The Degen Market

A slanted photo of a bloody Al Pacino in the role of Tony Montana from “Scarface” hung so high up on the wall above the check-out counter that it almost hit the ceiling of the bodega. The weathered photo sat inside a plastic cover, like one you’d use to protect a comic book. Pacino, swathed in a pinstripe suit, held a machine gun in his right hand. The image hovered above the top-shelf booze — a couple of dusty bottles of Patron and one bottle of Johnnie Walker Red.

I couldn’t figure out if the photo was an homage to the owner’s favorite fictional character, or if he left it there as a message to would-be robbers. Maybe the owner was a fourth-rate drug dealer? After all, no one believed he was actually paying rent on a corner store in Pacific Heights by inflating the price of cigarettes and selling cheap vodka that causes unexplained bouts of blindness. I was convinced that the shady owner was involved in a money-laundering operation for a criminal entity or using the store as a front to move a significant amount of weight of an illegal white powdery substance that’s none of my fucking business.

Another photo inside a plastic cover hung above one of the four glass-door refrigerators where the overpriced generic milk and orange juice were displayed. Shaquille O’Neil, grinning ear to ear, stood next to the store owner. Both of them wore snazzy suits. By the look of it, the photo was at least a decade old, when Shaq first arrived in Los Angeles to play for the Lakers, and the owner looked much younger and had significantly more hair. He was actually smiling. In the two or so months I’d lived around the corner, I never even saw him smirk. He was the type of guy who woke up with a scowl on his face and only grew angrier as the day went on.

It was obvious the bodega owner’s two idols were Shaq and Tony Montana. It could’ve been a lot worse, like Kobe Bryant and Charlie Sheen.

When I moved to San Francisco, I soon realized the corner bodegas were essentially liquor stores that also sold cigarettes, condoms, soft drinks, and junk food. A couple of bodegas are located within walking distance of my house. The closest one is something we call the Degen Market.

My roommate, Halli, gave it that nickname because the owner is a degenerate gambler. Halli refuses to buy anything in the store after getting into a verbal joust with the owner. He was fretting over the score of a baseball game while shouting into the phone (presumably to his bookie). All she wanted to do was buy a pack of smokes and get the hell out of what she described as “the creepiest shop north of the Mission.” But the owner, originally born in Jordan, was more focused on bitching about his bad beat in mixture of Arabic and baseball lingo than ringing up a pack of cigarettes.

The wine selection at the Degen Market is limited to jugged bottles of wine or cardboard boxes. The selection of booze is sparse compared to the average bodega. The primary liquor shelf is stocked with cheap spirits — generic vodka and an unknown brand of Caribbean rum.

The Degen Market is an anomaly in this yuppie neighborhood. You know the type – those elite one-percenters who felt like they were doing their civic duty by voting for Obama. At any given moment, you’ll find someone pushing an uber-expensive Germanmade baby stroller that cost more than the blue book value on your car. Every 60 seconds, three women in black yoga pants stroll down the street with tightly rolled-up mats tucked under their arms.

The Degen Market shares the same block with a couple of antique stores and an animal spa specially designed for the spoiled pets of Pacific Heights that prescription-pill-riddled wives of hedge fund managers bring in once a week for a full-on treatment, transforming their canines into spiffy, pristine ornaments. You don’t want the neighbors to think you have a mangy dog, which is a dead giveaway for subversive anti-capitalist activity. Otherwise, the plutocrats will rat you out to Homeland Security for being a pinko-commie hash head who spends his weekends supporting Occupy Wall Street in front of the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve building with wooked-out anarchists angrily chanting for the end of the corporate welfare state.

The Degen Market’s massive freezer in front of the checkout counter looks like it hasn’t been opened in a few months, maybe even a few years. The ice cream inside is years past the expiration dates. All it takes is one glimpse at the sketchy-looking freezer, and you’ll instantly pass on consuming anything inside.

