My colleague James Fair and I did a short documentary piece on the veteran hip-hop artist Tame One for Wax Poetics TV. Tame talks about his experience as an independent artist and the politics of dealing with major labels back in the ’90s.

Click here to read the story that goes with it.


Looking back to 2008 Kyle Cocchi views his taking a job in politics as a risk from the start — an endeavor he now compares to making it as an actor due to the lack of consistency in Washington’s political sphere. After finishing his undergraduate degree at The Catholic University of America and working on several campaigns, including John Edwards’ run for U.S. President, he landed a two-year gig with the think tank Friends of Cancer Research. There he performed several main jobs from around-the-clock data mining and news aggregation to program development, networking and advocacy. The end of that gig in September 2010, however, left him with no upward mobility in Washington, as the Democrats had suddenly lost steam and Friends of Cancer had less to tackle post-health care reform bill.

“It was discouraging at the time, but I wouldn’t take it back if I could,” says the 25-year-old Staten Island native. “Almost every job’s a gamble these days.”

Cocchi, who’s tall, fair-skinned and soft-spoken—at least until national politics or cancer research enters the conversation—decided to leave Washington for a new job arena, feeling burnt out and slightly abandoned. Capitol Hill had little left to offer it seemed. So he packed up his belongings and headed back to New York, home of the professional job juggler. As for his strongest credentials, Cocchi says he cultivated a work sensibility during his tenure at Friends of Cancer that places him ahead of the curve, or at least right on it: the ability to comfortably wear a dozen hats in times of severe austerity, growing political disparity and constant economic flux. Cocchi sees that as the realest sense of job security in today’s world, since few companies and organizations can guarantee long-term stability post-recession. When tough times call for flexibility, hats that aren’t needed can easily be replaced for other ones.

“When I went to D.C. I was an idealist looking for a career,” he says. “By the time I came back to New York I was a fully reformed pragmatist ready to enter any field that would pay me.”

After moving into an apartment with his father in Forest Hills, Queens, Cocchi began culling through all of the online job postings that required a similar amount of multitasking to his stint at Friends of Cancer; everything from a full-time editing job at the Huffington post starting at $40,000 a year to a part-time job at a small advertising firm with no listed salary. He settled on temp work in the finance industry; a more lucrative prospect with the opportunity to change fields again in the next year or two, depending on where the dice landed.

“I didn’t come back here looking for a job as a nurse or a teacher,” says Cocchi. “But I did come back here with my eyes on a lot of different industries; non-profit work, advertising, media, finance, even pharmaceuticals.”

The recent economic and political volatility impacting nearly everyone below the top 1% of wealth holders around the country has given way to a new sense of career gambling among young urban professionals. These days, unlike just ten years ago, the average 20- to 30-year-old with a colleague degree or higher expects reoccurring job changes and has at least two backup plans in motion at any given time. Job stability throughout both the private and public sectors has reached a drastic low since the peak of the recession, while individual mobility and adaptability have become all the more easy to maintain. In turn, fewer workers are considering the single-career path over the course of their professional lives, and more employers are finding ways to perform their own juggling acts when it comes to hiring, firing and taking on more freelance and temp workers.

We can tie it to our confused political system and fragmented labor market, even as the economy slowly recovers. We can also link it to the constant growth of the Internet and its most popular sites among those under 40—YouTube, Facebook and Twitter—making self-styled celebrity and entrepreneurial success seem all the more easy to obtain as traditional jobs become more scarce. But at the heart of it, the city’s and country’s populations are continually growing while the means to pay those for their fair work is shrinking, causing more professional loyalists to reconsider their professional loyalties.

“I have friend with a law degree who works as a communications director right now,” says Cocchi. “I also know a doctor who makes $45,000 a year. It can be hard to admit, but we’re not always as special as we think we are. Probably less special than we’re willing to realize.”

These days, artists who teach and actors who wait tables are just the tip of the iceberg. Meet the countless other divided young urban professionals: political workers who temp in finance, investment bankers who write on the side, journalists who work part-time in marketing and PR (and the list goes on…) They’ve always been around, but they’re growing in scope, and they’re no longer being discreet about their various survival techniques—or making their efforts and names as visible as possible.

