N-Coin13 min read

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Listen to our audio presentation of “N-coin” by Tobias S. Buckell. Narrated by Drew Mierzejewski.

You’ve heard of Bitcoin? You know what cryptocurrency is?

Yeah, you’ve heard of Bitcoin. But if you tell me you know what cryptocurrency is, you’re lying out your ass.

Do you know there are between two and three thousand alternatives to Bitcoin? A new cryptocurrency debuts every day of the year. Ever heard of BugPay? Dogecoin is based on a meme about a surprised dog.

And Negrocoin was the one that took me on the ride that’s put me here, ready to jump off the edge of Smith, Edgarton, & Schultz to my death.

It’s something I want you to think about while I stand on the ledge and look down thirteen floors to the pavement. Do you remember those photos of the people who leapt from the World Trade Towers that were published the day after 9/11? I’ve been thinking about the one of that man, in the air, arms back, head pointed down as he flew to his end.

My world is burning up behind me, my life a claustrophobic and choking hell.

I read a series of articles about people who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. What did they think about in the air on the way down?

A lot of them apparently changed their mind halfway down, the chemical lie of depression blasted away by the adrenalized reality of what was happening. Maybe more of us should take up skydiving, though I wonder if that would produce the same bodily reaction?

I wonder if I’ll change my mind halfway down.

That’s gotta suck, to die having changed your mind and not wanting to die anymore.

But listen, I appreciate your coming out onto the ledge to talk to me. You’re the janitor, right? Where are you from, again?

Right, Venezuela. You probably have used Dash. I heard a lot of people down there like that crypto because the currency there is totally destabilized. They tried to create an official government crypto, the Petro, but that failed.

Sorry, you know all that.

The short of it is, I just blew a billion dollars of the company’s money. There’s no coming back from that. It’s …

… it’s an amount I can’t even wrap my head around. It’s just a word. I keep trying visualizations to help me figure it out.

How many cars is a billion dollars?

How many people’s yearly income?

How many of our investors does a billion dollars represent?

Enough that I’ll never work Wall Street again.

* * *

When I was younger, my father told me that Gordon Gecko was the bad guy. In the film Wall Street, I thought he was a damn hero. I wanted the money, the cars, the status. I watched the Wolf of Wall Street and thought, if only they’d done less drugs, they could have ridden higher still.

I wasn’t going to be bent. I wasn’t going to whore and snort my way to an early grave. I was going to use my money to endow scholarships and help family members.

But it was quite fucking clear that moving invisible concepts around from broker to broker was going to be the way to make it to success, whatever you then did with that success.

You have to understand, the small town I came from was all about the jock culture, as if they were still living some ancient 1980s’ film. Everyone there thought sports were somehow the ticket up. The brainy and the non-sporty weren’t encouraged in any cultural capacity.

My family emigrated. The weird people from South Africa. White, but the moment my parents opened their mouths and sounded different, they were marked as foreign. I bet you know how that is, right? And in a small town, that was a liability.

One kind of folk didn’t like foreigners, of any kind.

And the other kind of folk, they were all excited to meet us until they saw us in person and their faces fell just slightly because we weren’t the shade they were expecting and hoping to make new friends with.

But Wall Street. Well, that was a Mecca I knew that only cared about green and certainly didn’t care where I came from.

Only that wasn’t quite true.

It turns out that Warren Buffet, the Oracle from Omaha, might be a famous stock investor from fly-over country, but being some kid from a town no one ever heard of made me a hick from the sticks wandering in, to most of the people at our firm. People kept trying to put me in on commodities.

What the hell did I know about pork belly futures?

But one of the grizzled old veterans put me in the cryptocurrency office because I was young and nerdy.

You’ll like it there, he told me.

But I knew as much about crypto as I did about pork bellies.

Which is how we end up here, with me thinking about how to kiss the pavement with extreme prejudice, and you by the window with your cart and mop.

* * *

My dad once asked me what the difference between investing in stocks and gambling was.

When you gamble, you’re just placing money on an outcome you hope for, right? When you ‘buy a company share’ you’re just hoping that the odds are in your favor.

I spent a lot of time talking to him about earnings and P/E ratios. This is quality guessing.

He asked for the name of a quality company, and I gave it to him. He looked up the company’s price, showed me the big dip during the recession.

Was the company somehow lesser, then?

No, but it was a great time to buy, I said.

At the end of it all, I still hadn’t convinced him to open a retirement account. People like him convinced me to leave for New York. And yet, now, I wonder how wrong he was.

I have a friend who only invests in companies that pay dividends. The idea, he said, is old investing. Your “share” of a company is a “share” of its profits. When did we start thinking that a share was something that rose in value to be cashed out later? No, we were supposed to be investors that were part owners of a company and enjoying a share of its income stream.

But you can’t get rich overnight slowly building up a basket of companies that pay a tiny quarterly payment.

So, the goal was to find something before it broke out huge. That was how you made your bones.

