Scam I am

IN THE CONTEXT of hindsight, the recent past may come to be known as the era of the hoax. The hoax is fashionable these days. It’s a stylish addition to any mental wardrobe. Ornate and flashy, it commands admiration and sometimes, if the person flaunts it properly, a tidy sum pilfered from the more gullible sections of society. 

The word itself is strange. Hoax. It’s more the sound an old man makes whose throat is full of phlegm and cancerous nodules. I even looked it up in the dictionary to get a sense of the etymology. Apparently it’s a shortened version of hocus, which caused me to check and see if there was such a thing as a “poax,” the truncated version of pocus. I couldn’t find anything relevant. I considered maybe, like flotsam and jetsam or thunder and lightning, hoax and poax could be two terms connoting slight variations of the same phenomenon. Like, a hoax is a false narrative designed to engender public hysteria, and a poax is a load of bullshit expressly employed to line one’s pockets. 

Onto the “poax,” then. 

There are many elements to the poax. There are the architects of the poax, themselves, an imaginative group wielding outrageous and eerily detailed fictions. There are the people who buy into the poaxes, wholesale. There are the people who reject the poaxes as an insult to their basic intelligence. Finally, there are the people who are entertained by the poaxes. As it happens, I fall into this last category. 

I was headed to pick up a friend from the airport the other day when I was forced, due to a flight delay, to stop off at a hotel bar close to the terminal to await her arrival. The reason for the holdup was unclear. Either the plane itself had caught COVID, or the pilot, due to extended furloughs, had forgotten how to fly the damn thing, or the cold snap that had froze the entire country had locked up the engines, rendering any gearshift above second a mechanical impossibility. 

So I walked into the lounge of a nearby hotel and sensed some serious trouble raging. I’d stumbled into quite the ruckus. There were about half a dozen tables beyond the bar and most were littered with what looked like architectural blueprints. One man who looked semi-homeless, crusted over with urban particulate, was running back and forth on his cellphone, red-faced and on the verge of an apoplectic meltdown, while another man, well-dressed, stood in the corner with a grim look on his face, arms folded, as silent and still as a puff adder before it sinks its fangs into some unfortunate and doomed animal.

It wasn’t long before I got the whole story from the bartender. It seems that the semi-homeless man whose skin was peppered with pollution (fellow running back and forth) had somehow facilitated an agreement with the hotel owner (fellow standing in the corner in rigid, focused silence) to completely renovate the top floor of the hotel. He had undercut every other contractor, coming in at a fraction of the cost of other construction companies, and so the owner had eagerly signed him on even though he should’ve known something was off. The man looked as homeless as a barrel fire and a fifth of cheap whiskey in a brown paper bag. The owner had even given the filthy bindlestiff his own suite in the hotel while the renovations were happening, and for the better part of the month the hobo had been running nonstop room service for him and his “laborers” at what was now a cost of roughly $15,000 in food, booze and lodging. 

“I’m flying my private plane to Dubai next week,” shouted the sack of chimney soot into his phone, an effort to convey his wealth. “I have no time for this level of incompetence.” 

The bartender continued explaining that the owner of the hotel had been out of town for a few weeks and as such had not been checking on the progress of the renovation, as the greasy con artist had cautioned that no one was allowed on the top floor due to safety concerns and “work-area liability.” Eventually, the owner had sensed that something was wrong and, forcing his way up through the fire exit, had emerged on his penthouse floor to find it was as barren as the lunar surface. Nothing but a few plastic sheets taped to the walls, a pile of crushed beer cans, some dirty syringes, a few old mattresses and three weeks’ worth of soiled rubbers. 

“My yacht is scraped by a buoy, and now this!” screamed the wino, his eyes darting back and forth between the two exits. 

“Well then, this would fall into the poax category,” I proclaimed to the bartender.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he said. 