On the upside, we’re beginning to wear our mismatched hats more openly, as we become increasingly compelled to think outside of the box and boost our individual productivity (even if that means a higher rate of tweets per day.) On the downside, we’re gradually abandoning long-term skill development and potentially diluting the quality of our better work. But love it or hate it, rapid socioeconomic shifts and industry changes throughout the country are causing many us to go through career paths like paper plates, as we begin to entertain the next alternative even when we find a steady gig for the time being. Those same shifts are also leading many of us to develop skill sets that may or may not work together on paper. But that all depends on how big industries continue to reshape and rebrand themselves.

As of now and until the economy really improves, it’s open season for almost any budding professional who wants to try on another hat for the time being. Its as easy as covering several numbers on a roulette board. While freelancing on the side has become all the more manageable for those already employed (so long as employers provide a base salary to live off of), companies and organizations have begun to allow their workers more freedom to freelance on the side (so long as the necessary job requirements are met at the end of each work week.) That allowance includes fewer non-compete agreements, more flextime schedules and more open access to networking sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for personal use.

“During the last downturn there were very few companies that went above and beyond to make their employees feel secure about their positions, so the minute the job market started to pick up, a lot of those same companies faced serious retention and loyalty issues,” says Lorri Zelman, Managing Director of the Human Resources Search Practice at the staffing solutions firm Solomon Page Group. “There are few companies and organizations that aren’t concerned with retaining talent, so knowing that most people want to be fulfilled both personally and professionally these days, a lot of employers have loosened the restrictions on what their employees do in their free time.”

But with more ways for young professionals to find new work, or create their own, retention no longer seems likely when the big bucks and benefits aren’t there. As a result, whether out of a sense of necessity or a sense of newly found freedom, the 10- to 20-year job routine has become all the more rare; especially in a city that tends to feel like everyone’s oyster until the aftertaste makes them too sick to stay. Even in the best of circumstances, job security is worth less than half of what it was at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, making the single-career path seem more and more like a high risk/high reward investment. Joining a start-up company that makes it into its third year and keeping your job in the process is an equally risky bet, but in times of uncertainty, that kind of gamble can seem more appealing.

Not to say that career investment has completely vanished (this writer is committed to journalism as a full-time profession.) But among the many working professionals who have their chips in one pot when it comes to their careers, the anxieties are often visceral. For the government workers, and those who rely heavily on government funding, it’s the concern over looming budget cuts and coinciding job losses. For the investment bankers and analysts, it’s the concern over new regulations and the result on financial salaries. For the medical practitioners, it’s the concern over weighted health care costs and a rising volume of patients per doctor. For the content creators, it’s a growing concern over the continuous abundance of other people’s content, and the mass audiences who now view music, news and other media as a free commodity.

In New York, the economics behind career longevity are tricky to measure, since no raw data for job tenure exists on the city level. The biggest indicators are in the movements of people themselves. The city’s population has continued to grow at an increasing rate over the past decade—slower since the start of the recession, but growing nonetheless—while unemployment remains almost twice as high as it was five years ago, up from 4.6% in April 2006 to 9% in April 2011.

As a result of those figures and a sharp decline in public and private spending since the beginning of the financial crisis, finding steady work in the city has remained an ongoing challenging for those in search, with fewer full-time positions available. In larger industries like advertising and retail, companies have started to hire again as business gradually picks up, but the majority of those companies are expanding their workforces in small doses with less of a cushion for new employees. Smaller industries like publishing, on the other hand, have found it all the more difficult to keep their books open, while the city itself has continued to shed government-funded jobs by the month.

For those who have maintained stable positions in their fields over the years, one of the biggest concerns is a growing compensation-productivity gap, which hit a national all-time high in the past 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means the average U.S. employee is working more and receiving less in return at a growing rate. In media, the signs are obvious: AOL’s acquisition of The Huffington Post in February 2011 prompted a new requirement for the merger’s staff writers to produce between five and 10 stories a day, up from five or less, with no indications of a pay increase for their quicker turn-around.

“With so many developments in technology, more Blackberries, more means of remote access, etc, people are typically working longer hours and taking on more work,” says Zelman. “So burnout levels are increasing and employees are staying at one job for shorter periods of time. These days, a lot of people will go into a job saying ‘ok, I’m giving it a year or two, and if they take care of me I’ll stay. If not, I’ll move on.'”

Of course, in the fickle world of finance that mindset might prove slightly more fleeting as money markets steadily improve. But it’s no less significant considering the recent changes on Wall Street post-2006. After the subprime mortgage crisis hit and the federal government began to clamp down on banking, Wall Street suffered not only a revenue decline, but also a branding issue that it continues to struggle with even as profits steadily return. Bankers, no longer the well-protected risk takers of the 80s and 90s, have been left with three basic options in recent years: 1. Be the decent and accountable good guy and be willing to make less. 2. Be one the one who still plays dirty and nervously cover every track. 3. Be a big swinging dick and face public castration.

