February 2012– It was a crisp, late-winter evening in February, and me and two friends were arguing whilst briskly walking through campus. Despite the cold, the place was lively. Friends huddled around the union strategising on how to best seize the night, as a misty haze hung over the smokers outside the library. Students slung bags over their shoulders as they head back to their rooms, laughing either in large groups, or as couples cuddled together.
As we walked past the campus shop, all three of us looked up and observed just how busy it was. Customers were cutting in and out before it closed for the evening, loading up on drinks before student night at the local club. We paused our conversation and took note of the activity before heading downstairs, off the main concourse, not breaking stride as we skipped down the steps. I brought us back to our debate. “I’m telling you fam, he’s gonna start asking for more p’s (money),” I said, looking across the other two boys. “Look how active campus is, we can’t keep bumping him – he’s outgrown the wage.” “I hear you, but I’m not sure PB,” Anton replied. “I think we can get away with keeping him on the same money for now, you know. We’ll probably have to pay him more somewhere down the line, but I think we can hold off for a bit. Plus, there’s bare (a lot of) other people on campus who would sell for us.” He had a point to be fair. Between the three of us, we’d managed to grow a sizeable late-night food and drinks delivery business. Stupidly, (or perhaps tactfully the uni thought) the only shop on campus closed at 8PM, when many students were rolling out of bed, sweating out the toxins from the night before and looking to load up on more. Being the spirited, but flat-out broke students we were, myself, Anton and Kingsley decided to take advantage of this. We scraped together whatever money we had and went to the local wholesalers, bought stock and sold it straight to students on campus at night. We sold to everyone, and I mean everyone. Needed to pre-drink before a rave? We were there. Needed a snack during late night revision? We were there. High as fuck and had the munchies at 3 in the morning? We were there. Just broken up with your boyfriend and needed 2 bottles of wine and a box of chocolates? We were always there. The business was growing in a big way and we had a few workers who would take alternating shifts. We were on our way to the top salesman at the time, Sami, to collect some cash. I could sense he wanted a bigger slice of the creamier cake we were baking. Kingsley, who I’m sure was the 2012 incarnate of Peckham’s Del Boy, as always, wanted to squeeze on the money. “Nah fam, fuck all that! If he acts up, we’ll just find other workers. I ain’t taking shit from him, I’ll slap him.” Anton and I laughed. Make that a 2012 mix of Del Boy and DMX…
As we approached Sami’s building Kinglsey rang ahead to get him to open up. He buzzed us in and we strolled straight through to his flat which was on the ground floor, our footsteps echoing around the hallway. As we approached, Sami was at the door ushering us inside, something was hurried about his body language. His room was a mess, not your average few pizza boxes lying around mess. I’m talking police raid in the middle of the night type mess. The three of us were looking around when Sami cut through the silence “Guys, we’ve been robbed.” he murmured. “Ah shit” Kinglsey cursed. “Are you okay?” Anton and I responded in unison. We’d all grown to like Sami and could see he was pretty shaken. “Yh I’m fine, but they took all of it”, his voice was cracking and he was playing with his hands, rubbing and knotting them together like they were filthy. “What did they take, how much of it?” Anton asked. “Well it isn’t really your stuff they took…” Sami mumbled, not looking directly at any of us. The three of us looked round at each other puzzled, wondering what he was on about. “What do you mean?” Kingsley snapped. Sami finally looked up. “Guys, I needed a bit of extra money. It was only supposed to be short term, but I’ve been selling a bit of weed on the side…” I closed my eyes and let out a long groan as Anton reeled off a stream of profanity under his breath. Kingsley simply looked at Sami with sheer incredulity. “Guys you’ve got to help me! I’m in way too deep here. This guy I sell for wants his money back in the next three days!” Real panic stained his words. Sami was right, he was in way over his head. “Sami, I don’t get it… You’re a good yout (youth). Why get involved in this shit. It’s a whole different ball game,” I said. “I know, I know. I just need to sort this and then I’m out I swear,” Sami rushed. “How much and whose was it?” Anton asked. “Just over a grand. You know James, right? He’s on your course Anton,” Sami replied. Kingsley interrupted immediately, “So what, they took James’ food (weed) and nothing else, none of our cash?” The three of us looked at each other knowingly after Sami nodded. “Aight, Sami – sit tight,” gestured Anton. “Yeah, it’ll be fine,” said Kingsley, standing up. “We’ll try and hook you up with extra shifts and up your rate a bit, that should help you get back on your feet. We’ll be back around in the next few days to sort it out.” The situation had even softened our Del Boy a bit.
