I’ve read enough articles by Mike Whitney on CounterPunch to know that the economic situation in this nation is a slightly more depressing than a night of listening to Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division and drinking corn beer from the 99 cent store. I’m also living it, not unlike most people of generation nothingness. Yes, I fit into that unique time frame in American History where myself and peers look forward to graduating with a university degree, lying through a cringe-inducing 3 hour ‘personality exam’, and forever being grateful for being hired as a part-time wage-slave for the Starbucks Overlords. If you’re really lucky, you might be able to move back into your parent’s basement (if their home wasn’t foreclosed) and live there for the next thirty years as you pay off your student loans; becoming somewhat of an upscale indentured servant. I was moping at one point, frustrated, probably hostile, but now I fall into the category of ‘simply don’t give a shit’, and have the proper attitude to handle the ongoing collapse. After one night in the Magic City of Billings, MT in the company of a unyielding, crafty and triumphant friend of mine (who happens to be 74 years old now), my wife and I found ourselves with a glimpses of hope in the wage-slave’s endless turmoil in this country. That evening we received an impromptu lesson in hustler survival economics from Uncle Hap.
It had been quite a while since I had been in Billings, probably five years or more. I have some relatives in the area and a small pocketful of friends from many years ago. Generally speaking it’s not a metropolis with an abundance of captivating activities, unless you’re a geriatric spending your monthly social security stipend on the video casinos that accommodate every city block. I made a point to my wife that we had to pay a visit to Hap. He had been calling me incessantly the previous few days, sounding enthralled I was coming back to visit. I admit I was all agog to visit Hap as well. Hap is not his real name, but it will work for the purpose of this article and minute snapshot into his world. I respect his anonymity, and the reality is that many of his previous exploits would be classified as ‘black-market’ and very much illegal. In real life however, he uses a fake name as well; which is really a multi-letter Greek acronym loosely translating into ‘the strange one’. In any case, I think he’s pretty much handled any adversaries in the form of State and Federal Government and seems pretty safe and secure at his age. The only word I can attach to his lifestyle would be that it has been pretty ‘hardcore’ and there’s probably few who could whither the challenges, scrutiny and hardships involved with living outside of the realm of the typical American worker.
Hap has been a life-long hustler and resilient sort of folk hero for most his life. His Father was a prize-fighter and one the great wilderness writers of the 1940’s; who penned an enchanting and captivating novel about his life as a mink trapper in the Northwestern Territories. It wasn’t until Hap was eight years old until he met another child in the dense woodland of the upper extremity of North America. His sole companion growing up was an imaginary friend named ‘Ibbit’. Perhaps his forming years being spent in the isolation of the North Country formed the foundation of his resilient character. It’s one reason why I get along so well with my friend; we share the commonality of being children from the edge of the empire. I can’t say my childhood experience was as ‘extreme’ by comparison but I was born and lived the majority of my life on the various islands of the Alaska Panhandle. It was considered a ‘vacation’ to take the marine ferry to the metropolis of Ketchikan and receive the once yearly helping of McDonald’s, leaving the family in gastrointestinal misery for the following 3 days. Hap is a kindred spirit and someone I’ve held pretty dearly in my life for many years now. His dramatic stories, eloquent pairing of words, animated expressions and humor is something far more entertaining than any night at the cinema.
I walked into his home with my wife and saw Hap holding a glass of wine and watching a vintage boxing VHS tape on his television. His appearance itself commands attention, with a densely muscled torso and crushing forearms. In addition to maintaining a vigorous exercise schedule into his 70s; he’s also somewhat of a boxing aficionado. His residence is filled with vintage photographs of working class pugilists from various golden eras. Legends like Willie Pastrano, Harry Greb and Sugar Ray Robinson decorate his walls. A picture of his father from the 1920’s hangs above his desk, a fierce looking Scottish immigrant holding his 6oz. gloves in a primal glare. His most beloved picture hangs above the fireplace, a portrait of one of history’s most thunderous punchers: Sam Langford. Sam Langford was the resilient Nova Scotia strongman and skilled pugilist who fellow black champion Jack Johnson refused to fight.