“In finance, there has never been that tactile sense of creating something, but for a long time there was the reward of being well compensated for dealing with the pressures and criticisms of the job,” says one New York-based sales trader, who has worked in the finance industry for 12 years. “Now people coming into the field are starting to realize that the big checks aren’t always guaranteed, despite the sweat. I think the underlying thought for a lot of these people is why not translate my skills into something more creative.”

The infamous Goldman Sachs alone has seen the passing of several financiers who were betting on something other than finance: Cristina Alger, the former Goldman analyst who’s getting ready to publish her family-drama novel The Darlings; J.C. Davies, the former Goldman analyst who recently published her nonfiction book on interracial dating, I Got the Fever; Allen Mask, the former Goldman analyst who released two online hip-hop albums, “Pilot Season” and “Sweet Dreams.” While working in finance and pursuing a side career in the arts has become common practice in recent years, it’s no secret that many of the same professionals doing so would have received far less acceptance from their employers and colleagues no more than a decade ago, when moonlighting and rapid job changing in the corporate world signified disloyalty.

In 2011 it’s more often a matter of self-preservation. And few can criticize. In tough times like these, the best potential outcome of more people taking on more roles is a rise in productivity and innovation throughout the country, especially in big cities. Ideally, the employed, self-employed and unemployed are spending less time resting on their laurels and more time coming up with new ideas and viable ways to make money, as fewer long-term job opportunities become available.

When Kyle Cocchi cashed his chips in on making a lifelong career out of political advocacy, he felt momentarily defeated—like a frustrated tourist leaving Atlantic City with empty pockets. But in the long run, remaining on unemployment for too long was like getting barred from the casino. With that in mind, almost any industry would do as long as it provided an open window for another year of work and another set of skills to keep him marketable.

“It’s not really about what kinds of jobs you do to get by in tough times like these,” says Cocchi. “It’s about the amount of time between each job on your résumé. It had already been a few months for me and I didn’t want that gap to get any bigger.”

—Damian Ghigliotty

On a cool October night in 2005, my close friend Mike told me that our friend Orlando was dead.

We were standing in our narrow hallway in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and I could sense his effort to keep his voice steady. In that awkwardly fixed tone, Mike told me that Orlando had died of a brain aneurysm the previous morning after spending six days in a coma. He had just received an email from Orlando’s manager and close friend in Chile, which had been sent from Orlando’s account. The sudden news explained why Orlando had mysteriously disappeared that summer — a question that had remained in the back of my mind ever since.

All I really knew about his past was that he came from Chile and grew up playing the drums. I didn’t know what to say to Mike at the time though. I knew words wouldn’t help, so I asked him if I could read the email. The sender had written that she was able to speak to Orlando the night before he passed away.

“I know you were a good friend to him and we all thank you for that, he told me those were his best years of his life,” her message read. “Orlando is buried in ‘Cementerio do Sao Paulo’ under the grave of Orlando Batista Dariabolo.”

She also mentioned that he had left behind an apartment in Rio de Janeiro for Mike and our friend Brian to share. The two of them had been much closer to Orlando than I. They had all gone to the same college, shared an apartment in West Philadelphia, and spent most of their time together making music and trading bizarre stories.

For me, hearing about the loss of a talented musician who treated friends and strangers with equal sincerity left an indescribable feeling between frustration and sorrow. Seeing my closest friends lose their closest friend simply hurt.

What intensified that feeling was that no one knew whom to reach out to in order to find out more about Orlando’s death. Mike repeatedly called his phone and sent replies to the email, but he never received a response. Other friends who had received similar emails sent replies to the sender as well, but without any luck.

Everyone wanted the chance to say goodbye, or at least find closure in the sudden loss of a close companion.

So a few weeks after the news of his death, 50 or so of Orlando’s friends, colleagues and former professors held a memorial service for him at Drexel University. Some told stories and showed videos of Orlando in his most candid moments. Others quietly shed tears. The feeling shared by everyone was permanent loss.

At a dimly lit bar in Queens a year later, Mike, Brian and I touched glasses to memories of Orlando at his best: a lovable weirdo who once claimed “Who’s the Boss?” was the best TV show ever. No one outwardly mentioned his absence, but the feeling hung over us like a broken light fixture until we finally walked out — with Mike and Brian for days after.

