I stood in the pawn shop and bargained with the old man. He had a story for every instrument I picked up, one of them acquired from the school-aged child of a friend, another belonging originally to a great street musician who had played all over Kansas City for years, still another one coming to the shop because of a divorce. The garrulous fellow needed to make a sale, so he kept talking, knowing that sooner or later the young man from the small town down south would find at least one instrument he couldn’t resist. He was correct.
I’ve told you about my trips to other towns, searching for merchandise to resell. I was on the road again, this time up to Kansas City, both in Missouri and Kansas. I had exhausted the usual shops I knew of and was just driving aimlessly, when I happened upon the large, dilapidated building in the mostly deserted downtown area of Kansas City on the Kansas side of the border. The man running the shop told me that the original owner had been his boss, but had died and the family had sold him the declining business. He and his elderly wife, a thin, angular lady with a disapproving look in her eyes, ran the dumpy establishment, just biding their time until retirement. As I talked with him, he invited me to stick around that evening to go to the casino with him and play the games of chance. Evidently he was a regular at one of the “riverboats” north and east on the Missouri River and received some sort of recompense for recruiting new patrons for them. I let him know that I wasn’t a gambler and turned the conversation back to the instruments. It would only take a an hour or two to prove how wrong I was.
As we looked through the hundreds of instruments he had in the dimly lighted, ramshackle place, the customers started to pile up at the counter. It was Saturday, the busiest day of the week for pawnbrokers, and the folks were waiting to pay the interest on their loans. A few had items to hock, others wandered around, looking at items for sale. The only other employee in the place was his harried wife, who did the best she could while he worked on making a sale to me. It was obvious that her best wasn’t enough for the other customers, but he ignored them and her, pressing me to buy first one junky horn, then another. Finally, he brought out his crown jewel, a battered tenor saxophone owned, he informed me, by a locally famous jazz player, who had lost the saxophone when he hit hard times and couldn’t pay the loan off. As I looked at the instrument, the brand name and model number rang a bell. Little did I know at that time that the bell they rang would awake the gambler in me. It would be a losing hand.
I remembered the horn from legendary stories about the men who played it. I was sure I had seen the sales figures in the thousands for it, so I wasn’t surprised when he quoted me a price of three thousand dollars. Nor was I going to pay that price. We bargained as the line grew longer at the counter, his wife calling him several times as the negotiations progressed. Ignoring her, he pressed me to a final price. Twenty-one hundred dollars, a deal if I had ever seen one! This horn, the Mark Seven was worth more than twice the price! As his wife screamed at him from the counter, I told him that I would take it! I handed him the cash and walked out of the shop, ignoring the angry scowls, both from his wife and the neglected patrons in line. I was going to make a lot of money on this purchase! Nothing else mattered at that moment.
I’ve heard it many times; the odds are always stacked in the house’s favor, and this time was no exception. As I drove south toward home, my mind on the transaction and the horn itself, I suddenly had a glimmer of an unsettling thought. Mark Seven? Was that the right model number? Could it have been the Mark Six that was the Holy Grail of the saxophone market and not the Mark Seven? With those questions in my mind, I found a telephone and called the Lovely Lady in the music store with my suspicion. She confirmed the awful truth. The horn I had just purchased for a huge amount of money was not worth anything close to what I had paid. I was devastated.
I found myself wondering why I hadn’t just taken the old fellow up on his invitation to go to the casino on the river. At least I wouldn’t have lost as much money as I did. Missouri has a law that only allows you to buy up to five hundred dollars worth of chips every two hours in a casino, giving you time to repent of your losses before throwing more money away. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have lost any more than the eight hundred dollars I eventually lost on that horn when I finally sold it.
Over the intervening years, I’ve had time to reconsider my original reaction. I was angry at myself, believing that my irresponsible purchase was just as bad as throwing away money on a game of chance. But, I see more clearly now that the difference is that I could take steps to insure that the uneducated expenditure of cash never was repeated in making a purchase. When you’re a gambler, a real gambler, no amount of education will make you a winner. Gamblers keep making the same mistake again and again, playing into the hands of the house. Their mistake? Walking into the casino with money in their pockets, believing that they will walk out with more than they had to start with. Is there a chance that will happen? Sure, a very small chance. But, I guarantee the only sure bet you can make is the one you choose not to make.
When I walk into a shop with money in my pocket these days, I carry a safeguard against the ignorance that made me a gambler instead of a shopper that day in Kansas City. I have a subscription to a Blue Book service which tells me instantly whether the instrument is the one I’m remembering and whether the price is a fair one or not. You see, I do learn from some of my mistakes.
No more gambling for me, thanks! What’s that you say? You’ve got an insurance policy to sell me? Yeah right! Like an earthquake will ever hit here…
“Gambling: The sure way of getting nothing for something.”
(Wilson Mizner~American playwright~ 1876-1933)
“…For by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved.”
(2 Peter 2:19~NAS)