“I’ve got to be in the Bahamas by Saturday to break ground on a casino,” said the man who looked like shit dipped in more shit. “When I find out who’s responsible for this outrage…” 

The dirty-hobo Frank Lloyd Wright was now rifling through his blueprints—blueprints that, if one looked close enough, were for a parking deck, yammering into his phone about supply disruptions and general corruption. His eyes kept darting to the owner, waiting for the right moment to make a break for any exit, all of which were being monitored by hotel security. 

It’s a hallmark of the modern scammer that I’ve come to recognize over the years, and that is if they appear conspicuously busy, and thereby too important, a person will be more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s an adjunct of the old Ad Crumenam argument—the fallacy that a statement is correct because the person stating it is rich. This, after all, is one of the most effective tools of the hoax or, for that matter, the poax. 

“He might’ve gotten away with it for a bit longer if he had kept his fool mouth shut,” said the bartender. “But no, there he was bragging and bragging. He brought too much attention to himself.”  

“He looks like a rat cornered by two huge tomcats,” I said. 

Suddenly the disheveled stink bomb froze, as if he was hit with a sudden case of “scamnesia,” like if he forgot who he was, what he was doing and what all the fuss was about, the problem would simply go away.  Hotel security moved in toward him, and it was all lights out after that. 

I tipped heavily and left the bar, wondering if it were at all possible to translate a rat’s death squeals, would it simply be a final series of boasts about its own importance. 

“…[Squeak] Boca Raton was named after my family…” 

“…[Squeak] I own a nest in the Seychelles…” 

“…[Squeak] I’m the rat with the most cheese, and I’ll cut you in on it…” 

More Alembics…

The Genius of Slightly Smarter Than Stupid

BEFORE THERE WAS the digital sludge of conjured bullshit roaring through the internet, there was a kind of brick and mortal bullshit ensconced in the pubs and taverns of the world. Like the internet, these watering holes routinely peddled outlandish theories, often to people who, as they got comfortably tight, were just as likely to accept without question outrageous explanations from some drunkie as they were from an anonymous “internet expert.”  Everything from secret political motives, microchipped vaccinations, high crimes and misdemeanors, news of the weird, financial schemes and whatever else were explained with virtuosic bravura. We audience could only nod our heads in baffled agreement. 

It was at one such establishment that a friend of mine told of an interesting anecdote from the other side of the world. 

To wit: 

The Italian government, in an effort to give law enforcement an advantage over fleeing criminals, had actually invested in a fleet of Lamborghini cop cars. The reasoning was that these super fast roadsters could not be outrun. City officials reckoned that felonious escape would soon be reduced to zero. On the surface it seemed like a fine idea. That is, until the criminals figured out that while they couldn’t outrun the police, they could outlast them. Since the Lamborghini burns through fuel like a NASA rocket and will come apart like wet toilet tissue if it tries to ram anything off the road, all a carload of thieves had to do was keep driving until the cops, pursuing from a safe distance, eventually ran out of gas. Then as the official sports cars conked out, one by one, drifting to the side of the road, the criminals would escape to the safety of their hideouts to unload their stolen goods, kick their heels up, open a bottle of Fernet Branca, and toast to law enforcement’s rather limited foresight. Some of the more brazen getaway cars would even turn around and do a celebratory lap past all the stalled Lamborghinis littering the side of the road as the cops watched helplessly, shaking their fists at the perpetrators. Perched on the hoods of their fine Italian automobiles, the police could do nothing more than sulk and sip on the bottles of Fernet Branca that came standard in all Italian police cars and await backup and, more importantly, a can of gas. That’s the beauty of Fernet, though. Perfect for both criminal celebration and embarrassing defeat. 

Fernet: Delizioso Per Tutte Le Occasioni 

I never bothered to check the veracity of the Lamborghini story. I’d simply decided that I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true and left it at that. I tend to accept stories showcasing humanity’s failure to anticipate certain consequences, and likewise I usually reject conspiratorial narratives in which a handful of diabolical geniuses can perfectly concoct a scheme that has every unforeseen consequence accounted for with oracular precision. If the Ponte Morandi bridge could turn to rubble one day because some civil engineer forgot to carry the one, then it’s entirely reasonable to accept a fleet of police Lamborghinis that get five miles to the gallon and bankrupt the Roman economy with the maintenance costs. 

