As we transition toward a cashless society, no doubt the last cash holdouts will be those who work in illicit markets. Drug dealers want the lettuce. Prostitutes don't take credit cards. Or ... do they?
I've actually bought drugs without cash once before: I purchased psychedelic mushrooms in Amsterdam as part of a travel story for Slate. (Resulting in the trippiest expense report ever filed.) So, I could theoretically use my AmEx to buy another plane ticket to the Netherlands, and then some 'shrooms, and voila, cashless mission accomplished. But I don't think that counts. Those drugs are for sale in the open, in a shop (at least I think they still are—I haven't checked in on Dutch drug laws lately). Buying drugs in the United States is different. A strictly under-the-table affair.
So, let's imagine there's a fictional character named Smeth. Smeth knows a guy. Like, knows a guy. Last week, Smeth went to this guy's Brooklyn apartment and asked to buy a gram of weed. Then Smeth asked if he could pay for the weed using a $20 Target gift card. The guy scratched his chin. He acknowledged that he does live very near a Target, and then allowed that he in fact could use some new household wares. Smeth had a deal!
So it can be done. The cashless drug deal is not impossible. But I can’t imagine Target gift cards will become a favored underground currency. For one thing, this wasn't an anonymous street corner drug buy, which would have been a whole different ballgame. This guy knew how to find Smeth and extract what he was owed if it turned out that gift card only had three bucks on it.
Still, one illicit activity down. So what about buying sex? Not gonna go there, personally. But I did have an interesting experience on a recent airplane trip that may help shed some light on the matter.
As we were taxiing before take-off, the woman in the seat next to me struck up a conversation. She was touching my shoulder, smiling, laughing at my jokes. I got an incredibly warm feeling from her. Eventually, I asked her why she was flying to New York. She told me she was an escort on her way to meet a client for the weekend. No wonder I felt so bathed in affection—she was a pro!
I immediately started peppering her with questions about her job. After we landed and I got home, I checked out her website, determined she wasn’t hoaxing me for kicks on the plane, and then phoned her up to ask her a few more questions for this story. Among the things I learned: Her day rate is $2,400, her minimum $600 for two hours. And yes, she does take credit cards.
About 95 percent of her clients pay cash, which is her preference. Mostly because she can underreport it on her taxes. But also because it's less of a speed bump at the start of the session. The client just leaves an envelope full of bills on the counter and then excuses himself to wash his hands. No need to acknowledge the crass commercial underpinnings of the encounter.
With a credit card, she has to use a Square reader (which takes a processing fee) and look at the guy's license to confirm it's his card. Johns often don't want her to know their real names. And they don't want their wives to see a mysterious entry on the shared Visa bill. (My escort friend lists herself as a company with a generic, fake name and bills for "consulting services.") On the plus side, if the client decides midway through that he wants to extend a session, using a card means he doesn't have to put on his pants and go locate an ATM.
On rare occasions, she has also accepted barter. She once got a nearly-new 42" HD flat-screen in exchange for a 90-minute erotic massage. Try that at your local Best Buy.
As you might expect, she is wary of leaving a detailed trail of her transactions, which is why credit cards scare her a little. Too much cut-and-dried evidence in the hands of the imaginary district attorney who haunts her nightmares. And, in the end, this is the killer app of cash: It's untraceable. No one but you knows how you spent it or how you got it. You can go right ahead and blow it all, worry free, and not even bother with fig leaves like Target gift cards and “consulting services.”