In the crypto department, we were researching the next hot thing. You wanted to be the fund that purchased Bitcoin at ten dollars and sells it at ten thousand.

We were running simulations and models on thousands of currencies, trying to figure out where and what to get in to make the executive suits happy. We were starting with tens of thousands here and there, and as we made more and more off the swings, millions.

I wanted to get in on something big, prove myself, and make some solid bonus money. I was grousing about this at a bar when my friend Geddy asked: ever heard of Negrocoin?

* * *

You ever been to Cuba? Geddy asked. They have these two currencies. One for tourists and the regular one. There’s an exchange rate. But the purpose of it is to keep regular things the Cubans need to be cheap and to soak the tourists coming in on whatever it is they’re after.

I’d never been to Cuba, but the dual-mode currencies is interesting enough to hold my attention, and Geddy is full of chatter about it.

Understand, in a bar on Wall Street, there’s this performative aspect to conversation. Data, a story about why something is the way it is, that’s the unofficial currency of the suited day trader’s social interaction. The bar is a stage. The one with the most fascinating story around a fact previously unknown to the group tacitly gets to monologue.

If you interrupt, you better come with something more interesting or you lose points from the gallery. And everyone in the gallery is waiting for their chance to monologue.

My girlfriend once said it was competitive mansplaining done by over-educated drunks with too much money and self-confidence.

But Geddy was interested in whether the dual currency system works, and a few currency traders from Goldman Sachs jumped in to explain why it wasn’t working so well for the Cubans. They got the floor and almost everyone’s attention, so Geddy pulled me aside and asked if I knew about Negrocoin.

Can you even say that? someone next to me asked.

N-word coin, someone else suggested. And there were a lot of nervous glances around the table and the nearby tables.

N-coin was what we all decided on, as Geddy looked at us like we were idiots.

I didn’t know as much about Geddy as I do now. We met as interns, went our separate ways, but used to drink together after work and still meet up once a month or so to talk shop.

Negrocoin is the latest cryptocurrency, Geddy said to us. It’s the hottest thing about to pop. And I’m the only one who can get you access to it.

Why was that?

Geddy smiled at us all. Because, he said, I’m half-black.

* * *

Now, to any of us at the bar, Geddy looked white as fuck. He sounded white. He moved white. He dressed white. But Geddy fished out a phone and showed us pictures of his family, and we could see the resemblance between his father and him.

Like, at first, I thought this was some Rachel Dolezal shit, but Geddy told us half his family was black and he just came out really white. He even showed us pictures of twins born where one came out white and one brown.

I should have known such things existed, seeing that my family had South African connections. But my family was white South African, and they didn’t talk about the family we’d come from or South Africa much.

If I wasn’t about to end it all, I think maybe that’s something worth digging into to find out what that’s all about, but … too late now.

Geddy, he was talking about his cousins in Alabama when I interrupted him.

What does all this have to do with the coin?

It went back to Tulsa, Geddy said.

* * *

By 1921, Tulsa had a successful black community that reinvested in itself. Greenwood had several grocers, movie theaters, doctors, dentists, lawyers, and a whole economy that was thriving with black-owned businesses serving black clientele.

When a white race riot exploded in Tulsa over black men trying to stop a young boy from being lynched, all the success and progress in Tulsa was burned down and hundreds of black Americans lost their lives.

Greenwood, once called the Black Wall Street, had been destroyed when it was all over.

One enterprising set of white guys flew a plane over Greenwood and dropped sticks of dynamite from the air, thus making the Americans of Greenwood the first people to suffer an aerial bombing.

Never mind the fact that recently-freed slaves were never given forty acres and a mule as repayment for their lost freedom and to try and start life out. When black Americans developed resources and success, in places like Tulsa and others in the early 1900s, it was stripped away.

Marcus Garvey and others preached black business and self-reliance. But Tulsa, some thought, showed that this could be snatched away.

But what was the answer? Even with integration, black incomes and wealth were still a fraction of others due to the long head start others had, the violence against blacks like Tulsa, and refusal of a larger nation to grapple with consistent inequality across the board.

So, cryptocurrency.

You can’t bomb or yank it away like in Tulsa.

Some enterprising black coders in DC had created a black-launched cryptocurrency for black-to-black transactions. Support black-owned business with black currency.

And, then, there was the inequality angle, right?

So, they did the Cuba thing. Black to black transactions were equal exchanges. But if you wanted to get yourself some Negrocoin, and you were white, then you came in at a different exchange rate. It was pegged to the difference in black-to-white wealth inequality.

And if you wanted to get in on it, you had to get it through a licensed broker who verified you in person.

Geddy was a licensed broker, who’d been vetted and could sell batches of Negrocoin to the company. Because he was mixed race, he was an official conduit and representative of white-to-black Negrocoin. Look, he said, black businesses were already doing brisk business in the currency, and it was growing every day.

