We have all lied, cheated, and manipulated at least a little bit, but this post is about people who do these things habitually, weaving them into the fabric of their being. And these offenses are linked; if one lies, one probably cheats and manipulates, and if one manipulates, one probably cheats and lies. These are stories about real people I have known in New York, but the names are fictional.
I met him in Nantucket. Tall, slender, blond, with a sexy sun tan, Ralph was supple as an otter, smooth and congenial, with an engaging smile and a glib tongue, a charmer from Delaware well known to everyone on the beach and in the bars. We connected at once, slept together at his place, cycled, took walks on the beach at night under a vast sky bright with stars. Of course I hoped for a future of enhanced togetherness, but noticed that maybe he knew too many people, especially young males, and greeted them all knowingly with the same warm smile he bestowed on me. He would promise to meet me at a bar prior to dinner, but forty minutes or an hour would pass, before his bright blond charm materialized, with some vague excuse for his tardiness. At the end of my vacation we parted, agreeing that he would visit me in New York.
He came, took me to parties given by his friends, reveled into the distant reaches of the night till I was drooping, while assuring me that it was "only the shank of the evening." When a friend dropped in at my place, Ralph would parade before him in his briefs, poised and nonchalant, and if we visited a friend of mine at his place, Ralph would manage to leave some small item behind, so as to have a pretext to drop by again. By now I was downright suspicious. Then, twice, he left me to vanish into the gloaming and its rich potential, returning the following afternoon, ever buoyant, with smiles and yet another flimsy explanation.
By now I had had enough.
"You're using my place as a base of operations. Whatever you're looking for, it isn't here. Get out!"
Never before had I issued such an ultimatum to anyone, nor have I ever since.
He was stunned, shocked, angry, and above all indignant at my rankest incivility. "You're from the Midwest. You don't know better!"
He pleaded the most ardent pleas, argued the most passionate arguments, threatened vague dark reprisals, then sank down on the sofa in a sudden fit of vapors, languished there like a wilted lily, and when I remained unmoved, sprang up bold as beans to utter more vague dire threats, pout, plead, and argue yet again, professing to be hurt to the crux of his being. Finally, having dented my resolve not a bit, he phoned another friend to arrange accommodations and, with a last hurt glance, departed.
In the wake of this bravura performance I brooded for all of twenty minutes and felt a slight bit of hurt myself, then a buoyant mood of relief. What most amazed me was not his whoredom or lies, but his dazzling repertory, revealed in that last half hour, of moods, shifts, ploys, one stratagem fading quickly into another and then another, a slick and scintillating display of virtuosity worthy of the lords of guile.
My friend Kevin was a quintessential New Yorker, dapper, sophisticated, witty, a fervent balletomane who of necessity taught college. He more than anyone immersed me in the New York way of life, instructed me in what clothes were acceptable, what shows I should see, and the magic of ballet. A natty dresser, in the 1950s he favored the restrained elegance of Brooks Brothers, whose Boys Department satisfied his needs at a price well within his budget. A decade later, when the Peacock Revolution hit, he gravitated quickly toward bell bottoms and bright-colored shirts, while his right hand glittered with a ring on every finger. What his students thought of all this I can't imagine, but it was the age of anything-goes, so if some were put off, others must have been dazzled.
But beneath the chic and glitter, the dark forces of his psyche picked at the structure of his ego, the edifice of his charm. He had moments of intense insecurity, fits of depression, attacks of migraine that seemed to have no cure. Managing money escaped him; he had a great propensity for debt. I often told him he was the only one I knew who had made a mother of the Chemical Corn Exchange Bank, whose money (for interest) flowed to him like milk. He was gay, but the Gay Lib movement all but passed him by, since his matings were rare and brief; maybe he asked too much.
One day he informed me that, during a rare foray into a bar, he had connected with a South American named Vergilio who gave off an aura of glamour -- a word that he brandished freely, and that I associated not with Latin charm, but with the publicity machine of Hollywood. I soon met Vergilio at Kevin's, found him well-groomed, poised, and charming, with a soft voice that caressed, but enigmatic: a smile over a cocktail glass, little more. In no time, thanks to Kevin, Vergilio was temporarily installed in the apartment of a friend of Kevin's who was going away on vacation, which I thought a bit premature, given how little Kevin knew of his newfound friend. But Kevin was radiant, basking in the aura of glamour.