Then, nearly three years after the news of his death, I got the real news: Orlando wasn’t dead. I found out in the summer of 2008, while Mike and I were visiting Brian’s parents in New Jersey.

“Can I tell him?” Brian asked Mike in a hushed voice.

“I’ll tell him,” Mike replied as he anxiously pulled on his cigarette.

Mike had received a cryptic voice message from Orlando that week. In his message he told Mike that he was hiding out in Brazil, and asked that he avoid trying to contact him because it wasn’t safe.

Even though he had already heard the news, Brian looked completely stunned. I’m sure I did too.

After that night, random calls, emails, and Facebook requests gradually confirmed what Mike had told me. Orlando is alive and well. He’s even doing concerts in South America, according to his status updates. But none of us have seen him since his falsified death.

I recently contacted Orlando to let him know I was writing about his reemergence among dozens of friends and colleagues who believed he was dead. As we exchanged messages about his disappearance, he told me he had been kidnapped for reasons he couldn’t mention and that he had indeed fallen into a coma back in 2005.

“I don’t remember too much. My memory is all fucked up,” he told me.

According to several of Orlando’s friends and relatives from Chile, his illness was a reality, but none can vouch for his kidnapping or the obituary email that was sent. They all say that Orlando is living safely with his family in Copiapó.

“Well, he’s not dead,” his cousin, Julia Veronica Cruz Rojas, wrote to me. “He’s doing just fine actually.”

According to several of Orlando’s friends and colleagues from Philadelphia, Orlando occasionally spoke of people who were after him and his family. But there was never any proof of that. On both sides of the equator, no one can say that Orlando was ever in any real danger beyond his own ailments. His active Facebook page adds to that doubt.

What’s left is a lingering sense of bewilderment among those of us who were at his memorial service in 2005.

“It all seems blurry looking back,” said Felicia Wong, who had also lived with Orlando in Philadelphia. “Maybe that’s because it wasn’t real in the first place. But I do remember that he loved his friends, so I can’t imagine him consciously putting us through that and letting us believe it for so long. Even if it was a momentary lapse of reason.”


Orlando allegedly died for three years and then reappeared out the blue. It was if he had used death as a way to say farewell to his friends in the states.

When I found out that Orlando’s brain aneurysm was a facade, it took me a little while to make sense of it. But as the peculiarity wore off with time, what seemed as equally astounding as hearing about his reappearance was how he so casually resurrected himself online soon after — like nothing had ever happened.

For Facebook’s living users, it’s natural to overlook the countless ways the site resurfaces random photos and bits of information tied to its dead account holders. More often than not that realization takes the real death of a loved one.

Last summer my sister and her friends were impacted by the loss of their friend and neighbor Andre Donald, a sociable 36-year-old who loved to cook snapper and went by the nickname Squinty Don. At four in the morning on August 26th Andre slammed his Honda Accord into a government dump truck on the Brooklyn Bridge and died on impact. The news station WPIX reported his death within the hour.

I had talked to Andre for the first and last time a few weeks before his collision, and his death left me with a feeling similar to the one left by the news of Orlando’s. Except Andre’s death was no illusion and his Facebook page has become a virtual tombstone because of it. Dozens of friends and acquaintances continue to post semi-public R.I.P. messages that can be viewed by anyone else linked to Squinty Don on the social networking site. Some even post messages as if he were still alive, including Happy Birthday wishes.

“I think it’s nice,” my sister’s husband, Ben, told me. “It provides a place for people to go when they want to remember him.”

Appropriately though, if you weren’t friends with Squinty Don before he passed away, you no longer can be.

I asked my sister what she thought about his active Facebook page and she voiced a clear concern. She said she was worried that his page could also become a too-frequent reminder for those who were closest to him, especially if a living friend were to receive an automated message saying: You haven’t connected with Squinty Don in a while, say hello.

That was a shared concern among dozens of bloggers who were quick to point out a big oversight when Facebook began automatically generating suggestions for its users to reconnect with one another on October 23rd, 2009.

Three days later, Facebook’s head of security, Max Kelly, wrote a blog entry about how to “memorialize” an individual’s page, meaning the page will be taken out of public searches and no longer appear in a friend’s suggestion box. But nowhere in his post does Kelly mention a way to completely remove a dead user’s account. As of now, it takes a court-issued subpoena to do so.

