This story was originally published at the The Kernel, the Daily Dot’s Sunday magazine.
As I stood on a Brooklyn street corner late at night with one hand gripping a wad of cash in my jacket and the other clutching the smartphone in my pocket, an old memory hit me. The place looked exactly like a street corner where I bought weed once (or maybe twice) in high school.
This time I was making another transaction, one that could also confuse bystanders and get a second look from local police. I was getting ready to buy bitcoins.
There are plenty of other ways to acquire the virtual currency. There are even Bitcoin ATMs in several cities in North America. But sites like LocalBitcoins.com—a Craigslist-inspired directory that brokers real-life transactions for a modest fee—serve a very specific type of clientele, those trying to cash-out their bitcoins or acquire them without tying the transaction to their actual identity, often with the intention of staying on the blindside of the law.
I remember feeling vulnerable back in high school, worrying about being robbed or arrested. A similar weight started to settle in as I waited for the stranger I found online. I knew nothing about him, not even his name or what to look for. He just instructed me to come to this intersection with my smartphone, ready to complete the transaction.
The $160 that I carried wouldn’t even buy me a single Bitcoin, but it’s always best to test the waters with small stakes. The dealer was willing to exchange as much as $5,000 per transaction, and others offer services that double that.
I leaned into a shadow on the gate of a shuttered bodega and checked the time. My seller was late.