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Rick Evans defies the stuffy, stoic, humorless stereotype that characterizes most funeral directors. The owner of Garden City Funeral Home smiles easily, loves chitchat and apologizes because he lacks bourbon to top off a visitor's coffee cup. He's also not above the occasional well-placed curse word and loves a good joke.
Why'd he become a mortician?
"I like to drive big cars," he quips. Plus, he adds later, "All your clients look up to you."
Although humor rarely applies to something as permanent as death, Evans says it's the only way for him to be truly compassionate in his job.
"You have to be yourself," he says. "If you're not, families will see right through it. You have to put yourself in their place."
Evans' ring tone is Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," a pertinent tune for a funeral home director. He says that 80 percent of his job is simply dealing with families who would generally prefer to be anywhere other than Evans' office.
"People are forced to come to me not at a time of their choosing," he acknowledges. "It's not like being a car salesman."
Unlike many industries, funeral homes can rely on a steady supply of business. But despite the continual demand for his services—roughly 1,100 people die in Missoula County annually—Evans says compassion still serves as the backbone of his business. In fact, he points out that mortuaries are one of the more localized industries in the country, with, he says, 90 percent of funeral homes running as "mom and pop operations." Chains simply don't work. Before Evans started his business, a Canadian conglomerate owned the funeral homes in Missoula. It went out of business, Evans says, because "you can't run a funeral home like a hardware store," he says.
"You want people to shake their heads in 30 or 60 days and say, 'They really helped me,'" he says. "You don't want people to feel that they were taken advantage of."
During a down economy, that means trying to work within the means of his customers. He invites families to have an honest discussion about their financial affairs and makes suggestions like cheaper caskets or a graveside service. He also says many families will decide to cremate the body, and perhaps scatter the ashes with no burial costs at all.
"The family is oftentimes devastated," he says. "And they're not thinking straight. A good, honest funeral director will help them through that difficult time."
Being honest doesn't make the job any easier. Evans has lived in Montana most of his life and because he's been here so long, and because Missoula is so tight-knit, Evans will occasionally be called upon to prepare the body of a friend.
"You want to do it for free," he says. "But you can't. It's my job. And it's a service that needs to be performed."
Selling more than a half-pound of weed a month means cash for cross-country trips. It also means extra money for cocktails and beers at local bars, and sushi or steak dinners in downtown Missoula. And, for Carlton—we won't give his real name or day job for obvious reasons—selling weed also means he can afford to pay for the big things in life.
"I paid for half a wedding and all of a honeymoon," he says. "And it's extra cash to be able to do things like get gas for road trips, get hotel rooms, pay campground fees. I budget my life off my regular paycheck for bills, car payments, stuff like that. Everything else—the fun stuff—comes from the other money."
Carlton dabbled in selling weed in high school back in the early '90s. But eight years ago he started making it a dedicated supplemental job. His wife at the time suggested he start selling weed because he was spending so much of their money on it for his personal enjoyment.
"I was hooking her friends up for favors, running errands for them anyway," he says, "so I just started buying bulk and started going from there with constant turnaround."
Carlton looks like any normal dude in Missoula. He lives in a nice ranch-style house, drives a four-runner and owns a Blackberry. As he talks about his side business, he sits comfortably in his chair at a downtown bar, rolling cigarettes and sipping a PBR. As a drug dealer, he maintains about 15 regular clients. He sells his goods at $50 for an eighth of an ounce, $100 for a quarter, and his profit margin is about 20 percent.
"I basically take that cash money and it never sees the inside of my bank," he says. "That's mostly because it smells bad—it needs to be laundered in more than one way—since it's all kept in the same safe [as the weed]."
Carlton says his clients remain consistent, even during a recession. If one cuts back on his or her intake for a stretch, it never lasts long. He's also noticed that weed's quality and availability never wavers in a down economy, so there's never a need for prices to fluctuate.
"Frequency drops sometimes, but I still have the same number of clients," he says. "Definitely no one has quit because they can't afford it. That would be like giving up your Pabst Blue Ribbon, or, if you're not inclined toward drinking, it's like giving up your yoga. A lot of people need to get their yoga in. Potheads need to get their relax time in."
Carlton says that he could make dealing weed a full-time job, if he wanted. He knows several people who make a living off the practice, though they're usually higher up the chain than him. In fact, he says, the number of people who sell weed locally and continue to do well despite the economy shows precisely how lucrative the business is in Missoula. For instance, he says a sports team he plays on includes four different dealers on the roster.
Still, going full-time would require him to expand his clientele, which, in this profession, involves risk. His current clients are friends he's known for a long time or, if not, friends of friends he trusts. He scoffs at "messing with" high school students or college freshman because of the chance that he could get caught. For him, the two jobs—one legal, one not—balance each other out. And in tight times, that makes a difference.
"It totally lessens the blow of a recession," Carlton says. "This job kind of makes my normal job recession- proof. It provides me with money to do recreational things that I might not otherwise be able to afford in a recession."