A large part of that has to do with the value of those pages. Both Orlando Rojas and Squinty Don remain a benefit to the social networking site, dead or alive. Advertisers on Facebook are able to generate fresh revenue from the site’s dead account holders, so long as their pages continue to receive clicks. As Facebook’s users pass away, while the number of advertisers on the site grows, that ad-revenue also inevitably grows.

“If you have a friend or a family member whose profile should be memorialized, please contact us, so their memory can properly live on among their friends on Facebook,” Kelly wrote at the end of his blog post. “As time passes, the sting of losing someone you care about also fades but it never goes away.”

Even more so, the sting of losing someone can also become painfully numbing when it’s mechanically triggered… and then triggered again. That’s a ubiquitous story. Media has always found ways to keep death in limbo, too often sterilizing its natural affect on us. And even some of the best writers and reporters have failed to capture the most visceral feelings of those who have suddenly lost a loved one.

Florentina Williamson-Noble, a 22-year-old New York University graduate, lost her younger brother Andrew when he committed suicide on November 3rd, 2009. Andrew took his life by jumping from the 10th floor of the NYU Bobst Library that morning. At the time Florentina cursed the reporters who had exploited her brother’s death without considering her and her family’s grief.

“I realize it was a big story to them,” she said, “another NYU student commits suicide. But I was so angry with the journalists who had used his Facebook page to get information about him. Of course Facebook had no way of knowing, so we were fortunate that a friend of Andrew’s was able to go into his account and make it private. After that we had his page memorialized, which has been nice.”

Florentina’s mother, Esmeralda Williamson-Noble, has written about her family’s loss on several occasions. Since her son’s death, she has kept a personal a blog called Forever Invictus dedicated to Andrew, and has also written about his suicide for the Huffington Post.

In one piece titled ‘Michael Blosil — Death by Suicide’ Esmeralda wrote, “Although not famous, my son’s death was all over the internet and the media before we had even made it home from the hospital. A picture of Andrew, taken from his Facebook home page, was splattered everywhere.”

For those who have had the death of a loved one immortalized on the web, the best path is too avoid any stories or images that will arouse unwanted pain or numbness, Florentina told me one evening..

But despite the discomforting reality of it, there will always exist personal channels — under the surface of what we see, hear and read in the open — that allow us to stay connected to the loved ones no longer in our lives.

“I still send emails to my brother Andrew,” Florentina told me in a surprisingly peaceful voice. “It helps me feel close to him. Every once in a while I feel the need to ask him ‘Why did you do it?’ But most of the time I send him messages to let him know how much I miss him.”

Nothing has changed in the way we yearn to stay connected to those who have left us; what has changed is how we deal with that yearning. Florentina and her family, Mike and Brian, and those closest to Andre Donald can all attest to that.

—Damian Ghigliotty

Some might see the new age of professional business bloggers as a sign of progress — even if those bloggers rarely leave the office or pick up the phone to report and wear ironic t-shirts that say things like, “Trust me, I’m a reporter.”

If you ask me, it’s further proof that journalism is experiencing an identity crisis.

In early April, Dan Colarusso, the former New York Post Business editor and a longtime newspaper veteran, contacted me to see if I’d be interested in a summer internship at the high profile business and media blog, The Business Insider. The rate for graduates was $12 an hour and most of the work involved simple news aggregation. About as appealing as administrative paperwork to a scientist.

But I would have the chance to observe the much talked about banned equity analyst-turned-blogger Henry Blodget run his new media outfit, and I needed the work.

“This also might be a good place for you to catch up on the twitter phenomena,” Dan told me when I came to see him at the blog’s former office and confessed that I was a little out of touch with new media. “To be 100% honest, I don’t know if this is the future of journalism,” he said. “But I might not be the best judge of that.”

“My blackberry doesn’t even fully work,” he added with a comforting laugh.

“Mine doesn’t either,” I replied in all honesty. “Maybe it’s about time I got it up to speed.”

I was ambivalent about the idea of taking a step backwards in order to go forwards. But after seeing most of my freelance gigs disappear, along with the last few job scraps on Poynter and mediabistro, I contacted Dan a few weeks later to see if there were any openings left. He graciously invited me on board — signaling, again, his own ambivalence about the place — and told me I would join the Insider’s Clusterstock team starting early June.

When I walked into the new office space for my first day, I put my intern hat on and reminded myself that this was just another stepping stone into the age of post-postmodern journalism.

