Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Shakedown

There once was a poor man who lived in a tiny rented shack nestled up next to a railroad trestle that crossed a wide flowing river in the prosperous community of Freedom, Indiana. He didn’t have much, save the hope of building a future for himself and his family. Just beside his home he added on a small shop where he fixed shoes, and pulled just enough money to feed his kids and sometimes put a little aside to save for a bigger shop. His family couldn’t even afford a decent car to run errands with, so they rode the city bus everywhere they went. It was tough getting by, but he scrimped and saved, and worked hard to build a future.

Next door to the poor man there was a moderately sized general store. This store was owned and operated by a friendly fellow and his wife. Sometimes, when his children were home from school, they would also stock the shelves and help customers carry out their goods. The family lived in a comfortable apartment above the store, and parked their old but reliable car in the alley behind the place. The store was successful, but they still had to work hard and be frugal to keep things going. He was very thankful for the success of his business and had big plans for building it into an even greater success.

On the other side of the general store was large wooded lot with a gated driveway feeding back beyond the trees. What you could not see from the road was that the driveway led to a very large home that sat along the river. This elaborate stone home was occupied by a very wealthy man from the financial market and his family. This man had started out with very little, but had worked long days, a great many nights, and a lot of weekends to build his business into something that would provide not only for his current family, but also supply the needs of many employees, charitable organizations, and provide security for his future generations. In addition, the money he spent in the community had considerable impact on the jobs and lives of innumerable people who supplied services and products for the man, his family, and his business.

All three men knew each other and were friendly enough as neighbors. The wealthy man went to the shoe shop to get his shoes fixed and to buy new ones as needed. The poor shoe shop owner bought his supplies at the general store. The general store owner went the rich man to invest his profits so that he could plan for future development. All three men respected one another and encouraged each other in the success of their businesses because they knew that each one depended on the other in different ways.

However, a fourth man arrived on the scene one day. First, he stopped at the poor man’s shoe shop. He barged into the man’s shop, looked around with disdain, and walked with arrogance over to the man.

“You sure are a sorry lookin’ fella, aren’t you? I can see that you’re gonna need me to provide you with some protection. I tell ya what, you give me 35% of your take, and I’ll be here to make sure that no one messes with ya. What da ya say?”

The shoe repairman was frightened and worried for his family. He was barely making it as it was, so he could never afford to give the man what he was demanding. It would break him.

“Please, mister! I can’t do it! I barely make it as it is.”
So, the extortionist stepped up into his face. “Look, riff raff like you are a dime a dozen. I’ll step on you like an ant. You can pay up, or I’ll see that you’ll loose what little you have.”

Then, an idea struck the shoe man. “Well, you can squeeze what little blood I have in my turnip, or you can go somewhere else where you can find more serious money.”

“You got somebody in mind, do you?” asked the thief.

“Well, the shop owner next door has his own car and a nice apartment above his store. He can obviously afford to pay you more than I can.”

With that, the shake down man left the shoe shop and walked next door to repeat the process with the owner of the general store. When the man walked out of his shop, the poor shoe man thought nothing more about it and went back to his work.

At the general store, the discussion rolled along much as it had at the shoe shop.

“I can give you protection.”

“Protection from what?”

“Doesn’t matter what. I want 35% to protect you. Give it to me or you’ll pay a severe penalty.”

“But, I’ve only just begun to make this store really successful. You’re gonna squeeze me to death. I’d go under.”

“I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”


“Don’t worry ‘bout that. Just hand over the cash.”

“Please. I can’t give you that much. At best, I could give you maybe 25%.”

“Not good enough! I need more!”

Suddenly, just like with the shoe man, the store owner had an idea. He thought maybe if he gave the man a new target, maybe he’d leave him alone.

“Well, did you see that driveway next door?”

“Yeah. So?”

“It leads to the home of a very rich man. Go over there. I’ll arrange to give you 25% if you leave me alone, but I bet you could get more from him.”

Once again, the mobster left the shop and walked next door, and the store owner went back to his business. It was going to slow down his success, but he’d make it work somehow. He gave no thought to the rich man, or the plight headed his way.

