Monthly Archives: November 2017

Dad Made Me a Small-Time Coke Runner: A Confession

BOGOTA, DuPAGE COUNTY, ILLINOIS—-Every time I tell myself, “This is the last time.”

It has to be. I can’t keep it up any more. I’m losing my grip. The cash transactions. The legal scrutiny. The surveillance. And all of that Coke! I don’t know how my old man can do all of that coke in a single week! That is a lot of stimulant for a man of a certain age. And, yet, if I don’t bring him his next fix, there will be hell to pay. Hell worse than any law can bring down.

“Hey, Man. Soda-Tax-Free Diet Coke.” For four months, my very own father turned me into a Coke runner. The shame, the adventure, the lack of shaving.

You know, I didn’t start this way. I was a clean-cut all-American kid. I got good grades. I only dated nice girls. I was a star college athlete. I earned a master’s degree. I had a 401k. Life was good. Then the economy turned. I stopped working for The Man. My side hustle got real…real fast. And I liked it.

Still, I never looked at running coke as a viable option until the government stepped in and started attacking the little guy, the everyday Joe, who just enjoyed a bit of sugar and caffeine. That’s when my dad made me go underground and become his drug mule.

You see, on August 2, 2017, in an act of extreme irony, the county that almost single-handedly defeated Prohibition in the 1930s, enacted a sin tax or “Sweetened Beverage Tax.” Cook County, Ill., began charging a penny-per-ounce tax on all soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and a lot of other drinks. That is about 68 cents extra per 2-liter bottle of Coca Cola. And Cook County was already collecting around 10% sales tax on that same bottle. So this is 68 cents on top of that. You were paying almost as much in taxes as you were for the actual bottle.

Al Capone was rolling in his grave.

When the tax first passed, the Cook County board president became the Mento to my father’s Diet Coke. (Seriously, look up that combination on YouTube, if you are unfamiliar with the chemistry. Even if you are, this is an awesome video.) My father was a raging Mento bomb. You see, he is more Diet Coke than man at this point. If emergency room staff needs to stick an IV in him, his blood just fizzes out, spraying the whole staff and making a terrible mess.

Cook County needed to plug a $200 Million budget hole, and the sweetened beverage tax was how they were going to get it. At the rate my old man consumes Diet Coke, they were basically asking him to pay them $180 Million of that hole in a single year.

And so, as the dutiful son who lives one county over, it fell on to me to bring in the goods, sans sweetened beverage tax. I began carting 16 illicit liters nearly every week! Woe be unto me for not bringing sufficient tribute. There is no wrath like a caffeine fix scorned.

I am sure DuPage County made out like a bandit on its sales taxes. Every time I filled a cart with Diet Coke, the clerks at the grocery store laughed and said, “Ah, visiting someone in Cook County, I see.” Cook County residents, equally full of classic Boston Tea Party firebrand, raided our grocery stores for soda. It has been a huge boon for our community…even without a soda tax.

On Dec. 1, 2017, the tyranny of soda taxes will come to an end. A lot of vocal Cook County residents forced the county board to kill the tax. And thus my time as a drug mule will end.

Still, I’ll miss my wild, underground life: the greasy pony tail, shaving once every 4 or 5 days, packing heat and pushing stimulants. Yet, I’ll be able to tell the grandkids that I was a rebel once. A renegade flouting the law and sticking it to The Man. Oh, to run Diet Coke across county lines once again.

Especially Thankful

Close friends will tell you that I’ve never been a food guy, but I love taking this day to reflect on the past year and all that I have to be truly thankful for. This year is an exceptionally thankful year.

Part of my silence on the blog recently has been due to several severe and potentially life-threatening illnesses in my family. This whole year has been packed with really bizarre and life-threatening events among those I hold near and dear. This Thanksgiving, I am exceptionally grateful that each of these people is still with us and seemingly on the mend.

To have just that would be enough to be thankful this year, but I’ve been exceptionally lucky. This was the year I stepped out on my own as an entrepreneur. For the first 9 years of ThePenMarket.com, I worked another job on the side. This year, thanks entirely to each and every one of my wonderful customers, I have been able to work full-time for myself. From online to the pen show circuit, I have been blessed with an abundance of support. Enough that I can continue working for myself…and for you…for the foreseeable future.

