Is bitcoin a thing yet?
It's an important question.
Bitcoin now — its fans say — is like the Internet in 1995: poised to change everything, for reasons most people don't understand yet.
Yes, on the darknet, Russian mafiosos can use it to buy bazookas. And, on the clearnet, you can buy vacations (on Expedia), computers (on Dell) and video games (through Microsoft).
But is it any good to a regular person right now? Lots of people aren't buying it. To them, bitcoin's strings of ones and zeroes are just vapor, smoke, hardly any better than prize tickets from Chuck E. Cheese. Walmart refuses to take it.
"A currency, bitcoin is not, nor shall it be," sniffs Forbes.
Well then, I thought: If a currency it shall not be, nor therefore shall I fuck with it.
But then I read more of its crazy hype. No one controls it. No one really made it — that it's the money of hackers and scammers. That it could snatch power over money away from Wall Street and Washington and President Perpetually Poopy Diaper. And that its value ballooned 60 percent … in the last month.
So I decided to fuck with it. I decided to see if I could buy something real and legal in real life. Money ain't money to me unless I can buy a Slurpee or a pile of of corn with it. If I couldn't, I'd chuck bitcoin's little ones and zeroes into my trash folder and hit empty.
Which took me to Southern Hospitality in downtown Denver. There, I met Jeff Gebott, general manager.
Gebott, like me, didn't know jack about bitcoin. That is, until last year, when his world of beer and 'cue collided with the world of bit and coin.
One day, his boss owed him $60 for some growlers of Coda beer. Rare beer. They don't make it anymore. And instead of paying Gebott in regular dollars, his boss offered to pay him in bitcoin. Sure, said Gebott, why not.
So his boss set him up with a bitcoin account and transferred him about .14 bitcoin.
Not knowing what to do with it, he just let it sit in his phone.
A year or so later, he pulls out his phone.
His bitcoin wasn't worth $60 anymore. It was worth $250.
"I only wish I had more," he laughs.
And what can he do with his bitcoin?
Well … buy a sandwich at Southern Hospitality.
He shows me how. He pulls up a bitcoin app on his phone: AirBitz. On the restaurant's iPod, he pulls up another bitcoin app. By means of photographs, the devices talk to each other and exchange bitcoins. It's wonky and slow, like trying to send an email in 1995, but Gebott sends a few bucks between us just to show me that it's possible.
[Southern Hospitality general manager Jeff Gebott shows us what a bitcoin payment system looks like. Photo: Reilly Capps]
"We were the first place (in Colorado) that was a full blown restaurant that you could use bitcoin," says Shawn Owen proudly. He was Gebott's boss, and the guy who gave him .14 bitcoin and set up the restaurant to take it. So enthused about bitcoin was Owen that he left the restaurant industry to set up a bitcoin lending service, Salt.
Since Southern Hospitality led the way, a small but growing number of random businesses in Colorado — 10 or 20, it's hard to keep track — take bitcoin, from airport parking kiosks to self-help centers. In a place like Silicon Valley or New York City, it's much more common. There's a filter on Yelp now for "accepts bitcoin" (it doesn't work very well). There are maps of bitcoin businesses (also unreliable and inaccurate).
Still, setting up Southern Hospitality to take bitcoin, Owen says, has been "very profitable."
"There's a huge crowd of people who come in regularly because they wanted to spend their bitcoin," says Owen.
Those barstools in the photos? Owen took the bitcoin he made off sandwiches and bought them from Overstock.com.
At a coffeeshop named Alley Cat in Fort Collins does "three or four" bitcoin transactions a day, says Tedla Tyndall, a server there — often to the bitcoin "miners" who hang out there, young dudes who, Tyndall jokes, "have too many Redbulls and that twitch in their eye."
In fact, right now, sitting in Southern Hospitality, in that booth right over there, in the mid-afternoon when there aren't many other customers, are Alex Koch, Mason Holland and Carl Richmond. They go to the Turing school of software just up the street, which is one of those rapid-fire coding schools stoners go to for a semester and then immediately land a job working at SpaceX.
[What cybermoney coders look like: from left to right, Alex Koch, Mason Holland and Carl Richmond. Photo: Reilly Capps.]
Holland, for one, plans to build an app using a different kind of cybermoney — a bitcoin cousin called ether. (Some people predict that ether — or maybe a money called ripple — will eclipse bitcoin.) "It's going to be the next big thing," says Holland. "It'll be the basis for everything." Holland believes he'll eventually get his paychecks in cryptocurrency. Owen says he already knows people who do that.
"It's a really great way to remove banks," says Jeffrey Vier, director of business development at Ideas by Nature, a Denver high-tech company working on bitcoin stuff. "Banks are very expensive — and they can kind of suck."
All the talk around bitcoin has the crackling air of a revolution; like how Alexander Hamilton might've sounded when he talked about taking the power over money away from the British.
