A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Halfway House…
A bedraggled young man was anxiously waiting at the corner of Woodmont and Edgemoor today here in shiny Bethesda, MD, DC’s once sleepy and now shockingly gentrified and urbanized suburb. Right outside the Metro entrance and the bus bays, this high traffic spot has, increasingly, become a home for the street scammer.
The man waved to get my attention and called out earnestly: “Excuse me, sir! I’m very sorry…but could I use your phone?”
I don’t mind that DC has imported its street people to the suburbs. It’s one of those things that walks hand-in-hand with the growing population of wide-eyed transplants. My only complaint is that the street scams lack originality at this point. I knew what this guy wanted the moment I saw him. I could run through the scam he was about to pull before it even began — it’s as familiar as the old “Is your refrigerator running” joke. And, yet, every time I encounter this scam, I stop and listen. I secretly hope that there’ll be a new element in the strangely rigid and rehearsed scam. There never is, though.
There are two paths for this scam. Either he was a stranded motorist (his car nowhere to be seen), or he’d just been robbed. Maybe he was simply a stranded commuter, an abandoned out of towner. If not one of those, then he was in the middle of a crisis. He had to get to a distant hospital because his kid was taken there. Maybe he had to get to the hospital and also had been robbed, or had a breakdown, and absolutely everything possible was going wrong.
That’s how it always begins, and the story is always filled with convincing minutia delivered in a breathless rush. Step one is to make sure the mark can’t get a word in edgewise — here’s a man at the end of his tether, and maybe you’ll give him money just to shut him up, or avoid having his bad luck rub off onto you. Hitting you outside a major commuting hub increases the tension of the situation — you have to get to work. No time for delays.
The tale of unlucky catastrophe is just the right side of too much to believe — it’s happened to all of us. The missed connection, the discovery that the spare tire is flat as well, the lost wallet, the wrong stop. If only this person could get enough money for a bus ticket, or a taxi, or whatever. He’d be on his way — he’d make you a good Samaritan, and we all want to feel like that.
Sometimes there are layers. A phone call to a friend, going to voicemail or involving an accomplice with some acting chops. This is all done over the speaker — “you hold onto your phone. You dial and put it on speaker. I just need to see if my friend’s okay.”
It’s the illusion of power and safety. You’re clutching your phone. He’s probably not going to snag it. You dial the number, and the ploy continues. Now the mark witnesses the continuing misfortune. Maybe the accomplice is an asshole, or has an elaborate explanation. Maybe it is just a voicemail. Either way, the guy is stuck. Truly stranded. “What do I do now? How do I get home?” Home is always some impossible-seeming distance away. 50 miles door to door in some outlying county. Here the mark finds themselves looking at a country bumpkin — poor soul — fooled by the city life. The good cons play up this sense of classism. Fresh from the trailer and desperate to earn an honest day’s pay and now it’s all gone to hell because of the wicked city (in which the mark, no doubt, has a high value residence or expensive apartment).
This is a play on the transplant culture of DC that works particularly well. Even money says the mark has a similar background. Or is, at least, an armchair liberal who thinks they can save the world.
Over the years, I’ve worked out responses that, I hope, will eventually force the scam to change some of the details.
There’s not much of a response to the version involving sick kids and lost motorists — except, occasionally, to demand proof. Or, if I’m bored, to throw myself into the story and offer to accompany them back to their car or to the hospital.
Asking to use my phone, though, is easy to screw with. I have my reply ready for those folks.
So this bedraggled man on the corner leaned in and called for me. I cast him a wary eye, but stopped and indicated that I was ready to listen.
“Man,” he started out, “you won’t believe this. I took a bus all the way in from Calvert County — do you know where that is?”
“It’s taken me forever to get here. I was supposed to meet my friend at this corner, but he ain’t here! He had a job for me.” Here he pulls aside his jacket to show that he’s wearing what looks like a mechanic’s outfit, the name “Albert” sewn above his breast pocket. “I haven’t worked in weeks…I really need this job. Please, you gotta let me use your phone. You can put it on speaker. I’ll tell you the number, you can dial my buddy up, and I’ll just talk to the speaker. Please, man. It’ll just take a sec. I gotta know if I should keep waiting or go home.”
I grinned, “I would go home, if I were you.”
“Yeah, man. But I need the job. I need this.”
“Well, I don’t have a phone, I’m afraid. I’m not allowed to bring one to work.” I start off sounding good-natured. Gee shucks, buddy, wish I could help. “I have to drop my phone off at the front desk if I do bring it. Do you believe that?”
Here an indignant flash colors my speech, my eyes narrowing. “Those motherfucking assholes take everyone’s electronic devices and then they fucking pat us down. Every goddamned day. Like we’re fucking animals.” I’m talking low now, stressing every curse word, spitting it out, the people passing by glancing over, the street scammer leaning back as I lean towards him.
“I bet those motherfuckers stick the phones up their asses.” If I feel like I can get away with it, I lean in and grasp the street scammer’s upper arm or shoulder at this point and continue, “Because that’s what I would do. I’d take the phone and put it right up my ass.”
I suddenly lean back, make an “o” with my finger and thumb, and then force my fist through it, “Pffffftttt! Right up the ass! Pffffttt! Pffftttt! Every phone right up my ass! And then I’d stand there all day, my ass flashing, and vibrating, and ringing, and I’d laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. Then, at the end of the day, I’d shit the phones out and cheerfully hand them back.”
I put on a shit-eating grin, then I lean forward again and hiss, “Here’s your fucking phone!”
At this point, the street scammer is usually on the backfoot. Sometimes they try a new angle, but I quit and leave. Most of the time, the result is that they turn, silent and respectful, and walk away.
And so I have cleared this corner for you, my fellow citizens. You can express your thanks using Paypal.