When you sign up to work for Ghetto Kroger, there’s one thing that you have to be ready for…a lot of poor people.
Hey, you may think that's a bit racist. All I can says is, relax.
In case you haven’t heard, poor comes in a lot of different colors, not just black. Poor isn’t a state of mind. And it’s definitely where probably ¾ of the people that are poor want to be.
Hell, I was poor at one time, and it sucked.
But, at least, I had car. Which brings me to Cowboy.
For all of those that haven’t been on welfare, during the first week of the month, a windfall of government money gets sent through the U.S. Post Office to thousands upon thousands of unemployed workers.
And a handful of those checks land right smack dab around the vicinity of Ghetto Kroger.
As anyone that’s been poor knows, it’s sort of hard to buy a car - let alone pay for insurance and gas. So, most of the time, many poor people use buses, cabs, subways and bikes.
Now imagine yourself having five or six kids, getting your unemployment check and heading to the store to buy a month’s worth of groceries. Not an easy task for anyone, especially someone that didn’t have a car.
Enter Cowboy and his beat-up Lincoln Continental.
Cowboy was a tall, lanky black man in his late 50’s early 60’s who, wore a cowboy hat and boots. He reminded me of a mix between a poor-man’s Morgan Freeman and, if you’re looking for a country music angle, Charley Pride.
But, as far as I recall, he didn’t listen to country music. I think, as time went on, his cowboy hat became synonymous with the legend, sort of like Superman and his cape.
Because, you see, Cowboy was somewhat of a Superhero in and around Ghetto Kroger - almost like a Good Samaritan Robin Hood who helped out the poor, while getting paid in the process.
Cowboy had a unique business. He would hang outside the Ghetto Kroger leaning against his Lincoln Continental and wait for some of these poor, unfortunate souls (white, black, latino, asian..didn’t matter) who would wander out of the store with two carts worth of groceries (and two carts worth of kids, I may add) who would suddenly realize that they had no clue how they were going to get home.
As I mentioned previously, in order to deter shopping carts getting stolen, the entire store was lined with these cement posts that stood about waist-high and prohibited shopping carts from gliding out into the parking lot and, more importantly, into bums' or, other peoples hands. For some crazy reason the shopping carts were always getting stolen.
In any event, Cowboy would swoop in (minus the cape), remove his hat to the unsuspecting customers, introduce himself and offer to drive family and groceries to their house for the small price of $5 (or best offer).
The first time I witnessed this phenomena, I was flabbergasted. Then, as it became the norm, I started to realize the importance of Cowboy's somewhat-lucrative endeavor.
Think about it. A cab would have been $15, maybe more. But, for the low, low price of five bucks you could get your entire family and groceries shuttled to your front door. Not a bad deal if I do say so myself.
As I was fetching carts outside, I would always be bombarded with “Where's Cowboy at?” or “You see Cowboy around?” This guy was more famous than Michael Jackson.
It was almost like Cowboy was a drug dealer - but his cocaine was his Lincoln Continental.
Another funny thing was, he always talked in the third person. “Cowboy can’t take you today.” “You pay Cowboy $5 and Cowboy take you where you want to go.”
Another thing I remember was when Cowboy was getting ready to leave for the day he’d yell, “Cowboy done for the day. Last trip for Cowboy.”
Echoes of sighs and ‘Damns’ would spill from the crowd - who were forced to find another way home - save the shoe-leather express.
Like I said, the man was a celebrity. He was living the American dream and doing what our forefathers envisioned – that every resourceful, able-bodied male and female make money and prosper any way they know how.
However, with every successful business (e.g. Crocs) comes a lot of stragglers trying to get in on the money (e.g. fake Crocs). And that was the same case with Cowboy and his successful business.
I think it was around December, or possibly January, when the fat man came started popping up in the Kroger parking lot.
Cowboy was bundled up in his faux leather jacket with fur hoody, smoking a cigarette (Marlboros of course) and yelling his catch-phrase to everyone that came out of the store: “Get a $5 ride from Cowboy."
All of a sudden this beat-up, rusty Chrysler LeBaron with a loud tail-pipe belching smoke from the exhaust pulled up right behind Cowboy’s car.
With cigarette in his mouth, Cowboy cocked his head and gave his best Different Strokes “Whatchoo talking about” look to the other car. He was truly, honestly enraged at this car.
He tossed his cigarette to the ground and walked over, pointing his long index finger at a pudgy black man - who looked like Proposition Joe from The Wire - pulled himself out of the car.
“I tol’ you this is my turf,” Cowboy screamed. “These here Cowboy’s customers. You git the fuck out.”
The fat man held out his arms in peace and let out a big smile. A crowd started to form around the two characters. I imagined that this was the wild, wild west and these two guys were going to duel – minus Robert Conrad or Kool Moe Dee.
“Free country." That's all the fat man said.
Cowboy walked over and stood face-to-face with the man and gritted his teeth.
“Cowboy’s getting’ real pissed off,” he said. “Cowboy goin’ to give you a mutha fuckin’ ass whuppin'. That’s what he a gonna do.”
I’m not sure if it happens for every guy that is about to witness or partake in a fight – but the hair on the back of my hair immediately stood up, alerting myself that something was about to happen.
“Okay now,” a voice from behind me said. “There’s not going to be any fights today.”
I looked back and saw the store manager, Mr. Hannus – the only black manager in the store who we’ll talk about later – with his arms crossed and a big-ass, off-duty police officer standing behind him.
If this was high school, they would be the principal and vice principal. At least that’s what if felt like to me.
Cowboy stared at the fat man. Then stared at the manager. Then, he stared back at the fat man again and walked over to his car in disgust. I believe he kicked an imaginary pebble on his way.
Mr. Hannus walked over to Cowboy, put his arm around him and whispered a couple things into his ear. I’m sure it wasn’t sweet nothings. In any event, they both glared over at the fat man and his car.
Then he walked over to the fat man and whispered something into his ear. Then Mr. Hannus straightened his tie, made a gesture with his hand to the police officer and shuffled back into the store.
Both Cowboy and the Fat man glared at each other. But neither said a word.
Suddenly a lady with two kids and a cart full of groceries came out of the door.
“You ready Cowboy?” she called out.
“Right here, ma’am,” Cowboy yelled, opened the doors of his, popped the trunk and, like clockwork, removed his hat.
The fat man, leaning against his car, lit up a cigar and yelled out to the lady.
“How much he charge you?” he asked.
“Five dollars,” the lady said. “Why?”
“Why?” the fat, black man said. “Because I charge four George Washingtons, that’s why.”
The lady looked over at Cowboy, then she looked over to the fat man, then back over to Cowboy one more time.
“I'm sorry,” she loud-whispered over to Cowboy. “It’s a whole dollar less.”
Then she walked over to the fat man’s car and tossed in her groceries.
Fat Man smiled. Cowboy fumed.
I had just witnessed capitalism in it rawest form.
"Wow," I thought to myself. "Now who says there are no jobs in the ghetto?"
Other Stories from Ghetto Kroger:
Story #1: Intro
Story #2: Magic
Story #3: Big Head
Story #4: Goldilocks
Story #5: Jonas
Story #6: The Restroom