There are also some relics on the wall from previous occupations. There’s a cratered hardhat mounted on the wall from his time as a worker on wild-cat rigs. He was only 14 years old when he started work on the hellish rigs of the time period, making the current danger-game played by workers on the Bakken formation a game of touch-football. There’s some clippings of him from old fitness magazines when he designed gym equipment in the 1960’s and 70’s. While most of his life he’s participated in hustler schemes and sales, there were moments when he used his ingenuity to design gym equipment. There are more than a few bullet holes in the wall as well. The bullet holes remain in the wall as a haunting reminder of attempts on his life. He’s connived to make money in unconventional ways as long as he can remember. He’s sold black-market goods to servicemen when stationed overseas in the Navy, played the role of pool-shark in highly volatile bars at the edge of reservations, and conned naive sailors in San Diego to spend their cash on imaginary prostitutes. He carried a picture book with photos of gorgeous women from back home in Wolf Point, located in the dire Fort Peck Indian Reservation. A poor sap would pay money to spend time with one of these females as Hap would say “Wait right here sir, she’ll be joining you shortly”. Of course the female companion would never arrive and Hap would drive off to his next adventure. He’s a very deliberate, intelligent and crafty individual. He adopted the ‘quick cash’ lifestyle after being soured on the experience of being exploited in the traditional degrading and humiliating workplace. He’s preferred to live by the wild hair and has encountered cycles of fortune and poverty, the latter being more common.
One particular standout scheme that he’s recited to me on numerous occasions occurred in early 1960’s during an epidemic of recreational drug hysteria in the US. He appropriately made a fake organization named the ‘Community War on Dangerous Drugs’; where him and another crafty individual managed to convince businesses in the area of Great Falls, Montana to donate money to his not-so-earnest cause of informing the public about kids ‘taking acid and going blind staring at the sun’ and ‘smoking dope in front of the court house’. They printed up some phony posters and stamps and ultimately capitalized on the drug hysteria at the time; presenting themselves as experts to help the weary public. Local police attended seminars where Hap gave impromptu lectures on identifying ‘dangerous drugs’ and they were grateful to fork over money to the ‘strange one’ in compensation for his cutting-edge knowledge and tips. The hustler crew hired a few overly-enthusiastic young republicans to handle mail and phone calls. In Great Falls they made a quick three thousand dollars and later skated out of town. They set up shop in Billings to repeat the same process and make an additional five thousand dollars. It should be mentioned that at the time, both were in fact partaking in recreational drug use; which makes it that much more of an enduring tale. His exploits were highlighted with national headlines that boldly read “Great Falls, MT Man Fights Drugs for Profit!” he proudly mentioned to me. Not surprisingly, I haven’t been able to verify that particular headline but I’d be willing to bet it’s a pretty factual story (for the most part). At the very least, I secretly hope the story is true, because the thought of two small town hustlers conning the establishment to make money and laugh while doing it is pretty inspirational to me.
On our special visit to Hap I started griping about some woes that were ailing me at the time. I listed some of the problems I was experiencing and he listened attentively for a few minutes as he continued to siphon box wine into his glass. For the most part, I was concerned about a stack of unpaid medical bills, relentless collections agencies, and a federal tax situation; which resulted from cashing out a pension. He listened for a little while and then he started laughing in fairly animated fashion. He remained smiling and said “Are you fucking kidding me Dan? That’s some stupid shit to worry about. First thing is this—Do you own a vehicle, or have the title to a vehicle?” I replied “Yes” because in fact I was fortunate enough to own a car. He bolted out of his chair and said “Jesus Christ! First thing you do is find someone you can trust and put them as the lien holder. Have that shit in their name. That way if these fuckers try to come after you they can’t slap a lien on your car, because it’s not yours! You don’t need these sonsabitches taking your transportation. They will try to take that car, you can bet your ass on it. You see that car out there? My friend Jerry is the lien holder on it. He would never screw me over of course; we’ve known each other thirty years.” For some reason though, it seemed like a pretty poor idea, simply because I don’t think there has been anyone in my life I would install that level of financial trust to, the exception being my wife. He managed to address our joint harmony by eloquently stating “Since you two are married, you are essentially in the same boat of shit. It sucks, but that’s how it plays out.”