In the weeks that followed, Kevin began evincing alarm: Vergilio's health was not all it should be. Then he informed me that Vergilio was going to consult a doctor on the doctor's yacht, which struck me as an odd site for a consultation. Next I got a phone call from Kevin, with anguish in his voice: "Vergilio is dying!" His friend had informed him that he was suffering from a long-term fatal ailment, its exact nature undisclosed, that required treatment in Europe; he would be leaving soon. So Vergilio left; Kevin moped about, waited for news, worried. Postcards came from Paris, Monte Carlo, Nice, with only the briefest message and no news about his treatment.
Three weeks later he was back, well-groomed and urbane as ever, the same soft voice, the same smile over a cocktail glass. He showed Kevin and me a series of photographs from his trip, every one featuring a smiling and handsome Vergilio in a well-appointed residence, his host unidentified. By now even Kevin sensed something amiss, but his need of glamour locked him under the spell.
Vergilio now informed Kevin that he had to return to Europe for an operation that might or might not save his life, probably not; professing embarrassment, he confessed he needed money for the trip. Why he had to turn to a new friend, and not to old friends and family, went unexplained. Kevin at once gave forth of his own meager savings, then phoned any number of friends, entreating them to loan him what they could. Some did, some didn't. I myself, unable and unwilling to label Vergilio a liar or a fraud without convincing evidence, promised five hundred dollars but then, common sense prevailing, gently but firmly declined. "I don't believe in it," I explained. "I feel like I've been kicked in the teeth," said Kevin.
Vergilio departed once again for Europe, and I heard no more of him, for Kevin and I were now estranged. Finally I phoned a mutual friend, asking how he was. "He's learning what he has to learn," she said, but refrained from saying more. Months passed; other matters claimed me, but I thought often of Kevin. Finally he phoned and invited me over. He looked worn and wan, but got to it right away: "If I ever see him again, I'll say to him, 'What? You're not dead? But that's why I gave you all that money and sent you back to Europe. Dead -- you should be dead!'" A hard look came over him that I had never seen before.
To my knowledge, Vergilio never reappeared in New York; if he did, it was at a far remove from Kevin. Kevin never mentioned his name again. His finances habitually precarious, I doubt if he ever repaid any of his friends. But of one thing I am sure: Vergilio is off somewhere, on this continent or another, smiling over a cocktail glass and enlisting the sympathy and generosity of friends. New friends; to the old ones he wouldn't dare show his face.
Warren Laforgue was a dark-haired young man with a sly and sometimes mischievous smile whom I knew at Columbia University, when he was an undergraduate in French in General Studies and I was a graduate student in French. That year the top floor of John Jay Hall was, quite by chance, two-thirds gay, so it didn't take us long to get acquainted. He asked if he could sleep with me, explaining that he had broken up with a longtime lover recently and had trouble sleeping alone. Since Warren could qualify as "cute," I had no objection, but it turned out that when he said "sleep," he meant exactly that; there was a bit of togetherness, but no sex whatsoever. I adjusted and we became friends. There must be something in me that encourages the confidences of others, since I have been the confidant of any number of friends and family; maybe I should have been a therapist. Warren was soon telling me all about his past and present life, minus a few gritty details of his current sexual adventures.
Warren was a member of not one but two undergrounds at Columbia: the gay underground that I quickly discovered, and the Catholic underground headquartered in the Newman Club, whose weekly meetings drew Catholic students, both graduate and undergraduate, for faith-related discussions and fellowship in the midst of this most secular campus. So Warren was active in gay life but, by confessing regularly and receiving the sacrament, he cleansed himself of sin and entered into a state of grace that truly uplifted his spirit ... for a while. He even told me that, if approached by someone whom he found uninteresting, he had the perfect turn-off: "Don't touch me -- I'm in a state of grace!" He said this jokingly, but perhaps he really resorted to it, though I came to realize that his rebuffs were few and far between. Yet he planned to leave all this behind and one day marry and become a public school teacher in New Orleans.
He had already lived for a time in New Orleans, where he became the lover of a young man whose mother was vice-president of a bank. In no time he found himself a teller in the bank, making good money but under pressures professional, emotional, and spiritual. One day he cracked up in the teller's cage, throwing money wildly about. Soon he was in a therapist's office telling his story. When the therapist had had time to absorb it, he gave quick, unequivocal advice: quit that job and get out of here at once. The next day Kevin was on a plane to Michigan and his mother's home, after which he in time found his way to New York. There he entered into another relationship, but this one was tainted from the start by his partner's constant infidelities. Once, arriving at their apartment, he found the door locked and knew at once the situation. To get in, he smashed a window, at which point his partner's tguest, terrified, dashed out into the courtyard stark naked, to the amazement and amusement of the neighbors. It was in the wake of this second breakup that I met him; done with relationships, he wanted only one-night stands, followed duly by confession and the sacraments.
