By MAYA RAO
“Food stamps for sale, you want some?” a skinny kid asked me in the parking lot of Kmart.
I had just walked up to him and two of his friends outside the south Minneapolis retailer at Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue last week, while interviewing shoppers for an article about how Kmart’s location there is viewed as an urban planning mistake by city leaders.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I need some cash. You look like you need some food stamps.”
I introduced myself as a reporter and started asking what they thought of Kmart’s presence here.
They didn’t care.
“You want some food stamps, I got some food stamps!” the guy yelled to customers walking by, like he was peddling Buds at a ballgame.
“We’re food stamp hustlers,” he explained to me. “We could save you some money on food. As long as you don’t tell your co-workers about this.”
This is how it works, he said: If you buy $50 of food with his food stamps, you give him $25 in cash. If you’re spending $100, you give him $50. It’s a half-off discount on groceries.
“What are you going to do with the money?” I asked.
“Umm … pay my rent,” the guy said.
One of his friends said he needed to pay his phone bill, too.
“It sounds like you would have to sell a lot of food stamps to pay your rent,” I told them.
I learned that two of them were brothers; the third man was their friend. The group’s cheerful demeanor belied their desperation. The friend claimed they had gone up and down Lake Street selling various items, including an iPod for ten bucks.
“I got food stamps for sale, food stamps for sale, I got what you need!” one bellowed.
“See, if I was on the North Side where I belong, these would have been sold a long time ago,” said the man, a little dejected.
Then a middle-aged woman saw us.
“I wish I’d have known that,” she said, noting she had just bought her groceries.
“I got 200 [worth of food stamps] right now,” said one of the guys.
“Let me call my friend,” she said.
“I got what you need! I got what you need!”
The woman got on her cell phone. We waited. Then she said that her friend, identified as Bad Kitti, was interested and would be pulling up shortly in a Mazda.
“Give her 10 minutes and she’ll be here.”
The guys jumped up and down like they had just won the lottery.
“Sold to the highest bidder! BAM!” they yelled, high-fiving.
They wandered around Kmart while waiting for Bad Kitti to show up.
One of guys suddenly grew solemn as he explained why he wasn’t running this scam on the North Side.
“I’m a gay male, and everybody that’s gay ends up getting beat up and jumped” in north Minneapolis, he claimed. And he was put off by the crime, sharing his concern about a 22-year-old who was shot to death there last week while delivering lasagna to a neighbor after three boys tried to steal his bike.
“This world is just repeating itself,” he said as the 80s song “Don’t You Want Me” played over the Kmart speakers. “The world is repeating itself. If you read the Bible, it shows you in the Bible how the world started, how it ended, and it’s going through the same rotation.”
They went outside again. Everyone began to grow bored.
“Tell her we ain’t going to be here all day,” yelled one of the guys at Bad Kitti’s friend.
“She is on her way,” the friend assured them.
They started talking about how someone’s boyfriend was ugly. The guy who spoke to me about the Bible bought a homeless man lingering outside the store a bag of chips and a soda.
“Where’s the Bad Kitti?” someone hollered again a few minutes later.
“She’s on her way over,” the friend repeated.
Finally their client showed up. Everyone walked next door to Supervalu to wait as Bad Kitti conducted her shopping spree.
Why didn’t they just give her the food stamps and leave?
If it’s somebody off the street you have to instill trust, they explained. The customer doesn’t know if some random seller is giving them a card that has value.
One of the guys suggested to his friend that he try to get emergency assistance from the government if he was so hard-up for cash, but his friend said he didn’t have time. They had to pay the deposit on a new apartment in the next couple days.
“Ballin'!”one of them suddenly yelled.
“I like that song,” I said, trying to make conversation.
“I like that too. Wanna come out to the club with us? You got some hobbies? You like drinking?
As they ran off dancing and singing down the aisles, their friend told me, “They’re crazy.”
“Are they on something?”
“Oh no, [it’s] natural,” he replied.
Finally, Bad Kitti made it to the cash register and one of them stepped up to pay her $200 worth of food with his food stamps.
Bad Kitti gave them a $100 bill once they were out of sight of the cashiers. She got in her car.
Out in the parking lot, their friend got annoyed.
“I’m gonna need my 12 percent,” he said.
The other guys snickered.
“I want my money,” he pressed.
He explained to me, “I’m the one who brought them over here. I’m the one who told them to do it. I’m the one who’s going to be getting the money at the end of the day.”
“We’ve got 12 percent of food at home,” said his friend.
“Did I say food?”
I have no idea how they resolved it. It was time to go, and when I asked them for their names, they scattered like I had just told them I was a cop.
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