The first assignment the Clusterstock editor handed me was to cull through and a multitude of sports blogs to come up with the 10 worst franchises, in terms of payrolls and home-game attendance, for a multimedia slideshow. He also asked me to search for photos online to put over captions he would write. When I asked about the protocol for reusing published media, he told me not to worry about it, so long as the photos weren’t from a traceable publication — like say, ESPN.

That was the first sign that something was off.

The next morning the Clusterstock editor told me to go through a list of financial blogs and pitch three story ideas based on recent blog entries about larger news stories. After that, I was put to writing up email alerts, finding photos and doing other intern stuff.

A few hours later, he asked me to run through the financial blogs again and pitch three more story ideas.

“Sure, but why don’t you give me some feedback on the first three before I get started?” I asked, trying not to sound too unappreciative.

“That’s a good point,” he said, “I’ll do that in a little bit. Why don’t you just go through those blogs again in the meantime?”

Out of curiosity at that point, I stood up to get some water and glanced over at his computer screen. He had the blog’s heat map pulled up and was totaling the hits on his posts from that week.

That was the second sign.

Later that same afternoon two of the Silicon Alley Insider editors started to trade jokes and giggle over the New York Times’ horrendous earnings report for that quarter. I had heard similar jabs from bloggers several times before, but I finally realized then that bashing the Times has essentially become proof of one’s own merit in the world of blogging — even for those who rely on the Times for information.

I started culling through older Business Insider posts to see what the general consensus was.

One staff editor had actually written in a post titled “Newspapers Must Be Allowed to Fail”: “Watergate broke because an FBI agent, aka Deep Throat, didn’t like the way Nixon politicized the FBI — not because Woodward and Bernstein sleuthed it out. Source will always find the biggest megaphone they can to get their views out.”

In other words, reporters are dependent on their sources and the smart ones should just hang around the office and wait for a phone call (or a facebook message.)

I was scratching the surface of information so these guys could take cheap shots, grammatical errors included, and then go back to praising twitter. And then it hit me. Where’s Dan Colarusso? It was a fairly small office and I hadn’t seen him either day.

I asked out loud where he was, but all I got were blank looks and faint mumbles. So I waited about an hour and asked again. I never got a straight answer, but all that mattered at that point was that Dan certainly wasn’t there and, from the looks of it, he wasn’t coming back. “There goes any obligation I had to this place,” I said to myself.

That night, I emailed the Clusterstock editor and Business Insider’s publisher to let them know I would need to cut down on my hours to pursue freelance commitments elsewhere.

The publisher wrote me back the next day, informing me that under the circumstances it would be best if they released me from my internship.

“I understand,” I wrote back. “Please send my check for those two days to the following address.”

“Are you serious?” she responded a few minutes later.

“Yes. I came in and worked for those two days, and these are tough times.” I wrote.

Her next response read: “In two days you did not contribute productively to The Business Insider, rather you consumed resources while we trained you. You may send an invoice for those two days if you really think it appropriate.”

Wow. Their CEO Blodget gets $5 million in new funding for his blog — the third round of funding in its less than two-year existence — and I get a snippy insult when I ask for my $192 in return for aggregating news for the site.

Newspapers and magazines are dropping like flies, cable networks are just a few steps behind, and even the blogs that thrive off of their failures are feeling the unbearable lightness of being.

—Damian Ghigliotty

By Damian Ghigliotty and Matt Townsend

For years, savvy New York smokers avoided cigarette taxes and saved money by rolling their own.

But after President Barack Obama signed the Children’s Health Insurance bill in February, the taxes on a pound of roll-your-own tobacco jumped more than 2,000 percent from $1.10 to $24.78 when the law went into effect on April 1.

“I was buying regular packs of cigarettes before the price went up to $9,” said 21-year-old Eric Reeves of Brooklyn. “Then I started rolling my own. Now that the price of rolling tobacco is going up as well, it’s hard to say which one will save me more money.”

City smokers already faced the highest cigarette taxes in the country at $5.26 per pack. Add a recent bump in the state’s non-cigarette tobacco tax and the price of roll-your-own, once a cheaper alternative to cigarettes, has doubled to as much as $10 a pouch within the five boroughs.

Now as New York delis, pharmacies and smoke shops have begun raising prices on roll-your-own tobacco, smokers are seeking out the last of the pre-tax inventory.

“They’re running all over the city looking for cheaper prices,” said Dhillon Singh, a sales clerk at Village Cigar in the West Village.