Must be why I’m a bad candidate for conspiracy theories like Q-anon and Pizza-gate and such. These folks give way too much credit to the governmental confederacy of dunces. In this world one needn’t be smart, just smarter than stupid, a relatively low bar that a surprising amount of citizens still trip over. There are flaws in every scheme and the bigger the scheme the bigger the flaws. Don’t listen to me, though. Here are some words from history’s sharpest literary minds. 

“Nothing succeeds as planned” —Joseph Heller

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”—John Lennon 

“The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” —Robert Burns

“Nothing bears out in practice what it promises incipiently” —Thomas Hardy 

“It was surprised as hell to have happened” —bastardized quote from Marcus Aurelius 

I also found some other quotes that were a bit shocking.  

“Fuckin kaboom!” —The Hindenburg 

“Warble, warble, warble, smash” — Tacoma Narrows Bridge 

“Vroom, splutter, crash, [crickets],” — 1961 B-52 crash that accidentally dropped two undetonated atomic bombs in Goldsboro, North Carolina. 

“ZZZZZZZZZ,” a sleeping Captain Joseph Hazelwood, overseer of the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker spill. 

The list goes on and on. The reason evil geniuses are so hard to pin down is because, for the most part, they don’t exist. Sure, some people will be able to pull off a con for a while, like the Enron fellas and Madoff, the Prince of Ponzi. But that is due more to general gullibility than their own atomic brilliance. They aren’t smart, they’re just smarter than stupid. 

While I don’t pay much attention to the internet, I do still sit in bars and listen to all manner of opinion, wrapped in protective virus gear and drinking therapeutic Fernet Branca to avoid the masterful laboratory manufactured COVID-19, ingeniously planted in a wet market in Wuhan, China and traced by sadistic reverse-epidemiologists through the world with God-like precision to topple elderly western potentates. How diabolically brilliant of them to infect their own country first, giving the world a heads-up that went largely ignored. 

That’s dumber than stupid. 

Now, if I were a brilliant germ-peddler, I wouldn’t have wasted my time in Podunk, China. I would’ve dropped my superbug in Times Square, San Francisco’s Castro, West Hollywood, Michigan Avenue, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and a few other choice Occidental crossings. Of course I would’ve been smart enough to develop a preemptive inoculation for my own followers, so there would be no need to close any borders, thus ensuring my robust economy coasted on, unaffected, and the health, prosperity and happiness of my loyal populace continued unabated. 

Luckily it’s not possible to be that smart and that stupid at the same time. 

More Alembics….

Covfefe-19

STRANGE TIMES, INDEED. If the world shut-down has taught me anything, it’s that most people are terrified of the writer lifestyle. It’s one thing for an office worker to muse about spending long periods of time exercising the creative impulse in complete solitude, it’s another thing to actually be stuck in the house with no available diversion. This will drive most people bat-shit crazy, and so it’s no surprise that a number of folks out there are considering the alternative, that is, flinging themselves out into the world and licking every surface they come across in an effort to get it all over with, one way or the other.

For me, this is business as usual. There may be Walmart stampedes, toilet paper shortages, the National Guard, phony virus remedies, curfews, runaway trains crashed by conspiratorial engineers, masked drunkards standing in the middle of the street kind of staring off into the distance, but in my house the work continues, for the most part uninterrupted.

The noticeable difference in the neighborhood is all the kids on hiatus from their classes. School’s out for summer! School’s out forever! Very prophetic, Alice Cooper. Not since Prince predicted the end of the world with the song 1999 has there been a more ominous set of lyrics. The other honorable mention is Ventilator Blues, by the Rolling Stones, I guess. 