Honestly, this has been a lifelong dream come true. As even a little kid I knew I would only be really happy working for myself. I always assumed I’d become a famous author and would be able to sustain myself through my books. Yet, even after the publication of my first book Little Victories last year, it is clear that royalties won’t do the trick. To find that success in the very instruments I love best for writing has been the single greatest surprise pleasure of my life.

And I owe that all to each and everyone of you. Thank you.

Lastly, but by no means least, I want to thank three strangers in Lafayette, Ind. The drive home through the rain from the Ohio Pen Show was hellacious. Anyone stuck at the airport or trying to drive west on I-70 that Sunday night knows the frightful storm that struck. Hurricane-force wind gusts, rain so heavy it was like being stuck under a giant faucet and plenty of thunder and lightning…in November no less. The radio said to be on the lookout for tornadoes! Water was up to the center of our wheels in some spots on the interstate. Traffic crawled because nobody could see 10 feet in front of their cars. I was at least 2 hours slower getting out of the state than usual.

When I finally made the turn northwest on I-65, it was already late and the ol’ nerves were a little frayed, but the sky had cleared and the interstate had dried. Just a few miles north of Indianapolis, I was making good speed when a highway patrolman lit up my review mirror with his lights flashing. I quickly pulled over and was vastly relieved when he kept flying past me and chased after somebody else. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me at the time, my rear passenger tire rolled straight over a really long and sharp drywall screw.

About 30 miles up the highway, all of my dashboard lights start going crazy with warning lights and buzzers. After a moment of panic, I read the bad news, my air pressure is getting dangerously low. Only about 20 miles from Lafayette, and with nothing else in site for miles, I decided to see if I could limp it on into town. Once I discover I’m losing a pound of pressure every five miles, I feel confident I’ll make it to Lafayette safely.

Yet, 9 p.m. on a Sunday means there is no business open except for a few service-stationless roadside gas stations. I pulled into a Speedway gas station that had an air hose. Outside of my car it was too cold and windy for the light jacket I brought with me, and I could hear my back tire hissing. I went inside and asked the clerks if there was an emergency garage in town. No. Nothing? Not even a tow service? No. But I’m 2 hours from home and exhausted and just want to sleep in my own bed after a week away…

Solomon, one of the clerks, said he thinks he knows somebody. He tried but can’t get a hold of him. The very nice lady he’s working with said she’s friends with that guy’s wife. She makes a call. They act like he is a mechanic with a shop in town. As long as he isn’t a serial killer, I’ll take what I can get.

Twenty minutes later, this 26-year-old man named Joe arrived. He took one look at my tire and effectively said, “Piece of cake. I’ll have you out of here in a jiffy.” He has all the tools but he doesn’t have the tire repair kit he needs with him, but there’s a Wal-Mart half a block away that is still open. We go. $6 later, we have the all important tire kit.

Before I know it, Joe’s got my car lifted on a jack in the parking lot of the Speedway. He’s got all 5 lugs off, as I help with the little things. I remind him of the scene in “A Christmas Story,” where Ralphie loses the lugs to the tire. He starts laughing, “Fuuuuuudgggggge.”

We get to talking, and I learned that Joe is a father of two little kids and works at the Subaru factory in town. He makes seats for the cars. He has a buddy with a mechanic’s shop, but he only builds seats and knows a little this and that about vehicle maintenance. He doesn’t work with tires for a living, and he doesn’t want any payment for his help.

Here he is, just a good Samaritan coming out into the windy cold night, leaving his warm home and family to help a total stranger. He yanked out the screw, put in a plug, refilled the tire and had it back on my car in no time.

I was floored! Stunned! I felt like I discovered a lost treasure of humanity. I asked, “Why on earth would you come out here to help me out, if you didn’t want anything for it.”

“Well, if I were stuck on the side of the road, I’d want somebody to give me a hand. It just felt like the right thing to do.”

I’m still awestruck. I made it home in two hours flat, but not after insisting I treat his whole family to dinner. He refused my money, and told me to pay it forward in kindness to somebody in the future. I promised him I would, but I’d stay here and stalk him until he accepted my money in the present. He reluctantly did so, and I swear I didn’t think people like him still existed. A small kindness, perhaps, but it also helps restore my hope for the future.

Thank you, Joe, Solomon and the woman whose name I never got. You fixed more than my tire that night.