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…