Along the Way: Open for Business
The dangers of believing in easy money
They promised we’d be rich. We were college students, my friend Jon and I, and in the blessing of a lifetime, we’d been asked to attend an exclusive, Tuesday night, invitation-only event in a small conference room at a chain motel near Greensboro.
The invitation came during my summer 2000 internship at the High Point Enterprise. A museum tour guide I’d interviewed followed up with an unsolicited note that started, “You seem like a sharp guy, Mike.” Flattery goes a long way with me, and I read on.
He’d just become a partner in an online store-like-company named Quixtar, he said. He invited me to check it out and bring a friend. Jon, one of my four roommates, had orchestrated a $5-per-cup keg party to raise enough cash to buy a washer and dryer for our off-campus rental house, so he made an ideal associate.
We dressed in baggy khakis and joined 75 other lucky people to witness a presentation that started with a video of a family in a red sports car.
The message was clear: This could be you.
I was 20 years old and dreaming of retiring.
A line of speakers delivered anecdotes about getting rich. I remember one, a middle-aged man who told the story of the proudest day of his life, when he realized he was financially secure. To celebrate, this man said, he scooped his three children in his arms (he made the motion in front of us). When his wife got home from the office, he told her, “Honey, you never have to work again,” and shoved the screaming children into her arms.
To achieve this future, all we had to do was sign up to become a “business owner” for $200 and receive a starter pack of cool products, like dish soap that requires only one small drop to fill a whole sink! Then we’d bring six new people to the next meeting and get them to buy the products, and they’d be “business owners,” too. Then they’d bring six people, and so forth.
This was nearly 20 years ago, but the question of what we’re willing to do for money, or the promise of money, still intrigues me. We see it all around North Carolina. In the election fraud scandal in the Ninth Congressional District, one less-told aspect of the story was that the people who did the groundwork—those who actually walked door to door to illegally harvest ballots—were the poorest and most desperate in the pyramid, making as little as $100 a week to rob neighbors of their votes.
In 2016, when the state legislature passed House Bill 2 to override Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance, business after business pulled out of the state. In response, the city rolled out a marketing strategy that included a message that said Charlotte was “open for business.” Three years later, boy, are we ever.
Cranes and conventions, new taxes and tolls, and damn near every road under construction. Money is flowing so fast it’s hard to keep up. Every time I drive past a new building, I wonder: Who’s really benefiting from this? Who’s taking a little, or a lot, for their personal accounts?
This summer, at a writing conference in Texas, I met the author Walter Kirn, who wrote a book about Christian Gerhartsreiter, a con man and murderer who eluded the law for years by coming up with aliases, including “Clark Rockefeller.” Kirn learned that for most con artists, the audience is as much to blame as the artist.
“The last bastion of the human ego is the belief that you cannot be deceived,” Kirn said. “It’s not that we’re dishonest; it’s that we all want a little more than we deserve.”
How did “Rockefeller” fool people for so many years? “Three words. Vanity, vanity, vanity,” Kirn recalled. “I find out who you wish you were but fear you’re not, and I treat you like that person you wish you were.”
His words made me think of Charlotte, this city I love, always so eager to become something. Yes to political conventions, regardless of the trouble that follows them. Yes to construction, no matter how it changes the neighborhood. Yes to raising the sales tax. Yes, yes, yes.
Seems to me that one measurement of a world-class city, which Charlotte undoubtedly wants to be, would be the confidence to say no.
As for us and our Quixtar business, Jon and I paid our $200 and became business owners. I attended an awkward conference in Winston-Salem where, in that summer before the 2000 election, the speakers didn’t talk about money so much as anti-abortion politics. Still, we went through with our commitment to invite our “six”—all college friends—into the business. The museum tour guide who’d invited me gave the presentation. He showed the video of the sports cars.
Thankfully, my friend Billy was in the room. He’d graduated and already worked for a rental car company. He’s one of those folks who says a lot by saying a little.
“Wouldn’t you like to make $35,000 next year?” the man asked Billy.
“Already do,” Billy said.
“Well, wouldn’t you want $35,000 more?” the man said.
“I’m good,” Billy said.
When the presentation ended, the man left, and Billy laughed from his belly: “Y’all are trying to get me in a pyramid scheme?” Quixtar, we’d learn, was an offshoot of Amway, which now calls itself a “multilevel marketing firm.” Billy explained to us what he knew about those, and the next week Jon and I, down $200 and embarrassed to the core, gave up on this easy money and all the nonsense that came with it.