Hap began to discuss his methodology when dealing with bill collectors. “You know what I do with bill collectors Dan?” I shook my head, and knew that his solution was going to be unconventional. “I have a nifty little stamp. It says ‘DECEASED: RETURN TO SENDER”. Sure enough, he brandished a custom made “DECEASED: RETURN TO SENDER” stamp and there was a few envelopes with his name that had been stamped haphazardly multiple times. At this point my wife was in tears laughing and I was howling just the same. I replied “Isn’t that shit like… highly illegal?” He didn’t hesitate to respond “Oh yeah… Like it’s illegal to lie Dan. It’s only illegal if you are in court and it’s under the penalty of perjury. Otherwise, 9 out of 10 lawyers aren’t going to hassle a family member for a death certificate over some bullshit if it’s less than ten thousand dollars. The stamp usually remedies the situation fairly quickly. If you owe medical bills, well, big deal. Welcome to the United States where no one pays that shit. Would you like to borrow my stamp Dan?” Hap’s eyes seemingly bugged out of his skull and he displayed a very devilish grin.
He began to get more in depth about some other methods he used to employ in his own version of living outside the system. He noted how he only dealt with cash in his business, which is a pretty strange enterprise in itself. When the federal government tried to slam him for thousands in back taxes he squeaked out and beat the case. He made a special side-note that in case they pay him a surprise visit he keeps a collection of past-due bills. He pays all of his electrical, gas, cable bills, etc. intentionally late. This way if the IRS decides to show up he simply explains “Look I don’t make that much money. I can barely even pay my bills!” and promptly display a past-due electric bill. He lives on a cash-only basis, doesn’t have a bank account, and doesn’t collect his social security money. He is very close to being untraceable and untouchable in any financial dealings. He seems to live a pretty jubilant life and his current business is a service that appears to be relatively popular and needed in the community.
Hap continued during the evening to share tidbits of wisdom on his financial dealings which included everything from: trading whiskey to the Mennonite’s for fresh chicken and eggs to conning restaurants for free meals by informing them he was a ‘food critic’ and distinguished columnist. Other times he made extra income through his literary talents and penned advertisements for Western Horseman Magazine. There was an in-depth list of ways he survived over the years and retained a full belly and (at times) a leisurely life through a complex system of bartering, hustling and ingenuity. He’s also helped various organizations, causes and kinfolk over the years. While some of his activities many would find morally repugnant, he’s by all means a conscious soldier of the working class. While he likes to discuss one version of events, his friends have told me about a very different side of the ‘strange one’. He’s undeniably helped a substantial number of people over the years. He’s also one of the truly open-minded people I’ve ever met. He lives by the adage that ‘You never ask someone to do something they don’t want to do’, and any display of bigotry, ignorance or homophobia will send him into a cutting state; as he plugs away on his computer writing detailed commentaries to the local newspaper. I remember a particular stand-out piece of incendiary prose he typed out. He wrote a piece addressed to conservative Christians in the area with the simple question: “Would you love Jesus if he was gay?” He provided the appropriate obscure Secret Gospel of Mark to throw gasoline on the fire.
After we left his house that night my wife and I were guffawing pretty hardily and enjoyed one of the most entertaining nights of our lives. I think a little of Hap’s spirit was immortalized into each of us. I’m not sure why—but something was so refreshing about hearing his cockroach survivalist approach of living outside of the system and the wit and intelligence employed. I even hinted that maybe we should ‘try some his methods’, which we both later concluded was bat-shit crazy. Uncle Hap is committed to that life style; he will die that way as well. He’s a master of it, but there are no slip-ups and there’s no return to working a ‘normal job’. It was utterly uplifting to hearing his tales of outsmarting and beating the usurers, debtors and masters. In fact, I’ve had a generally more positive attitude ever since. Hap put it best when he summed it up to us: “This is class war Dan, not class negotiation.” After a lifetime of being tirelessly indoctrinated with and endless cycle of ‘Call me Maybe?” nonsense songs and furiously fast movies you just might encounter a song that actually means something, or better yet, you might meet someone like Hap.
Daniel Church is a writer and anarcho-syndicalist activist residing in Bakersfield, CA. He can be reached at Lfsdan@hotmail.com