I was sitting in my office. The lease had expired, the air conditioner was broken, and a fly crawled across my arm. I slapped him with the open palm of my hand and sent him out of the game.
Someone knocked at the door.
“It’s open,” I said.
I heard a dog’s claws on my linoleum floor, then a lady in high heels. She smelled pretty as a rose, and her dress swayed like tall grass in a cool summer breeze. The dog led her to a chair. She sat.
“I’m lookin’ for somebody to help me find something,” she said.
“Yeah?” I said. “I can find a thing or two. What is it?”
“I’m not sure, exactly.” She crossed her legs high, almost knocked my eyes out. “I hear about it all the time, but no one knows what it is. They call it a … blockchain.”
“Give me a little background. Talk to me, lady.”
“You can start by getting some crypto. It’s gotta be accessible. See a guy named Eddie Mars.” She got up and her dog led her to the door.
“Wait a sec. How do I get in touch with you? What’s your name?”
“You can call me Lady Death,” she told me. “And you don’t need to find me. I’ll find you.”
The door shut. I was alone, and my head was spinning like a merry-go-round at a two-bit carnival.
Crypto—I’d heard of the stuff. Cryptocurrency. Some call it investing. More like gambling if you ask me. It ain’t even legal in some countries. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Maybe I was in over my head already. But—call me gutsy, call me stupid—I was gonna look into it and learn what I could.
I’m no school kid. I asked around, even had to rough up a couple of guys to loosen their tongues. Then I tracked down Eddie Mars. I found him in a back office at the Acme Audio Book Shop, a shadowy figure with his feet on his desk.
He lit a cigarette. “I can see you already met my assistant, Canino,” he said, exhaling more smoke than my grandmother’s rumble seat roadster.
Behind me, Canino—the walking piece of muscle that had escorted me to my chair with all the respect an airline worker might show a piece of luggage at the end of his shift—grunted. I’d dealt with scum like this before. They were animals. I folded my cane and got right to the point.
“I wanna buy some crypto,” I said. “But the broker’s got to have an accessible website. An accessible iOS app, too. And I ain’t giving anybody my bank account number, see? So it’s gotta take PayPal.”
“You seem like a bright kid.” Eddie spoke smoothly, giving the impression he didn’t have a care in the world. “You ain’t stupid. I bet you tried eToro but didn’t care for what passes for accessible at that website. And I know the guys over at Kraaken won’t look twice at you without your bank account number.” He took another drag off his cigarette. “Maybe you should try Coinbase.”
Everything Eddie said was on the level. I knew I could be straight with him.
“Coinbase, eh? I heard it don’t work so well with Safari on a Mac.”
“Mac Safari’s got … problems. But Google Chrome can handle it. Firefox, too. “Crypto’s a tough world. You gotta play the hand you’re dealt.”
He flicked ashes on the floor and continued. “You got bigger problems than Safari. Every broker will make you verify. That means submitting a photo of your ID along with a selfie. It ain’t exactly accessible, but the Coinbase iOS app takes some of the hassle out of it.”
I stood and knocked my chair backwards. Listen, Eddie. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull. That Coinbase app has unlabeled buttons. Word on the street is VoiceOver won’t even read the portfolio total. You think I’m some kind of patsy?”
Before I could lean close enough to get my hands around his neck, Canino grabbed my shoulder. What a grip. Very persuasive. Made me think about things. Made me think sitting was better than standing. So I picked up the chair and had a seat. Turned out the chair was pretty comfortable, and the gorilla let go of me.
“I see my assistant has convinced you not to get bent out of shape about a few little accessibility issues.” Eddie drew on his cigarette. You’re right, though. That app’s got an unlabeled button. “Use the graphics labeler, two-finger tap and hold. And as for the portfolio, VoiceOver reads each line item, so don’t blow a gasket cause it don’t read the total. It’s no big deal.”
Now, I’m no lunkhead, and Eddie didn’t need to tell me twice. I downloaded the Coinbase app, created my account, and verified my ID in under half an hour. Once I funded the account with PayPal, I could buy most any crypto I wanted, and some I’d never even heard of, all at market prices. Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin … It was a smorgasbord. A veritable menagerie. But, I wondered, where, exactly, was my crypto.
“It’s in the blockchain,” Eddie said.
“Now we’re getting somewhere. What’s a blockchain?”
“You're a very nosy fellow.” Eddie opened a switchblade. “You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? They lose their noses.”
Eddie didn’t answer all my questions. It felt like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces missing. I didn’t want my nose to be the next missing piece, so I got out of there. Besides, I had other business. I had a use for the crypto.
The Uber I took smelled like fast food and sloe gin. The whole ride, I had questions. Questions about where the crypto was and how to actually spend it. But one question nagged at me like a broken record in a dance hall jukebox. What is a blockchain?
It was nearly two in the morning by time I stumbled into Rick’s Accessible Café. Sam played As Time Goes By on the piano for the usual group of regulars and deadbeats. Elsa was there, too. I could smell her perfume—could smell it a mile off, floating in the air like a butterfly. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world …
I sat across from her in our usual booth. “I got the crypto,” I said.
