... because everyone is trying to keep the lights on.
You know how they say that everything is bigger in Texas? Right, right. Well, whoever they is ain’t never lied.
If you’ve ever been to any state fair, you know it’s a huge giddy-up, and if you’ve been to the Texas state fair in Dallas’ Fair Park, you’ve seen some things. Me? Well, I’ve never been there. Well perhaps once but let’s just say I… never made it to the door.
I know what you’re thinking, and it’s not because I was home less. To be honest, fairs just weren’t ever my thing. Long ATM lines, long waits for sub-par food and drinks, and even longer lines to ride the actual rides. It’s a whole bunch of “hurry up and wait” that I could do without.
So yeah, that’s why I’ve never been to the Texas State Fair. But I can still tell you all about it; it kept the lights on one night.
Ok, so just because I wasn’t going in didn’t mean that other people weren’t. You’d be surprised at how far away people come from once those bright lights come on.
Out-of-towners and in-towners alike pour in holding their pockets full of cash almost as tightly as their children as they walked toward those damn lights. The fair was a high-dollar event, but the surrounding neighborhood wasn’t. And so as you can imagine, the locals had the mind to hustle a little bit, take advantage of the foot traffic, and make some cold hard cash.
People sold T-Shirts, peanuts, bottled water, water bottles, umbrellas, hats, umbrella hats, you name it. Whatever they could get their hands on, they set up shop with and sold. That’s the thing about keeping the lights on — you never know what the day will bring, but if you can create a need, you can win. Build it and they will come, they say.
Well, let’s just say that I was one of those people one at one point in time.
I suppose it’s worth noting that the entire reason I was in Dallas was to go into business for myself. I was chasing big, humongous dreams, building a company with some colleagues; spending all my time turning nothing into something, an alchemy that I hoped would one day feed my kids’ kids. But in the interim I, too, had to eat.
And so the road to those big dreams was paved with countless bite-sized schemes to get me and the crew from A to B (and to C and so on). So whereas some folks might’ve seen the fair as a great big display of lights, we saw it as an opportunity to keep our lights on. And that’s exactly what happened one Friday.
I cannot lie, we were lucky. We knew Mr. Calvin. Mr. Calvin is a family man, a long-standing deacon in the church, and someone who “never worked for the white man”- let him tell it. The type of cat that’s just as much of the city as he is from the city and very well integrated into at that. He knew some of everybody and even co-owned some land about 1/4 mile from the fairgrounds. It was just a grassy lot but he gifted it to us for the weekend under one condition: “Stay out of trouble and try and make some damn money.” Simple enough.
To put it plainly, we had prime real estate. Just off the main drag and perfect for selling T-Shirts, peanuts, bottled water, water bottles, umbrellas, hats, umbrella hats and whatever else we could get our hands on. The only problem? We were home less and that meant we were too broke to get our hands on really anything without breaking the first part of Mr. Calvin’s only rule.
And so, as if a light bulb had been turned on, it was decided that we’d do the only thing we could do with land and no money. We decided to sell parking.
Well, not every great plan gets off to a roaring start. It turns out, all those middle class families from the suburbs aren’t to keen to leave their cars with some 20-something year old Black dudes in a grass field with no sign. So yeah, we struggled for the majority of the afternoon. That is until we got lucky again in the evening.
It started raining.
There are a lot of things rain can make a man do. But when it comes to the fair in Texas, turn around and start driving back home is not one of them. Now, what these people expected from a wet bag of cotton candy once they got inside, I have no idea, but as long as the fair kept its lights on, we were able to do the same.
From there it was simple math. 1/4 mile walk in the rain was a lot less treacherous than the 1/2 mile walk from the other parking lots (even if ours was sketchy and double the price). We started making money hand over fist; playing real life Tetris with people’s vehicles in Mr. Calvin’s grassy paradise. By the time the sun had set, we were sold out, and it felt good too.
No, we didn’t cure cancer or solve world peace or really do much of anything in the grand scheme, but we had ourselves a day and that meant the world to us. And even though we were still home less, we kept the lights on.
And so we celebrated with some chicken. All 4 of us sat around a big bucket at the shack up the street and dug in as the rain poured. We didn’t say much, just smiled because we knew Saturday and Sunday would be even busier. We’d found a hustle and built something, and they came. “Who knows?”, we thought, “this could be a trend that spills over into other aspects of our lives.” We were probably going to be millionaires, we figured.
All was right with the world, and that bird didn’t stand a chance. I slept damn good that night on that big red couch. I might’ve even fallen asleep with the lights on.
Saturday morning came and we headed back to our post with Mr. Calvin and if I would’ve known this would happen, I would have never left the lot Friday night. As the light from the sun peaked over the fair and the surrounding neighborhood we couldn’t believe what we saw. Spray painted lines, cones, and a sign all accompanied a man sitting in a chair with a water bottle and an umbrella hat.
It was Mr. Calvin’s co-owner who’ set up shop for himself! I’m not sure how, but word must’ve spread quickly that we’d done alright the day before. And now, he’d come in to get some action. Competition was fierce and we got got that day. I guess you can never underestimate your opponent, even when you don’t realize you have one.
After all, it was his land too, and Mr. Calvin being the diplomat he is, fired his car back up and dropped us back off. Talk about a quiet ride.
As we were pulling up we started splitting up the money from the day before to pay Mr. Calvin his share. He turned around with a smile and that’s when we got lucky one last time: “Don’t worry about it boys, you done good out there. Sometimes the early bird gets the worm. Save your lil’ money for a burger and a beer.”
And so I guess that’s the thing about keeping the lights on, even when you’re home less. There ain’t no rules to this shit. Sure, you can build it and they will come, but that’s about all you can do. They don’t too much care about who or where it’s coming from, and the more competition there is, the more power the customer has.
That dude probably made a killing those next two days, and that’s good for him. I remember thinking about at least a handful of things we would do the next year, but by the time the fair would come back I’d be long gone. Albeit not without some key takeaways:
- I learned that making a little money isn’t half as hard as keeping it.
- I learned that the early bird really does get the worm.
- I learned that when the fair is in town, everyone’s trying to keep the lights on.
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