Sunday, January 7, 2007

Free-Market Forces

Like any third-world city worth its salt, Baltiless' thriving underground/black market economy leaves its failing industrial economy in the lead paint-laced dust. As noted on by the city on their official fact sheet, it's the nation's heroin capitol and number 5 in cocaine. One can only imagine that the sole reason it lags in cocaine is the widespread abject poverty leaving cocaine out-of-reach for most Baltilessors.

Largely left to fend for themselves, Baltiless has spawned entrepreneurs who operate their businesses outside the Man's regulations and laws, accountable only to themselves, their customers and the gangs who shake them down for protection money.

I came one of the more innocent examples recently in the Waverly neighborhood. A hand-lettered sign propped against the wall of a gutted building that had formerly housed a restaurant read "Hey everybody! Lunch is served starting at 10am!" The menu had a column for side dishes at $1.00 each, including collards, mac & cheese and mashed potatoes. Entrees started at $4.00, including lake trout (of course) and fried chicken. The pies category had been crossed out. The bottom of the sign listed the number to call to place your order and the address of the house where you could pick it up. Sadly, despite the mouth-watering drawings, I was too short-sighted to actually try it. Apparently their business model failed, because I haven't seen it since.

Falling in the mysterious-and-highly-mobile category is a delivery truck I saw parked in the center of an intersection, pulled up alongside the median. A cardboard sign read "YES! We are OPEN!" One could walk up a ramp into the back of the truck to engage in god-only-knows-what kind of business. Whatever it was though, it was good times all around. Meat smoked on a grill they'd set up in the center of the median strip and Mylar streamers fluttered between a jaunty, Corona logo'd beach umbrella and the entrance to the trunk. There were actually several people milling around, apparently waiting for their turn in the truck.

The above may smack of scrappy, can-do, Horatio Alger-esque free enterprise, but other parts of the Baltiless shadow economy are more sinister, much to the gentle readers' surprise. The eastern outskirts of Baltiless are a preview of post-apocalyptic desolation. It's home to defunct factories, some light industry, potholes that could eat your car... and that's about it. One of the more lively intersections features an abandoned factory surrounded by a tall razor wire fence on one corner, a junk yard across the street, and out of nowhere, a row of houses on the remaining corner. Mind you only one of these houses is actually inhabited, but its residents keep busy. You see, they are just really, really into home electronics- stereos, VCRs, DVD players, TVs- you name it! When they get tired of the ones they have, they sell 'em off and buy some new ones. No problem! So every 6 weeks or so, they have a gigantic yard sale in front of their home. It's pretty amazing how much stuff they have. I mean, who'd have thought one household would need 7 TVs and 5 stereos? Or that, a month later, they'd have similar quantities to sell? They don't have the latest and greatest stuff, just the sort of equipment you'd expect to find in the average home. And they sure do buy a lot of it. Seems odd, but what else would explain why this small group of men in a shady area finds themselves with bulk quantities of home electronics to sell every couple of weeks...

Honestly, I really can't imagine why these people haven't been arrested yet, but maybe Baltiless' Finest like bargains just as much as the rest of us.

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