Get in now, you were in on the next big thing. Because after hundreds of years of being held back, black enterprise was ready to pop big. And people were investing because this wasn’t about giving money to black folk, it was about investing in a cryptocurrency!

* * *

Smith, Edgarton, & Schultz started with a small position in Negrocoin. Understand, this was a currency that didn’t involve computers mining it to get Negrocoin, the amount of coin was based on how many black people joined the currency. If you were black and set up an account, you were given a certain amount of coin in your account. To “create” more coin, you added it via regular brokers by converting regular currency, at an initially equal rate, if you were black, and at the rate pegged to inequality if you weren’t.

But the currency was soon inflating beyond the one-to-one ratio to the dollar.

Smith, Edgarton, & Schultz got excited. Investors were calling about the hot new coin.

I mean, if rock and rollers could get excited about Elvis taking the blues from poor black folk and making it huge, can you imagine what a bunch of Wall Streeters would do with a black cryptocurrency that was blowing up?

There were only so many conduit race brokers around. The fact that it was like a secret handshake to get in made it even more like crack for investors.

My bonuses were more than my father made in his whole life.

It wasn’t long before Smith, Edgarton, & Schultz was into the hundreds of millions piled in.

We were betting on diversity, our website said. And making hundreds of millions more off it.

Within five months, I was responsible for moving a billion dollars in, and, in theory, it was worth three of four times that.

And then it all came crashing down.

* * *

I have to explain this. People get upset about the idea of the rich being taxed for services in this country. Add a small, notional percentage to the rich to fund transportation and there’ll be a mighty wail. Rich folk lobby in the billions of dollars and then some to keep taxes low.

And yet, you have something like Uber.

Investors piled some twenty billion into Uber, and the company makes almost three billion a year. Which sounds great until you find out it costs six and a half billion to run. Those fuckers are losing three and a half billion a year.

That means every ride is over-half subsidized by Silicon Valley investors. It’s one of the largest transfers of wealth from rich folk to taxi riders in the country.

President Lincoln hooked up slave owners with a cash payment of three hundred dollars a slave. General Sherman promised slaves a famous forty acres and a mule. That three hundred today would be equivalent to over seven thousand dollars. Unlike the cash payment to slave owners, no one ever did get forty acres and a mule.

There was something like thirty billion tied up in Negrocoin by investors, who came in on the white exchange rate. Even more by others who came in after the currency started rising up.

Least someone could do, Geddy said, after 249 years of slavery, right?

Look, the long and short of it was that the average white family had a net worth ten times that of a black family. Reparations, often discussed, hadn’t happened back then, and sure as fuck didn’t seem to be on the horizon. People who spoke about reparations estimated it needing to be a little over a trillion dollars.

Instead of a war in Iraq, it could have been solved.

So, Geddy talked about trying to get at least some of the money back, historically speaking. A down payment on those burned brokerages in Oklahoma, those broken backs in the days of the whip, and all those folk down south who were rounded up as “vagrants” after being freed and then used as free prison labor.


Smith, Edgarton, & Schultz wanted to know how every black person in America had logged on all at the same time on the same day and pulled out of the coin. There’d been no conversation online, no warning. Some kind of real life, community-oriented whisper network decided on a time and date, and then it was all just the investors standing around.

We lost a billion dollars as the currency cratered.

Hey, Geddy said, it didn’t have to crater. It was still a coin, they still owned it. We just stopped participating and took our savings.

Nothing illegal about it.

Did every original token owner make seven thousand? That was the rumor, that this was what they aimed for. That historical three-hundred-dollar payment back. But some invested in, so they made more. Geddy said thirty billion’s just a fraction of a trillion, but that at least it’s a start.

In the beginning, I’d been drinking scotch in the Edgarton and Schultz’s office as they talked about (lowered voices) N-coin.

At the end, I’d been screamed at by Smith, Edgarton, and Schultz all together. Their faces ruddy with fear and fury.

Borrow a hundred bucks and can’t pay it back, it’s your problem. Borrow a million, and it’s their problem. Geddy laughed when he said that.

But I don’t think it’s funny.

I know it’s a cliché, to be out here on the ledge as the market collapses. But what else is there? I put my life savings in. I wasn’t just Smith, Edgarton, & Schultz’s man with the connection. I was a believer.

My phone is ringing; hold on a second, Venezuela. I know you’re trying to do the right thing and all by getting me to talk while you hope the cops get here in time.

It’s Geddy. You remember Geddy?

* * *

He’s asking if I’m really from South Africa, and if I can prove it.

He’s telling me he’s sorry I put all my money in the coin, and that he can make it up to me.

And my stomach roils as the wind hits me a bit.

Look, Geddy says. It’s all about timing. You got caught, and you need to make sure you don’t ride it all the way out. But, have you thought about how hard the Europeans fucked Africa over? Taking their natural resources, their people, fomenting wars?

I want, Geddy says, to talk to you about new coin based out of Chad.

Just step off that ledge, he tells me.

It’s the next big thing.

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