“I got the Maltese Falcon.” Her voice warmed me like a summer day, cooled me like a dip in the river, lulled me to sleep like good bourbon. It was a voice I could get used to. But I was starting to smell something other than perfume. I was starting to smell a double cross.
“I think you got the wrong movie, sweetheart. The crypto is to get you out of Morocco, to Lisbon, to safety.”
Elsa rattled the ice in her glass. “You can use crypto for a lot of things, Let’s do the deal.”
I opened my Coinbase app, selected Send, and specified the type and amount of cryptocurrency to transmit. Coinbase asked for permission to use my camera.
“Tell it yes,” she said. “I’ll select Receive, and you can scan the QR code on my iPhone.”
It sounded impossible. We were both blind. I’d rather land the Hindenburg in Lakehurst than try to scan a QR code with my iPhone. Turned out aligning the iPhones a few inches apart was a lead pipe cinch. Coinbase told me it had transmitted the crypto, and Elsa’s phone announced she’d received it.
“You using the Coinbase app?” I asked.
“No, I’m using Trust Wallet. It’s completely accessible, and unlike Coinbase, only I have the private key. If I want to keep it secure, I just delete the app until I need the crypto. Then I recreate the wallet with a recovery phrase.”
“Where does the crypto go when you delete the app?” I asked, a little confused.
She sipped her drink. You never really have your hands on crypto. It doesn’t really exist. It’s just an entry in the blockchain.”
“About that blockchain—”
“Don’t be a fool,” she said, cutting me off. “There’s some questions you don’t wanna ask.”
Crypto was a complicated world. There were things I wouldn’t understand, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not for the rest of my life.
I thought I was a smart guy, but I’d learned a thing or two tonight. I got my hands on some crypto, and spending it was easy. Maybe too easy. Still, that blockchain bugged me.
The street was dead when I left Rick’s. Dead and cold as a corpse. Before I could open my Uber app, some wise guy pulled me into an alley. Next thing I knew, I was pinned between a garbage can and a rainspout.
“We’d like a word with you.” It was Michael Corleone, scraping me against the brick wall like cheese on a grater. Now I’d done it. The mob was after me. But I was no maroon. If Michael was here, then …
“I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.” Don Vito Corleone paced in his Italian shoes. The Godfather himself. “You bought some crypto tonight. Lots of crypto. Then you transmitted it. And now we’d like our cut.”
Now I knew better than to mess with the Corleone family. If I wasn’t careful, I’d be swimming with the fishes in a pair of cement shoes. But there wasn’t much I could do besides plead my case.
“Well, uh, I’m a little light on dough right now. Maybe you can give me a week?”
“You don’t need a week,” Vito replied. “You already paid. Check your iPhone.”
Michael loosened his monkey wrench grip enough to let me swipe through my Coinbase transaction history. And The Godfather was right. I’d paid a 3.5% fee to fund my Coinbase account from PayPal, plus …
“What’s a network fee?” I asked, curious about the small fee I’d paid to transmit the crypto to Elsa.
“Crypto’s got costs. I got guys. All over the globe. Good guys. Decent guys. Call them miners. They work hard, making sure the blockchain is legit.”
There was that blockchain again. Everybody seemed to know something about it but me.
“I think it’s reasonable my miners get paid for their work,” Vito continued. “Don’t you agree?”
Michael tightened his grip on my neck. “If I were you, I’d agree.”
“Oh!” I stammered. “I agree! Excellent idea, Mr. Corleone, sir.”
“Good.” Vito’s shoes clicked on the pavement as he walked down the alley. “Michael, leave a reminder with our friend. We don’t want him to forget us.”
And the next thing I saw was stars.
I slept. Long, hard, and deep. And I dreamed about crypto.
Cryptocurrency software has some accessibility issues. You gotta try different solutions and be ready to work around some problems. Crypto is its own world, and learning its terminology and methods challenges even sighted users. Learn the lingo before you mess with these guys.
Call it crypto, call it dough. Whatever you call it, everybody wants a cut when you move it around. I learned the hard way about network fees. Even miners have to earn a living.
If you’re gonna buy it and sit on it, take Elsa’s advice. Delete your wallet. Hackers can’t crack into a wallet that’s offline. But make sure you keep that recovery phrase. I’ve heard stories about people who can’t get into their cold wallets.
That was one hard sleep. An alley ain’t exactly a mattress, if you get my drift. When I woke, a pooch was licking one side of my face, and a soft hand was caressing my swollen jaw on the other. It was Lady Death. She helped me to my feet, and we walked together under the amber streetlights, her with her guide dog and me with my cane.
“There’s got to be an easier way to understand the blockchain,” I said.
“You really are a lunkhead,”she said as her dog guided her around a fireplug. “The blockchain is just a database algorithm that stores the transaction ledger. Cryptocurrencies distribute it over a network for security.”
I still didn’t get it. Maybe I never would. But, as the predawn sun painted the sky the color of orange juice and tequila, I thought this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.