That, of course, made me suspicious. What was really in the freezer? If I were to hide something in plain sight, I’d do it in an obvious spot where no one would want to look. For example, a large sum of cash, a severed head, or some sort of contraband hidden snugly underneath a couple of bruised cartons of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Didn’t they go out of business a few years ago?

The Degen Market looks like it was hit by a first wave of hysterical people during a natural disaster. Most of the shelves are barren, save for a few random canned items and microwaveable popcorn that no one deemed a necessity during a potential apocalypse.

Two TVs sit on top of the fridges, and a closed-circuit screen is anchored to the ceiling. I’ve seen enough episodes of “The Wire” to wonder if the FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA, or DEA had tapped into his surveillance cameras to monitor the activity at the store. The more I thought about it, the more paranoid I got.

You can view the security cameras and both TVs while sitting behind the check-out desk. During the daytime, an old woman watches the news and talks on the phone. When the owner is minding the store, he always has on a different sporting event on one, if not both of the TVs. His viewing is not limited to American sports. I caught different European soccer games and even one match that included two teams from the Middle East. The writing at the bottom of the screen was in Arabic. I tried to make small talk.

“Who’s playing?”

“Shabab Al Ordon and Al Wehdat.”

“So who do you have?”

“Al Wehdat.”

I looked up at the screen completely puzzled at which team was which. I pretended to know who was who and nodded. “Ah, well good luck in the future.”

The owner is not a drug dealer. He is not a money launderer. He was a run-of-the-mill broke dick. Halli said that she’s seen the owner play poker at one of the local card rooms just outside of San Francisco. Ah, he’s living the American dream … Leave an oppressive Middle Eastern country, work your ass off to buy your own small business, drive around in a Detroit-made convertible, and then, at the end of the day, empty out the cash register and drive to the closest casino to test your acumen at a card game against crazy Asian gamblers. Only in America.

As if being a degenerate sports bettor wasn’t enough, he also had the fever for poker. If he had any skill, he’d be able to siphon off enough chips at the cash game tables to cover his sports betting losses, but the poker gods don’t shine any love on him at all. Much like the sports betting gods, his prayers often go unheard and always unanswered. No wonder the owner sits behind the counter with a sullen grimace, like a man plotting revenge on the neighborhood bully who lit his puppy on fire.

After Black Friday, it grew increasingly difficult to earn a living during online poker prohibition. So I hatched a plan. By Week 2 of the NFL season, I’d be booking bets for the owner. By the end of Week 8, he’d lose so much money that I could go down to the store at any time and take anything off the shelf, including the Patron. Isn’t that what everyone wants in life? The freedom and power to walk into a store and take something without paying. Anyone can buy something with fiat currency. It takes a special circumstance to wield power like Tony Montana or the hooligans from “Goodfellas” and walk onto another man’s property to take anything they want.

Of course, the main goal was to own the pink slip on his car by the end of the year and eventually own the store outright before the Super Bowl.

What would I do with a bodega? I have no fucking clue, but the idea was so crazy that I had to give it a shot.

I didn’t think about losing. If Las Vegas taught me anything, it’s that the house always wins. Always. Degenerate sports bettors will always be who they are. It’s in their DNA. They’ve been conditioned by society to think that chumps are the working stiffs, and that they are the ones really living on the edge. No matter how much they win, they’ll eventually donk it back off. Casino owners pad their pockets with everyday addictions. It might take a couple of weeks, it might take a couple of years, but over the long haul, it’s nearly impossible to outrun the juice laying 11-10.

But grinding out an income as a bookie? As the saying goes, “It’s a hard way to make an easy living.”

If I were to hide something in plain sight, I’d do it in an obvious spot where no one would want to look. For example, a large sum of cash, a severed head, or some sort of contraband hidden snugly underneath a couple of bruised cartons of Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

Paul ‘Dr. Pauly’ McGuire is the author of “Lost Vegas” and “Jack Tripper Stole My Dog.”

January 2012