The Side Hustle

To paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien, it is a risky thing to go out your door; there’s no way to know where the road will take you. He might just as well have said it about books: you never know where they will take you. Certainly it was true of his own books. Tolkien’s first readers must have had the feeling of Keats reading Chapman’s Homer:

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

(John Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”)

We will discuss Tolkien another time. For now, from the sublime to the (not really) ridiculous.

This is a book you won’t find reviewed in the New York Times: 1001 Ways to Make Money If You Dare, by Trent Hamm (Avon, MA: Adams Business, 2009). You can get it as a Kindle eBook or paperback on Amazon. Published in 2011, it is a book for hard times, written with an upbeat, rough-and-ready spirit. It has the hobo outlook. Read it with Woody Guthrie playing in the background. This is the ultimate guide to getting by, with a slight chance of getting over. Most of what is in this book you just basically won’t do, unless you’re really hard up.

Don’t get me wrong: the book delivers. It is almost 300 pages of ideas, no fluff, no bluff, no padding, no pandering. And many of these things, you could go out and do today. If you had the cojones, which you don’t. At a minimum, check out the Resources section at the end, a great list of web and print information. No one can read this book and say, “I can’t find a job,” or “There’s nothing I can do.” It’s the perfect gift for your slacker nephew or your adult child living downstairs on the sofa.

The operative term is “side hustle.” Herein lies the romance. Mr. Hamm’s father was a hardworking guy in his day job, but he had an entrepreneurial soul as big as all outdoors. No sooner was he home at night then he gathered the troops for an expedition to fish, sell bait, gather cans, pick up some yard work, whatever. The world was his oyster, to be shelled and sold at a local eatery; better, it was a Garden of Eden with low-hanging fruit on every tree. How could you stay home and watch TV, with all the opportunities out there? There’s a Russian-Jewish joke: “If I were a millionaire, I’d be even richer, because I’d take in sewing on the side.”

Let me give you a taste of Mr. Hamm’s suggestions (lightly paraphrased):

1. Start a day care. Find a room you don’t mind trashing, give it a cute name, and you’re off.
15. Host a “swinger” party and charge admission.
48. Run a roadside attaction. You know, like The World’s Biggest Meatloaf.
89. Pick up roadkill. Is it true that many highway departments will pay you for cleaning up dead animals? You’ll never know until you try.
116. Work as a day laborer. Some communities provide legal locations for this; otherwise, find out where it is done covertly.
166. Trade up on eBay. Read the story of the guy who worked his way up from a red paperclip to a modest house in Saskatchewan.
222. Take a punch for money. Best places to sell this service: gyms and bars during football games.
252. Clean out a barn. If you’re driving through the country and see a barn, stop and make the owner an offer.
561. Turn your car into an advertisement. Web link provided. Get paid for driving around.
646. Collect and sell animal urine. Apparently there is a market for it.
792. Develop real estate on Second Life.
850. Sell term papers. Slight moral compromise involved, but oh well.
990. Sell erotic baked goods. Make a niche for yourself catering to bachelorette parties.

Not all of the ideas are practical without education, training, talent, or skills; on the contrary, many are for those with very particular physical, intellectual, or cultural attributes. One I liked, for example, is 147., freelance data mining, “if you’ve got a head for math and algorithms.” Indeed! Unemployed computer scientists facing eviction will jump on that one.

Here’s my personal favorite: 525. Start your own religion. What could be more American (and with a better upside)? But that’s the point: people actually do these things, whichever ones they can think of, if their necessity or chutzpah is great enough. There is nothing strange about the underlying concept of this book: it is just the specific ideas that are sometimes surprising or amusing.

In fact, he leaves out the two biggest hustles, the most familiar and accessible in the world of the truly hard-up: prostitution and narcotics. One of the remarkable things about the book is how much he finds that is at least marginally legal. Crime is the real way to “get over,” and the underclass has always known this. He also leaves out many of the popular hustles that are not necessarily illegal or clearly immoral, but just plain ugly: spamming and phishing, garden-variety scams, etc. He leaves out the defining hustle of our time, the great financial crisis of the late 2000s. That is beyond ugly, of course, and is well-covered elsewhere.

Right-wing politicians love to proclaim the wealth of opportunities in a free society. Bingo. This is the portrait of a free society. For every “better mousetrap” that brings genuine benefit to people, there are—and have to be—hundreds of traps for the unwary and uninformed, thousands of inducements to vice, vanity, laziness, and every other base instinct. That is what keeps the machine running. It is hard to make a logically consistent defense of free enterprise and also condemn prostitution (or the commerce in drugs, or many things we normally consider criminal). Even among conventionally accepted “opportunities,” how many hinge on degrading the person who provides the service or exploiting the one who pays for it (or both)?

The irony is that the underclass will not read or even find this book. To find it, you have to deliberately research the problem of making money; you have to know where and how to look, and persist until you find the information you need. Numerous high-level skills come into play. The ones who have these skills are unlikely to need or use the off-beat wisdom this book contains. The ones who need it will encounter it only by chance.

Question for further study: How can this mode of thinking, and even the specific ideas suggested in the book, be used to help people on the bottom rung of society?

  • Morning Garden, a branch of Hands Together in Santa Ana, California, has organized a social enterprise to create tiny decorative birds, called “Birds of Hope,” from dirt-cheap materials. They are carried by upscale boutiques in Southern California and sell like crazy during holiday season; all profit goes to the homeless and working poor mothers of Morning Garden. Read about it here.

  • Go Fish, a non-profit organization also in Orange County, California, uses shredded old T-shirts to help impoverished women in El Niño, Mexico, make designer throw rugs. The rugs are beautiful, they sell easily and for a good price, and the women receive 100% of the profits. One woman has purchased the land she lived on through this enterprise, and others will surely follow. They also make stunning fashion handbags using soda- and beer-can tabs.