At the Newman Club he met Ann Richards, a graduate student in French whom I knew slightly. Everything about her was thin, pinched, and dry: a predestined spinster. She kept apart from the other graduate students, left classes quickly with her lips compressed, eyes down so as to avoid eye contact with anyone. Knowing me to be a friend of Warren's, in passing she would give me a quick, tight smile, nothing more. She had a job as monitor in a nearby women's dormitory, where her dour vigilance kept careful watch over the virtue of the residents. (This was before the anything-goes mood of the Sixties.) Her tight little world seemed well defended against the secular realm all around her and any hint of a broader, richer experience, until she got to know Warren, whose winsome charm had its effect. "I have a cold heart," she told him one day, "but you have crept into it." A guarded confession, but a confession nonetheless, and this from a devout Catholic not given to effusions of emotion.
"Look!" Warren said to me once, wearing a pair of jeans cut off at the knees. "New shorts. Ann cut them off and hemmed them for me. It didn't cost me a cent." But she was more than his seamstress. She helped him with his French, and occasionally I would see them together in a restaurant. Given Warren's paucity of funds, I'm sure that she was paying. He was using her, but with her full consent.
In time I got a teaching job and moved off campus into an apartment of my own. But I was still in touch with Warren, who kept me informed of his endeavors. Though a less than brilliant student, he decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to Belgium or France, and to accomplish this goal marshaled all his resources. A young woman whom he knew at the Newman Club worked in the office that processed the applications. She explained that the applications would be put in either of two piles: pile A for those considered the most promising, and pile B for all the others. If his landed in pile B, she would shift it to pile A.
But Warren didn't stop at that. Coached by Ann Richards, he set his sights on Columbia's highly esteemed Graduate Department in French, into whose hallowed precincts he had up till now never set foot. Approaching Professor Bédé, a renowned scholar who specialized in nineteenth-century French literature, in careful French he asked the eminence for a letter of recommendation. "But young man," said the eminence, "I hardly know you. You've never taken any of my courses." "But sir," said Warren, "a recommendation from you would do a lot of good." Bédé pondered, then announced, "Very well, a supplementary recommendation." All this in French, with emphasis on supplémentaire. But Warren got his recommendation.
Next, still coached by Ann Richards, he went to Jeanne Pleasants, the reigning authority in French phonetics, who also spoke no English. "It's very rare," she remarked, "for an undergraduate to take an interest in phonetics." "But madame," said Warren, "phonetics is the basis of the language!" Jeanne Pleasants beamed. "Ah, to hear this from an undergraduate!" So Warren got a second recommendation, supplementary perhaps, but with a stellar name attached.
Was he overreaching? One of his friends, apprised of his campaign, blurted out, "You dumb kid, you've got more push than brains!" This depressed Warren, but I consoled him, my support tempered by the awareness that we both knew there was a measure of truth in the rebuke. Warren could master irregular verbs, but was at a loss when it came to Flaubert or Proust. Adept at parroting the opinions of his professors, he couldn't evolve an opinion of his own. His papers were a pastiche of truisms; rarely, some lived experience of his own broke through.
Meanwhile Warren was active on other fronts. He didn't go to bars, since there were so many cruising spots close to home, but somehow he made the acquaintance of an antique dealer who was immediately and irrevocably smitten. As proof of his fervor the dealer showered gifts on Warren: an antique chair, precious bric-a-brac, a charming little end table, a Tiffany lamp. Planning one day to have an apartment of his own in New Orleans, Warren shipped item after item home to his mother for storage; what she thought of it all I can't imagine. In time the dealer's ardor subsided, common sense reclaimed him, and the bonanza stopped. But not until Warren had feathered his future nest handsomely.
By now Warren had a job teaching in a Catholic boys' school. The older boys he found unmanageable, but with the younger ones he had great success. Soon he was invited to the home of one of them, and the boy's father, the proprietor of a cruise line, offered Warren a job in the purser's office of one of his cruise ships. So Warren departed with a duffel bag crammed with his thngs and spent a glorious summer in the Caribbean.
In his absence I happened to have a talk with a young botany instructor, who remarked, "How he uses us all! He had only to offer a hint to Ann Richards, and she gushed forth money. And I gave him an A in a botany course where he never even showed his face." He smiled, shrugged.