When the criminal knocked on the rich man’s door, he was very impressed with all that the man had built for himself. The driveway was paved. There was a red sportscar in the garage. The landscaping was immaculate. And the house! Well, the house was huge! He knew he had hit the jackpot!

The rich man opened the door and stared at the strange looking thug.

“Can I help you with something?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so. I’m here to offer you my protection. In exchange for that, you’ll give me 35% of everything you make. You got that?”

“I’m not giving you 35% of my money! I worked my butt off for that money! That money supports my family and my business!”

“Look, fella. This isn’t really an option you have.” The man patted his colorful jacket just under his left shoulder to indicate that he had the firepower to back up his demand. “You’ll give me what I’m demanding, or you’ll wish you’d never been born.”

The richer man was in a corner. He had no where to turn, so he agreed to the demands. Each week, when his money was allotted, he would set aside the required sum and send it to his “protector.”

As time went by, the strain of the pay-offs took its toll. The rich man would ordinarily buy a new car every couple of years, but instead he just kept getting by with the one he had. His plans to expand his financial services company were put on hold, and he couldn’t pay the landscape company to work on his yard anymore. He even had to save money on his shoes, so he stopped going to the shoe man in the neighborhood, and started buying what he needed at the discount superstore across town. Ultimately, he had to lay off some employees and give others a pay cut to do more because of the burden he was suffering.

Next door, at the general store, things were not much better. He was paying off the protection money, but it didn’t leave very much with which to fund his expansion plans. His kids had to take out loans for their schooling because he could no longer afford to just pay for it. He was getting by. He wanted to add some staff, but that was out of the question.

Even the shoe man, who didn’t need to pay any of the extorted money, was suffering. Sure, his benefactor was true to his word. He sent him some business, but just enough to keep the lights on. However, his other business had slacked off tremendously. Even the rich man stopped coming by. Eventually, he became dependent on the support the mobster supplied.

One day, the rich man came up with an idea. Maybe if I get the guy who owns the store to stand with me, maybe we can run this guy off, he thought. So, he walked over to the store and proposed the idea.

“But, if I help you, he might come and want more from me!” the man countered.

“If we stand together, he’ll have to back off!” explained the formerly wealthy man.

“Well, okay,” he reluctantly agreed. “But, let’s ask the shoe man to help too.”

So the rich man and the store owner approached the shoe man.

“Help us stop this! He’s robbing us blind!” they begged.

The shoe man looked at them with disgust. “You guys have it all! You’re sending your kids to college!” he said to the store owner. “You live in a huge house and drive a fancy car!” he said to the financial planner. “Why should I help you? That guy you’re talkin’ about puts the food on my table!”

“But, he’s robbing us, and you’re suffering too.”

“Maybe if you started coming to my shop again, I wouldn’t be suffering so much. I’m not helping you. This man that you say is robbing you is feeding me. You can afford it! You’re rich!”

So, the two men left disappointed.

“At least you’re with me,” said the financial man as he put his hand on the storekeeper’s shoulder.

“Well, I’ve been rethinkin’ this,” he said as he pulled away from his neighbor’s touch. “If I help him back off of you, he might demand more from me.”

“But, if we stand together, we can stop him from taking advantage of any of us!” pleaded the man with the big house.

“I don’t think it’ll work,” said the man with the apartment. “You’re on your own. Besides, you can afford to pay more. You have more.”

Dejected, the two men parted company.

The store owner walked into his office, set aside the money for the “protection” and called in one his employees. He had to let another one go.

The financial guy walked back up to his house, entered his own office to prepare his pay-off, and then called the gym to cancel his membership. It was one of the latest of ways to save some money. He hoped he could avoid another layoff in his firm.

Over at the shoe shop, the cobbler kept fixing the shoes that the man sent him. He got no more. He got no less. He didn’t dare build his business up because ole Uncle Sam might come after him next, and he could not afford to pay out any protection money!

1 comment:

  1. Owch! Hit right on the mark for sure! I wish everyone could see this reality as clearly as you've written it here in your story. Good work!!