All Due Respect just published my third novel, The Sin Tax. It’s about the shady business of gray market cigarettes, but it was almost about baby formula.
A while back, I worked in one of the tourist-clogged neighborhoods of New York. At lunch on a nice day I would sit outside. Sometimes I’d see a guy in a fishing hat approach people on the street with a story about how his newborn needed formula. He and his wife had flown in with the kid two days ago, his wife found herself unable to produce milk, and they were waiting on a check to come in from his old job. In the meantime the baby was thirsty. He was good at what he did—a young man who looked sweet and worried. He had a picture of the baby on his phone, and he knew how to coo at a small screen—there she is, my sweet potato.
Let me first say that there are probably a lot of very sincere people asking for baby formula on the streets. It’s likely most of them are in need, and you should give generously if you can afford it. For a few reasons, though, I started to get the feeling that the guy in the fishing hat was running a scam. At first I thought the point was just to get cash. He certainly didn’t turn down ready money, but he seemed just as happy when someone would take him into Rite Aid for a can of Similac. Then I stopped seeing him and forgot about baby powder.
A few years later I had a friend who worked in a deli somewhere north of 135th Street. It was a good place to hang out in the summer. People would often come in the store and try to sell them things—cases of soda, tee shirts, paper towels, smoked meat. They’d wave away most of it. You’re not going to take a bag of smoked meat from a sweaty guy off the street. But there were two things they would buy consistently—cigarettes and baby formula.
So I thought a lot about formula. It’s not gold, or cocaine, or rhino horn, but it’s a respectable value for the weight. And then I thought about the guy in the fishing hat again. He obviously had no problem turning formula into money. That’s why he was as happy with a 12.4 ounce can as he was with a five-dollar bill. And sometimes he’d do even better. A citizen feels pretty good about himself if he gives a needy young dad fifty dollars-worth of baby formula, better than if he just hands the guy cash. Everybody wins.
Some crazy things come up if you do a little research: rings of formula thieves run by suburban matrons who repackage the stuff and pretend to be legit wholesalers; kids loading up plastic garbage cans with sixty pounds of Similac and sneaking it out of Walmart; armed robbers trying to make their way into a Nestle warehouse. But ultimately cigarettes were easier to write about, so I went that way.
There was also a deli in the neighborhood that sold crack out of a back room—but that’s something else entirely.
Preston Lang is a writer from New York. His work has appeared in Thuglit, Spinetingler, Out of the Gutter, Crime Syndicate, and WebMD. The Sin Tax, published by All Due Respect Books, is his third novel.