One of them, the shorter of the two, was holding a paper. Ian frowned as he opened the door.

“What’s up? Everything all right? Are you canvassing witnesses? Did someone get hurt?”

Given the neighbourhood, it was a logical assumption. Knife fights broke out regularly between hapless denizens of local storefront doorways struggling to keep their shoes, hats, or the little change they’d managed to beg.

The shorter officer shook his head. “No, sir. Not yet. We’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen. You’re Mr. Blezard, the owner?”

Ian nodded, lead gathering in his chest.

The policeman waved his paper.

“We have a warrant to search the premises, including any back rooms and storage areas.”

Ian started to shake, his heart thumping like a sound effect in an Edgar Allan Poe movie adaptation. He moved aside. The officers pulled out masks and gloves on the way into the storeroom. They opened every box.

The short one spoke first. “Looks like the deal we made with that Jim guy was worth it. There’s enough fentanyl in here to kill half the city.”

His taller colleague scoffed. “Can you believe he said he didn’t know? How stupid would you have to be to think a supplement can make you that much money?”

The thump, thump, thump of Ian’s heart got louder. He walked soundlessly to the door, then slipped outside with his head spinning. There was a shopping cart on his left, piled high with fragrant flotsam. He grabbed a wool toque, a scarf, and a long jacket.

The owner of the shopping cart ran towards him. “Hey. Give that back!”

Ian sprinted away, trying not to gag, down the alley piled with garbage behind the store. The door to the storeroom was open. A black-capped head poked out and shouted.

“He’s a runner.”

They caught him easily. As they slapped the cuffs on, it occurred to Ian that he wouldn’t be able to pay his lawyer with the proceeds of crime, if television procedurals were anything to go by. No phone call for him. No bail. There was no one to pay it. The store was finished.

Ian thought about the story of Lucky Hans. At least in prison there would be no rent, inventory, or grocery bills.

He whistled. The melody squeezed itself out in a thin breath: Sweet Caroline/pah dah pah pah.