This unsettled me. I knew that Warren was using us, but didn't know to what extent. Later that summer my buzzer rang in the middle of the night. Jarred awake, groggy, and nursing the dimmest hunch as to who it might be, I refused to answer. The insistent buzzing stopped, but minutes later I heard footsteps in the hall, and a key turning in my lock. Groping my way to the door, I opened it and saw Warren with his duffel bag, and the building's night attendant, whom he had persuaded to let him in, in the event of my absence. I grunted acquiescence, waved Warren to a sofa in the living room, and staggered back to bed. Getting up in the morning, I found him deep in sleep on the sofa, so I breakfasted quietly and went off to teach a morning class. But I left a note: "Stop blood-sucking Ann Richards. Next time you want me to put you up, tell me in advance. Help yourself to breakfast. We need to talk. I want you for a friend."
When I got back to the apartment, Warren and his duffel bag were gone. He left a note: "I haven't seen Ann Richards for weeks." Of course not; he'd been off on the cruise.
Warren didn't get a Fulbright, but he received a lesser scholarship that let him spend a year at a Catholic university in Belgium. I received one glowing letter from him, telling how he had delivered a talk there to a large audience, marking a transformation of the insecure young student I had known. I hoped it was true. But when he came back a year later, he didn't contact me; I heard from others that he had passed through New York. I never heard from him again. Perhaps he didn't need me any more; perhaps my note about his blood-sucking had wounded him. In any event, Warren had thrown me away.
I hope that Ann Richards found a good teaching job and lived her quiet life. I hope that Warren Laforgue got to New Orleans, taught there, and married a nice Catholic girl, not too bright, who wouldn't ask too many questions. I still remember him with fondness. He was a manipulator, but at least he had deftness and charm.
I promised liars, cheats, and manipulators in the plural, but so far, confining myself to cases I have personal knowledge of, I have offered only one of each, their offenses strictly limited in scope. But our history is rich in all three. As proof of it, I present off the top of my head this list of Americanisms, all verbs meaning to cheat or swindle: to bamboozle, blindside, buffalo, clip, deacon, diddle, fudge, hustle, jive, noodle, pinch, pluck, ream, shave, sucker, humbug, hornswoggle. All of which -- and I'm sure there are more -- goes to show that this nation has witnessed plenty of lying, cheating, and manipulating. How could it not, when we had a whole continent to exploit, a nation to build, and new ideas, new religions, new inventions, and new freedoms to thrust at ourselves and the world? We have always been, and still are, expansive, grabbing all we can, and reaching for more and better. Boosterism -- a very American notion -- comes easily to us, and boosters are given to exaggeration and enthusiasm, which can easily shade into lying, cheating, and manipulating, with consequences often vast in scope. I'll cite just an example or two.
The recent resentencing of Jeffrey Skilling, former CEO of the Enron Corporation, reminds me of that colossal fraud, leading to what was then the biggest bankruptcy in the nation's history, with dire consequences for employees, shareholders, and the citizens of Houston. Skilling was convicted of conspiracy, securities fraud, false statements to auditors, and insider trading -- a rather heavy load of offenses -- and was sentenced to 24 years and 4 months in prison and fined $45 million. Now his sentence has been cut by ten years, making him eligible for release in 2017. How former employees and shareholders feel about this, or for that matter the citizens of Houston, has not been reported. My mutual fund family interviewed Enron twice as a possible investment, but couldn't understand how the company's visible operations could produce the profits reported in its glowing quarterly reports. "You don't understand modern finance!" the Enron people huffed at them. Indeed they didn't, and as a result their funds, unlike some, were untouched by Enron's collapse.
The Enron fraud was based in Houston, but over the years Wall Street has seen lots of dubious promotions, usually ending in collapse. In the nineteenth century it was canals and turnpikes, then railroads and gold mines and petroleum stocks, all of them touted wildly on Wall Street, some of the enterprises sound, but their stocks uplifted -- for a while -- into the stratosphere. Recently it was the dot com bubble of the 1990s, and then real estate, from which we are still recovering. Boom and bust, boom and bust -- that's what our history is all about, and in most of these pies Wall Street has had its sticky fingers deeply implanted. A parade, often colorful, of liars, cheats, and manipulators.