Whilst leaving the building I decided to say what we were all thinking: “James lined him up. He sent guys to rob his own worker and he’ll double his money when Sami pays him. They didn’t take anything else because they didn’t know he had anything else – James doesn’t know he sells for us.” Anton and Kingsley nodded. “Otherwise he would have taken it all, why turn down free money? In any case, we need to rethink how we do this…”
Today– Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first. Sami got through his madness and ended up graduating uni. He did go through an identity crisis, failed several exams and graduated with a considerably lighter bank account, but which student doesn’t? James wasn’t as fortunate and ended up not finishing uni and getting kicked out before his final year. Me and my two boys ran the business before winding it down ahead of graduating. Now we didn’t ever find out for sure whether James had set up Sami in the end. At the time (and in hindsight) it was the most plausible explanation for what had happened. Sami never found out and it wasn’t like he could just call the police and report it. James didn’t say anything and to be honest, we didn’t ask. He was the type of guy who drank Stella’s outside his building at 10AM, posted proudly next to his Renault Clio parked in the disabled bay, with tinted windows darker than his habits. He was well known on campus as a bit of a loose cannon. I wasn’t trying to get into it with guys like James at uni – it wasn’t worth it.
Whilst there are clear differences between our legitimate campus business and James’ attempt to be the university Top Boy, there were common traits that linked all of us. We were all extremely capable, very driven and highly entrepreneurial. I would argue that James was even more so than myself, Kingsley and Anton. Consider it, James had to operate a profitable business, including sourcing good product in the market, finding a loyal customer base and equally loyal workers but doing it discretely enough to avoid the attention of the university and the authorities. I mean it’s almost like working in an investment bank! The ability to be able to do this successfully should not be taken lightly. Of course, it goes without saying that James should’ve directed his efforts to something vastly more family friendly to make extra money and having ability does not make him exempt of the personal responsibility for his misdeeds. However, consider this argument: if you could make money selling a plant, such that you didn’t have to worry about the rent, or whether you’d be eating pot noodles for three years, or how you’d pay off 40 grand of debt; would you? There’s clearly a market for it. If you’re talented enough to build a business out of it, what’s the big deal? It’s very difficult to readily turn down extremely rewarding sums of money for what seems on the surface pretty harmless. Whilst my darker side is all for taking risks and screaming fuck the law, the fall out from operating a business this way is self-evident. These aren’t victimless operations unfortunately, enforcing trading boundaries, disciplining workers and dealing with competition all require moderate to extreme levels of violence and destructive behaviour. Consequences of such behaviour are life changing and not worth the monetary gain.
I’ve always found it interesting to compare investment banking and the drug industry. Drug barons who’ve been immortalised in film and TV are shown to be business savvy and ruthless, quickly identifying issues and dealing with them with frightening vigour. They’re often idolised as men of the people, supporting local communities and serving as a lightning rod for anti-establishment sentiment. Their story normally ends abruptly when Johnny Law finds them and locks them up or kills them, ultimately dismantling their operation and subsequently ridiculing the notion that these people could’ve ever been true forces for good. The irony here is that if they had chosen a different path in life they indeed could’ve had a much more positive impact. The skillset of a high-flying market trader or banking advisor versus that of an individual running a fully functioning drug enterprise aren’t too dissimilar. Strength with processing numbers, the ability to problem solve for a range of situations and a decisive streak all qualify you for both career paths. Whilst James was nowhere near a baron in his time at university, he built a successful business nonetheless. His real-life experience of what made a lucrative enterprise was worth a lot more than some of his peers who had only studied business theories from a book. He truly had the potential to be something great. The sad part is that all he probably needed was a word in his ear or a more relatable role model to nudge him along the right path. At some stage an inevitable criminal record will probably overwhelm and extinguish any potential that lingered.
To round up, I’m not making the argument that all drug dealers have the potential to be Richard Branson. On the flipside of that, not all squeaky-clean students will go on to achieve greatness. There’s a fine line between taking risks, breaking the rules and being off the rails. Finding the right balance is key.
The Poor Banker