The federal government has taxed tobacco products since the early 1950’s, but roll-your-own tobacco was exempt until a 96-cent tax was imposed on every pound in 2000. The tax rose to $1.10 in 2002, and remained unchanged until congress increased it in April to mirror taxes on regular cigarettes, according to congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation. A typical pouch of roll-your-own tobacco makes 40 cigarettes and is now taxed at 5 cents per smoke, the same as a pack of Marlboros.

“These products have been perceived to be replacements for cigarettes,” said Darreyl Jayson, vice president for the Tobacco Merchants Association, a non-profit trade group. “The thought was that these should go up to an equal level.”

The state began taxing all non-cigarette tobacco, including roll-your-own, in 1989 at 15 percent of wholesale prices. On April 7, state lawmakers increased that tax from 37 percent to 46 percent as part of the budget. The state separately taxes a pack of cigarettes at $2.75 and the city adds another $1.50.

“The hope is that if New York can get the prices on alternative forms of tobacco up, we can discourage the next generations from picking up smoking,” said Julianne Hart, the New York State director of advocacy for the American Heart Association. “The tax revenue can be used for other important public health programs, which are desperately in need of revenue right now.”

As a result of the tax increases on all forms of tobacco, the Department of Health projects that 20,000 of the city’s 1 million smokers will quit.

“Before you were paying half as much and getting twice as many smokes, so rolling your own was the obvious choice,” said Philip Nicolazzo, 23, a Brooklyn resident who works for the U.S Census Bureau. ” I really don’t know what I’m going to do at this point. I might have to quit smoking.”

But die-hard smokers looking for a deal still have alternatives.

Joe Kearns, a 49-year-old homeless man, recently sat on a bench outside the Classic Smoke Shop in Greenwich Village and said a few weeks ago he would have been puffing on Top tobacco, one of cheapest brands of roll-your-own, for $2.50 a pouch. But now that it’s doubled to $5, he’d rather bum cigarettes and smoke thrown-away cigars he finds on the street.

“I’m not going to pay $5 for that,” he said.

Mohamed Khlid, owner of the Classic Smoke Shop for the past 10 years, said roll-your-own sales have fallen 75 percent since the tax increase.

“It’s not just 50 cents, it’s doubled,” Khlid said. “People are shocked.”

The tax increase has also forced some tobacco companies to discontinue roll-your-own products. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribal Tobacco Corporation, based in Grove Oklahoma, stopped selling its one-pound bags of Skydancer rolling tobacco after demand plummeted.

“The people just don’t want it anymore,” said Seneca general manager Steve McCormick. “What’s happening across the board is people are going back to cigarettes.”

Fake Money Orders
So many scams, so little thought.

Within the past five years counterfeit check schemes have exploded across the Internet as scam artists have shifted from fake mail lotteries to online fraud. In the past year alone, the United States Postal Inspection Service seized over 600,000 fake checks worth more than a fake $2.5 billion combined. Yet, according to USPIS estimates, the overall number of counterfeit checks sent to potential victims in 2008 is likely four or five times that.

In late December I placed an ad on craigslist to sell a piece of audio equipment. I posted the ad from Queens with a selling price of $600 and a clear message at the bottom that I would not ship and that the buyer must come to pick up the device in person.

Within two days I received five responses from potential “buyers” offering to send me money orders in exchange for the device. I knew they were all scams involving counterfeit checks (likely from Nigeria, the world capital of fake check schemes.) But I wanted to see for myself how these scams were supposed to play out. So I decided to pursue one.

The most detailed response to my ad came from So that was my bait. Wait, I mean catch… I was the bait.

The responder, who went by Michael Sean, told me he was out of the country on business, but that he would send me a money order through express mail and have his assistant pick up the device after I securely deposited the cash.

Ok, I thought, let’s see what comes of the bullshit. I had already sold the device.

Soon after I agreed to take my ad off craigslist and hold the item for him, I received another email explaining that his assistant had mistakenly mailed payment for more than the requested $600. Michael courteously apologized for the inconvenience and asked if I would be so kind as to wire the difference to his father, Gabriel Sean, in London through Western Union. In exchange for my troubles, I could take an extra $40.

I replied with a few unassuming questions:

How much more had his assistant sent and how much would he be expecting me to wire back?

Could I just give the remainder to his assistant when he or she came to pick up the device?

How could I get in touch with his assistant to arrange a pickup time?

No response.