In the nineteenth century, in the absence of any federal currency, paper money was also issued by states, cities, counties, private banks, railroads, stores, churches, and even individuals. Ironically, the money of big New York City banks with solid assets was highly esteemed throughout the rest of the country, and rightly so. (How times have changed!) All this ended in the 1860s when, during the Civil War, the federal government started issuing greenbacks, a national currency that replaced all other currencies. Were those earlier currencies the works of liars, cheats, and manipulators? Theoretically, no. But when the issuers went bankrupt, rendering their currency valueless, one might well think so.
|A dollar bill issued by a bridge company in New Jersey. Would you have accepted it? |
In a mode more comic than serious, consider the nineteenth-century theater company that toured the West advertising the "gowrow," a fabulous monster exhibited in a tent adorned with a lurid painting of an ferocious animal devouring a family of mountaineers. Lured by such promotion, a crowd would gather outside the tent, forking over good money for tickets to what promised to be the show of shows. Suddenly, bloodcurdling roars and shrieks would erupt inside the tent, with clanking chains, gunshots, and sounds of a struggle. A man would stagger out, his clothes shredded, with blood running down his face: "Run for your lives! The gowrow has broken loose!" The back of the tent then collapsed amid more roars and sounds of rattling chains. Needless to say, the crowd fled in panic without stopping to get their money back, at which point the theater troupe packed up quickly and took off for distant vistas where the hoax was still unknown.
|Signs of the recent bust, 2008.|
The truth about
Maybe sophisticated New Yorkers wouldn't have fallen for such a hoax, but over the years they have been suckered by subtler schemes, as for instance the Wall Street bubbles mentioned earlier. Of course not everyone invests, but advertising reaches us all, and what does it involve if not lying, cheating, and manipulating? Classic examples are the patent medicines of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which promised cures for cancer, rheumatism, syphilis, self-abuse (aka masturbation), impotence, toothache, consumption, catarrh, dyspepsia, and anything else you care to name.
I've seen whole pages of those ads in old newspapers, but patent medicines were also touted in posters slapped on fences and horsecars and on asbestos curtains in theaters; on the signs of sandwichmen on crowded city streets; in handbills slipped under the entrances of residences; in outsized graffiti on the Palisades, where excursionists on steamboats couldn't help but see them; and on telegraph poles beside the Union Pacific tracks across the continent. "Ob-scenery!" proclaimed Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, but if citizens scoffed at the ads or criticized them, they also bought.
|Cocaine for kids: an interesting proposition.|
In one column of ads, a remedy for self-abuse and another (Santal-midi) for gonorrhea; remedies to enlarge certain parts of the body and to restore manhood; a Golden Specific for drunkenness; a cure for weak men (syphilis, gonorrhea, and "all private diseases"); a cure for weak nerves caused by "youthful errors"; sandalwood capsules for gonorrhea; and tansy pills "for women's salvation." This last, mysterious enough, is probably a discreet reference to yet another venereal disease remedy. The fate of those who tried these remedies I cannot bring myself to contemplate.
|Our friend and protector?|
Election note: Speaking of liars, cheats, and manipulators, our local elections here in the Big Apple can be highly entertaining, if one has an appetite for farce. First, Anthony Weiner, who had to resign his House seat when his pornographic e-mails to a number of women came to light, has resurfaced as a candidate for mayor, asking voters to give him a second chance, and shaking up an otherwise dull campaign. He is now neck-and-neck with Christine Quinn, hitherto the favorite, who yearns to be the city's first woman mayor and first avowed gay mayor. Hot on the heels of this development came the news that Eliot Spitzer, our former mayor who had to resign when his planned rendezvous with a pricey call girl was revealed (see vignette #14, July 1, 2012), is now a candidate for city comptroller, an important but lackluster post that manages the city's multibillion-dollar pension system and oversees the city's finances. And in the latest poll he's actually the front runner! My reaction? Well at least things are getting more interesting. They both have name recognition, though not the kind most candidates want. Weiner must be a good campaigner to have gotten this far so fast. As for Spitzer, he was a superb state attorney general, doing all the things the federal attorney general should have been doing, and -- briefly -- a lousy mayor who antagonized everyone, even his friends. But he's provoked a massive backlash, and if he's got business, unions, Wall Street, and the Democratic establishment against him, he must be doing something right. Not that I've decided to vote for either, but I'm watching closely with interest this resurgence of two political outcasts as they rise like the phoenix from the ashes of their earlier career. Meanwhile the late-night comedians are having a ball. Jay Leno, the Times informs me, has referred to them as the Peter Tweeter and the Hooker Booker. And commenting on the possibility that a former madam might also run for comptroller, Leno remarked, "There's a tough choice for the voters. One is involved in the most degrading profession of all time, and the other ran a whorehouse." Yes, the election is getting to be fun!
Coming soon: Secrets of New York (Browder version), featuring mystery houses, a secret meadow, Moses' Folly, a boat graveyard, and two thousand birds in flight.
(c) 2013 Clifford Browder