Totten is an opinion editor and producer at The San Diego Union-Tribune. She lives in North Park.
In 2013, I started a new job as a reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
My beloved alt-weekly, CityLife, had just folded and the editor of the R-J was kind enough to let me interview for a new beat: transportation or technology.
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The choice was obvious. Las Vegas was experiencing a tech boom at the time. The late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh had descended on downtown with a plan to buy real estate, seed startups and build community. Starry-eyed aspiring Zuckerbergs had flocked to the city’s once-decrepit core, bringing with them online services you never knew you needed and insatiable appetites for networking and booze.
Every night there was a meetup of some kind or another, which is where I found my first story.
At the time, Bitcoin was about 4 years old. People had heard of it, but few were familiar. It was an unregulated so-called cryptocurrency, not affiliated with any country, and from what most people knew from the FBI crackdown on Silk Road, it was a covert way to buy drugs or hire hitmen on the internet.
But it was becoming more than that, flirting with legitimacy as the Winklevoss twins — the literal tech bros who claimed Facebook was their idea — had filed to create a company that would trade Bitcoin like stocks.
I went looking for a local enthusiast to explain this world to me, and I found Julian Tosh. Tosh had gotten interested in crypto to teach his daughters about investing, and ran a website that listed brick-and-mortar businesses that took Bitcoin. We met at a kabob place across from the airport, where he helped me set up a Coinbase wallet and traded me $10 cash for a fraction of a coin. Although a few IRL businesses in town accepted it — you could get your car fixed, or your teeth cleaned, or buy a chicken shawarma gyro, like I did that day, for the equivalent of $7 — it felt more gimmicky than anything. It could be used to buy things, but its real value was the ability to send money instantly, to anyone anywhere in the world, without exchanging currency or paying bank fees or letting a government tell you how to do it.
But it was also sketchy, or at least a lot less user friendly, at that time. You couldn’t just cash out your Bitcoin in your bank account — you had to find a person to sell it to, either in person, like I did with Tosh, or to a stranger online you hoped would carry out their end of the deal.
The latter is what I did in 2017, when Bitcoin rose from about $1,000 per coin to over $20,000 in a year. It was all over the news, this still-esoteric new money that was turning working-class Americans into one-percenters overnight. There was just one problem: I had forgotten my password.
The thing about crypto’s unregulated nature, at least back then, is that it was tricky. If you forgot the password to your wallet, there were no reset buttons or customer service reps who could take your social security number or ask for your mother’s maiden name to verify your identity. The whole point was to leave your particulars out of the equation. So I tried off and on for weeks, and then somehow I finally cracked it.
The change I had forgotten in my account four years ago was worth almost $400. Despite Bitcoin’s spectacular ascent, I still thought of it as a fluke, a passing trend. So I sold it to a friend of a friend, who sent me the cash value on Venmo.
Ecstatic to collect my greatest investment to date, I dashed to Facebook to tell my old editor. I had just made over $300 from $3!
“Great deal,” he replied. “If you don’t stop to ponder how much that sandwich cost you.”
Slightly deflated, I still took pleasure in my unlikely come up.
Bitcoin fell shortly thereafter, validating my suspicions, and hovered around $10,000 per coin for two years. Then, last year during the pandemic, it neared $20,000 again before soaring to an all-time high of $68,521 just two weeks ago. I still lament how much that sandwich cost me, and how my $3 change would now be worth thousands. I wish I had realized it wasn’t a fluke.