Two days later I received another email from Michael letting me know the money order was safely on its way and would arrive the following week. “Sorry again for the inconvenience,” he wrote, “I appreciate that I can trust you with my request.” Screw this, I thought, it’s more work than it’s worth. I replied by telling Michael I was well aware he was trying to scam me and that I was completely unimpressed with his lack of consistency.

No response.

Then about three weeks later, on February 3rd, I received a brown wax-paper envelope heavily postmarked from the Republic of Benin in West Africa, right next to Nigeria.

Inside were four international money orders, each for $950. The money orders were dated January 13th — more than a week after I had sent my last email — and carried the remitter name Jerry D. Holbrook, the Chief Financial Officer of Fox Chase Bancorp in Hatboro, PA. That wasn’t hard to find on Google. Nor was the fact that Mr. Holbrook’s name has been used several times in previous fake check scams.

Nonetheless, my “buyer” still thought he could pull one over on me. I suddenly became agitated. After I had blatantly told him I was privy to his scam, he expected me to go out and cash the money orders, wire more than $3,000 to an unknown party, and owe my bank the full amount after the checks bounced!

Was he dumb? Or did he think I was dumb?

I had to take it just a little further at this point. I emailed Michael to let him know I had received his payment and that I was heading over to my bank. A few hours later he replied:

“I am happy you have gotten payment. Like I said in my previous email, go ahead and get them cashed at your bank, deduct your payment and send the balance via Western Union to my dad on the following details:





Send me the transfer details after doing that. i.e. MTCN (Money Transfer Control Number). Western Union will give you that after doing the transfer, and the total amount sent after deducting the charges. I need to send it to my assistant to take care of some pressing bills and to help me arrange for a pick-up by FedEx.

I will wait to hear from you as soon as possible. I AM SORRY FOR THE DELAY. YOU CAN TAKE $50 FOR THE STRESS YOU WILL GO THROUGH.



Over the next week I called the USPIS.

“The most prevalent scams have always been fake foreign lotteries,” said Allan Weissmann, a U.S. Postal Inspector. “What they’ve started doing in the past few years is adding a fake check or money order to the scheme as an extra twist, which has lead to all kinds of money order scams over the Internet.“

That begs the question, how many of these scam artists are actually artists? The Internet allows for plenty of fraud, but it also allows for plenty of carelessness. Online scams are about as abundant as online pornography and myspace music pages, and often just as sloppily produced.

“What throws unsuspecting people off is that by law their banks have to make the money available within a few days,” said Mr. Weissmann. “But that doesn’t mean the check has cleared.”

Obviously, I never cashed the bogus money orders, but that didn’t stop Michael Sean from sending me more emails to see when I would wire his payment back.


—Damian Ghigliotty


As George Orwell put it, “It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”

If these words mean anything to consumers and investors around the world, it’s to those anxiously waiting for the bottom:

The bottom of stock markets, the bottom of housing and credit markets, the bottom of ambiguous recessions muddled by GDP reports.

Perhaps Orwell would top even Warren Buffet as an oracle.

In a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, Buffet assured investors that now is the occasion to buy American stocks. Not a bad idea, considering the Dow was at a low of 8,578 the day before his piece ran. But that suggestion looks less promising than it did two weeks ago as stock markets continue to tumble. Today, the Dow closed at 8,176.

Buffet, himself, has lost $9.6 billion in equity this year, according to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal.

He did write in his call to investors, however, “Let me be clear on one point: I can’t predict the short-term movements of the stock market. I haven’t the faintest idea as to whether stocks will be higher or lower a month — or a year — from now.”

The CEO of Berkshire Hathaway can certainly afford the gamble, despite his loss. For the rest of us, there are plenty of opportunities on the horizon to buy cheap and lend at high risk with a chance of reward, plenty of opportunities for new home seekers to go bargain hunting, and plenty of opportunities for graduates to find jobs once companies start to hire again. But not until the economy — at least ours — truly bottoms out.

It’s a matter of physics. You can’t pick something up when it’s still in the process of falling. Sure, you can try and catch it mid-fall, but that might just hurt your hands.

In the meantime, enjoy the little perks: overheated rent prices are beginning to cool down; Barack Obama stands a better chance in lieu of McCain’s displays of financial ineptitude; there are more free ATMs available for WaMu customers (maybe even ATM fees will start to decline as a result); and everyday goods and services, with a few exceptions, are getting cheaper – just wait for gas.

Some of those perks might not help lift the economy, but se la vi, the economy’s going to the dogs anyway…

—Damian Ghigliotty