My neighbor’s kids have been playing nonstop basketball. They have a hoop in their driveway, and so continues their ultra-marathon game of one-on-one. The boy is named Sawyer, around thirteen years old. He has a sister, Phoebe, who is eleven or so. They seem pretty cool, as far as kids go, but even the most precocious and well-behaved of offspring will tax a parent if they are all forced to stew together for too long. That’s why farms were so critical to family development. ‘Children’ was just another term for free labor, and you could send them out in the fields all day, where social distancing was a must because five kids would have to tend five acres of crops, and by the time the old triangle chimed to call them back in at dusk, they couldn’t even lift a finger, much less raise a complaint.

Times have changed, and so I wasn’t too surprised when my neighbor motioned me over to the fence to beg for a small favor, in the interest of community support, and everyone pitching in to do their fair share.

“Hey, I was wondering if you could help me out. You see, my kids are smarter than I am, and I’m running out of stuff to teach them while they’re being home schooled. It’s not my fault. This is somebody else’s job. I wasn’t trained for this, is what I’m saying. You’ve got a ton of books in your house, so you must be halfway intelligent. Why don’t you come over tomorrow as a guest lecturer?”

“What do you want me to talk about?” I said.

“Who gives a shit. Just make it sound academic. I’ll be out back in the jungle gym with a bottle of whiskey and some Colorado tobacco. You can join me afterwards. I’ll even roll you your own joint, for sanitary considerations.”

I agreed. The next morning I grabbed a cup of coffee, put on a tie and a jacket with elbow patches, and arrived to my neighbor’s converted living room to dish out some education. I was impressed with Sawyer and Phoebe. They were alert and engaged. They waited for me to do something.

“Okay,” I said, “today we’re going to combine math with some biology, and throw in a bit of socio-psychology for good measure. Now, there once was a fellow named Econ, who had been having a pretty good run of luck. In fact, for about twelve years, he’d been on an unprecedented roll, just making money hand over fist.”

“How was he making money?” said Sawyer.

“O, just humping the global economy. The world was his playground, and he’d been running rampant for longer than anyone could remember. Then one day, quite recently, Econ got the clap.”

“What’s the clap?” said Phoebe.

“It’s a sexually transmitted disease. It also goes by the name chlamydia. It’s characterized by painful sores and oozing pus.”

“He didn’t wear a condom?” said Sawyer, a particularly apt pupil.

“This was a bull market,” I answered. “Condoms imply risk and caution.” Sawyer nodded.

“Now, a lot of people were relying on Econ to be out there, whooping it up. Entire sectors of the business community were counting on him. The problem, of course, was that he had this nasty, diseased dingus oozing all over the place. But some folks didn’t care. They wanted him to keep humping away as if nothing was really wrong.”

“Wouldn’t it be irresponsible of him to use his dingus in such a way?” questioned Sawyer.

“He could rapidly spread his infection,” added Phoebe.

“You kids are sharp,” I nodded. “The thing is that some high profile leaders in the business community and beyond decided that the infection was exaggerated, and that humping with the clap was better than no humping at all. In fact, they believed that some areas of the market would be happy to get the clap, if only for the greater good.”

“What’s the greater good?” asked Phoebe.

“A concept that rich people peddle, but really don’t believe,” I said.

“Like when dad told us about Santa Claus,” whispered Sawyer to his sister, who nodded.

“Like an acceptable number of people with pus-filled lesions and oozing sores, taking it up the ass for the team,” said Phoebe.

“You get an A plus today, Phoebe.”

“What’s an acceptable number?” asked Sawyer.

“There’s no real answer to that,” I replied. “There are a lot of unknowns in that statistical probability, but there would definitely be a huge outbreak of casualties. Even so, a good portion of the on-line community kept reminding Econ how good all of his orgies had felt, and to pay no attention to the fact that his dick is about to fall off.”

“Maybe he should just keep it in his pants for a while,” said Sawyer. “I mean, read a fucking book.”

I was enjoying myself. I wanted to continue the lesson, but it was pretty obvious my students were experts in today’s subject. Plus, I could see the wispy clouds of smoke wafting out of the jungle gym in the back, and so I decided to join my neighbor in the teachers lounge to relax and gossip.

Class dismissed.

More Alembics to come…