Sometimes I’m ashamed of my skepticism. It’s hard to shake, though. Tom Robbins, the famous cult author, once said of America, “We are a nation of 300 million con artists.” Even better was that he didn’t mean it as a bad thing. As a function of manipulation, resourcefulness and subterfuge we, as Americans, have pioneered some of the greatest advances in western civilization from frivolous lawsuits to pyramid schemes to real estate fraud to medical ripoffs. Let’s not even mention Wall Street. We can swindle like nobody’s business. Still, it’s good to be on the lookout for grifters. One doesn’t want to lose an entire savings account to some scammer who has promised an 80% return rate on an investment for a grand hotel and casino at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Loose slots, mermaid revues, shipwrecked cargo boats, the finest seafood, all under a glass dome three miles beneath the surface of the most tempestuous waters on the planet. A no-lose situation.
Scams can pop up in the most unexpected of places. Last week I was in the produce section of the grocery store when a man in a motorized shopping cart drove up to me and honked. He told me he was down on his luck and asked if I could buy him some food. I’m used to solicitation on the streets, but when it happens amid a colorful display of ripe peppers, carrots and apples, it’s easy to be caught off guard. He said he was starving. Of course I could’ve pointed out how overweight he was, noting that rarely does obesity and starvation go hand in hand. Instead, I directed him just over to our left, where a store worker in a little booth was handing out small crab salad cakes on tiny pieces of toast. I suggested that was a good place to start if he was dying of hunger. I had sampled one myself, and they were delicious. The man shook his head. He couldn’t have any of that because he suffered from diabetes, lactose intolerance, high blood pressure, coeliac disease, egg and peanut allergies and tachycardia. Shocked at the list of morbid ailments, I told him honestly that the only thing I felt comfortable buying him was a bottle of aspirin and a head of lettuce. The man thanked me, then told me I could just give him the money instead of buying the stuff for him. The whole thing came to a ridiculous end when the store manager appeared and upbraided the man for panhandling, causing him to turn his little motorized cart toward the door to make an extremely low-speed getaway while the manager shuffled behind him, frustrated at the slow motion chase.
One of my favorite drinking establishments is located right next to a school for the blind. It’s a fortunate location. When the drunk guys strike out with all the ladies at the bar they can just mosey across the street to try their luck with women who can’t see how ugly and out of shape they are. The crosswalks have some strange beeping system to help the blind students navigate across the busy intersection, which they do with an almost preternatural sense of traffic flow. They are better at it than most people with eyesight, more cautious than the average pedestrian who may be able to see but still can’t pay attention. One afternoon as I was leaving the bar I watched a man with a tapping cane cross into the street as the light turned green and the “Don’t Walk” sign clicked on. Valiantly–drunkenly, which probably added to my valor–I rushed into the street and gently took his elbow in my hands.
“Thank you sir,” he said calmly.
“How did you know I was a sir?” I asked.
“I could smell it,” he said as we reached the far curb. “There’s a natural odor to the genders. Males have a tarred musk. Simple and murky. Women have a brighter, more complex aroma. If you were a woman I would’ve known the second you stepped out of the bar.”
“How did you know I was at the bar?”
“Along with your tarred musk there is the unmistakable stench of whiskey. I’m guessing bourbon. It’s coming out of your pores.”
“You’re better than Sherlock Holmes. You are so good that I’m beginning to think you are putting me on. Like you aren’t really blind.”
“I’m not blind,” he said. “Sure I can’t see with my eyes but I can see with my nose, my ears, my hands. I’ve developed my own sense of echolocation. That’s how I knew no cars were coming when I crossed into the street. In fact, you are probably worse off in your impaired condition than I am.”
“Like a who is walking whom type of thing,” I said.
“My senses are so heightened I can tell, just by the pitch of a woman’s voice, if she is ovulating.”
“I’ll prove it. Let’s go back over to that bar, young man. If you buy me a beer I’ll tell you which girl is most likely to be looking to hook up.”
“Isn’t that kind of like scamming?” I said.
“No,” said my blind friend. “It’s taking advantage of an advantage.”
My new friend and I went back into the bar. I introduced him around and began making small chitchat with a few of the ladies perched here and there. I had to get them to talk. No topic was too inane. Just a few words. What a lovely pantsuit. Where did you get it? Are those nails real? I hear neck tattoos are really coming into style. How long have you had yours? I would turn to my friend after every answer, and he would give a subtle shake of his head. Finally I settled on a girl seated in the corner, a sturdy wild-eyed redhead. My friend and I approached. It took me a minute to realize she had her own blind person with her, a stone-faced woman with a pair of Foster Grant wraparound sunglasses and a walking cane resting across her lap. We sat down. I engaged the fiery redhead in a light discussion about the beauty of the senses, and the importance of honesty. She surprised me with a quote from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. “Out of wood so crooked and perverse as that which man is made of, nothing absolutely straight can ever be wrought.”
My blind friend nodded. Just then, though, the redhead looked over at her blind friend, who shook her head. Pretty soon after that both women got up and left.
“What happened?” I said.
“The unmistakable smell of money,” he said with his nose in the air.
“Where is it coming from?”
More Alembics to come