Con Men

by

03/09/2003

E 14th St & 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: Union Square

Tuesday night some friends and I were sitting on a bench in Union Square, talking about the new game shows and dating shows and how there were so many hyped-up programs these days that were really just Candid Camera remakes. If you live long enough you see everything twice. Then we kind of ran out of material and fell into our own thoughts a while.

A propos of nothing, Brad asked if either of us had ever broken a bone when we were kids. It turned out none of us had. I never learned how to swim or ride a bike, I said, the only way I could have broken a bone back then is if a bookcase fell on me.

I thought about our friend Chuck, who fifteen years ago had wiped out on his brand-new motorcycle and wound up in the hospital with his head and neck in pincers to prevent the slightest movement while he healed. When we visited his hospital room, Brad had looked in awe at the sight of him lying there and, sort of dumbstruck I guess, mentioned that he himself had never even broken a bone.

You’ve lead a charmed life, Chuck had replied bitterly.

* * *

A man was going from bench to bench performing a little magic trick and asking for money to support a charity that gives parties for children with AIDS. As he spoke he made a coin appear and disappear between his fingers. He had longish crinkly brown hair combed back behind his ears, and wore black jeans and an oxford shirt with an orange laminated card clipped to the pocket that said Kids Party Project. Pretty much everyone gave.

We’d heard this guy was a fraud. Most people don’t realize it, but con men are anything but a dying breed these days. Brad had been taken in by a guy who said he’d been beaten up by the cops and needed two hundred bucks to get back to Boston. Having no thought of the price of a bus ticket, Brad went with him to the ATM and gave him that much money on the spot. He saw him again the next day and many times after that, telling the same story over and over and raking it in every time, since real police brutality was all over the papers that summer. Alex had once been tricked by a guy coming out of his building who said he needed change for a parking meter. The guy somehow walked off with a twenty-dollar bill of his which he said he was going to go break while he had Alex staying behind to hold the entry door for him. There aren’t even any meters in that neighborhood.

The magician walked past where we sat, stopped and reconsidered, and came back to try his wonderful luck against our three sour faces. In his speech he said they also help the sick children get the medication they need. What kind of medication do you give them? I asked. He said they don’t give them medication. But you just said you give them medication. We help them get medication, he said. He answered very quickly, with no hesitation and showing no trace of anger at being challenged, but he was obviously avoiding the fact that he could not name a single AIDS medication. I asked him what his organization was and he pointed to the card, which had no photo, seal or signature, and which he had probably made in fifteen minutes at Kinko’s.

Well, good luck, I said harshly. Maybe if I had really pushed it there’d have been a fight and we could have gotten Brad the broken bone he is so curious about. I looked up the organization when I got home and as far as I can determine it does not exist, though it probably should.

I had been sure he was a liar just looking at him. He had the nervous twitching and ruined skin of a long-time addict. In fact, I had met him before on the street a few years ago. He had sat down on a stoop next to me and some friends and started telling us the whole story of how he had been falsely imprisoned and finally released on appeal, all probably leading up to asking for money, but when he paused I cut him off by saying, Actually, we’re having a private conversation here.

* * *

After he was gone the second time, we talked about other things, like wanting to make it out to a lake at least once before the summer ended, what we’d been reading and what we were supposed to be writing but weren’t, the screwed-up state of the economy today and what a dunce we’d been saddled with for president.

What we didn’t know was that Chuck had been killed in a bicycle accident the night before. I got a call on my machine late the next day. That unspoken thought of him, of Chuck alive and out in the world pursuing his aims with dedication, that image had been like a ray of false light still reaching earth from an extinguished source. A guy so gentle he’d kept a tame squirrel as a pet, kind, sweet Chuck was gone, now and forever unembraceable, while any number of shiftless bastards were walking around scot-free with pockets stuffed from our best intentions.

Watch out for liars, people. The way to recognize them is they make you feel good.

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