In fact, I was in the process of selling all my assets — all the collectible Swamp Thing figurines which represent my life savings — and buying as much bitcoin as I could.
Then I remembered that my ability to predict the future is pure dogshit. For example, I was also convinced in 2013 that every human within two years wouldn't leave home without their Google Glass. Nostradamus, I ain't.
So I decided to start small. I came back to my original question: could I buy a sandwich with bitcoin? After all, all the money in the world — all the ones and zeros on Earth — ain't any good to me if I can't eventually use it on barbecue.
So I set about with dogged determination to use bitcoin.
It was a huge pain in the ass. But the route that eventually worked best was this:
I went to a website called Coinbase. Created an account. Gave Coinbase my credit card information. Used my credit card to buy bitcoin. Downloaded the Coinbase app on my phone.
Signed in .
With bitcoin now on my phone …
I drove again to Southern Hospitality.
Then, I ordered a pitmaster sandwich with pulled pork and fried pickles. I ate the fuck out of that sandwich.
Now, with a sandwich in my belly …
My server Ashley, brought the bill and the iPod with the bitcoin app on it and pulled up a QR code that meant "Reilly pays this much for his sandwich." With my Coinbase app, I pushed a button to take a picture of the QR code, which should have sent my money to her, and, then ….
"Invalid amount," the app said.
WTF? I definitely had enough bitcoin to cover it.
We tried about eight more times, and every time it said "invalid amount."
By then, I was used to bitcoin glitches. Bitcoin ain't easy. At every step in figuring it out, something glitched. Two apps failed. My bank locked my account because it thought I was doing something shady, and I had to call it twice. And so on. Getting bitcoin took me three hours over three days, including two consultations with two different bitcoin experts.
And, now, at the Southern Hospitality with Ashley, more failure and frustration.
Bitcoin seemed bullshit. In practice, for regular people, not a real currency.
I was fixing to dine and dash when Ashley offered help: she told me there were "bitcoin people" two tables over.
One was Jacques Reulet who, by crazy luck, used to work at Coinbase — the very app I was fumbling with. I slid into his booth. We fiddled with the app. It failed and failed again. "Invalid amount," it kept saying. Reulet said he didn't know what was wrong, and didn't know how to fix it.
Frustrated and on the verge of giving up, I said, "Well, what's your procedure? How do you buy your sandwiches with bitcoin?"
"I don't," he said.
I was stunned. I paused.
"You don't buy your sandwiches with your bitcoin?"
"No. I've never bought anything."
"You used to work at Coinbase and you never bought nothing in your real life?" I said.
"No," he said. There was a pause. In practice, for regular people, not a real currency,
Then, like all bitcoin heads, Reulet defended bitcoin's glitches and obscurity and uselessness in real life. I'd heard the spiel a half-dozen times: bitcoin isn't built to buy sandwiches, it's an asset, a way to store value and track transactions and decentralize banking. Which I sort of get, but still … how do I pay for my fucking sandwich?!
I was crushed.
"I'll have to chalk this up as a fail," I said. "Bitcoin isn't money."
Reulet kept talking while I pouted. "Actually, bitcoin is a victim of its own success. There's so many transactions on bitcoin now they've put big fees on transactions and … "
I stopped him.
"Fees!" I said. "Do you think I just don't have enough bitcoin to pay all the fees?"
"Maybe," he said.
My barbeque-soaked fingers flying, I used my Coinbase app to buy more bitcoin. (Fees which, naturally, the apps hadn't mentioned.) This time, everything went smoothly, and I had $10 more, and, overpaying by a lot, I tried the transaction again.
"Transaction successful," said the app.
The fees were extortionary, like 20 percent of the cost of the transaction. Still, I slapped Reulet on the shoulder and shouted happily to Ashley and my barbecue rumbled triumphantly in my gut.
[What a sandwich bought with bitcoin looks like. Photo: Carrie Brown]
Owen says that the better you get at the tech, the easier bitcoin becomes. You can hook a credit card up to your bitcoin and pay with that everywhere — not just a few businesses.
"Everybody learned how to do email and send text messages, and those seemed really impossible when they came up, too," Owen said.
Solid argument. I'll use bitcoin again. Although, maybe, I'll just buy some and hold it.
After all … on May 22, 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz made the first real-world bitcoin transaction by buying two pizzas in Jacksonville, Florida for 10,000 BTC.
I'm sure the pizzas were delicious. But. If he hadn't spent those 10,000 BTC on those two pizzas, and had held onto them instead, they would today be worth $19 million.
By buying my sandwich, I may have given up my chance to be a millionaire. Which sounds about right.
But fuck it. That pitmaster sandwich was fire. I smiled, barbecue on my face, a newly-minted disciple in the cult of the bitcoin.