Sunday, July 15, 2018

364. Con Men, Cheats, and Thieves

GIVEAWAY:  No  Place for Normal: New York

What you get:

The first three people who sign up will get a free print copy of my award-winning stories No place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (summary and review below).  U.S. residents only.  Previous winners not eligible.  Winners should be new to me and this blog.  Offer runs until 9 p.m. EST Saturday, July 21, or as soon as three people have signed up.  More giveaways will follow.  To subscribe, use the sign-up form in the sidebar on the right.

All subscribers will get announcements of my weekly posts for this blog, which is about anything and everything New York.  Also, word of new releases, like Fascinating New Yorkers (see in BROWDERBOOKS below), to be released July 26.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way.  A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Con Men, Cheats, and Thieves

     Once, long ago, when my brother met me at an airport to give me a lift to the family apartment, he said with a canny look, “Let me tell you about my new scam.”   His “scam” was simply a plan to redeem hundreds of coupons in newspapers, so as to acquire a lifetime supply of whatever at a reduced price.  Being in the newspaper distribution business, he had access to reams of unsold papers and so had a free hand in clipping reams of coupons.  There was nothing illegal about this; he was simply taking advantage of his position to buy things cheap.  Years later, when I came back to bury him, I found the apartment crammed with his spoils: a lifetime supply of deodorants, ditto of detergent, car repair equipment that only a grease monkey could appreciate, and I don’t recall what else; it took me weeks to clear it all out.  But what I still remember most vividly, was that look on his face when he announced his so-called scam: canny, shrewd, knowing, worthy of Wily Coyote, the trickster of many Native American legends.  It was indeed the look of an operator about to put something over on others – in other words, the look of a con man.

     New York, like any big city, is a mecca for con men, cheats, and thieves.  An African American cruising the streets in a fancy limousine stuffed with clothing once asked with a winning smile if I’d like to buy some clothes; I declined, convinced that they were stolen items.  He was surely a thief or a fence.

The mug shot of Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme
was the biggest fraud in U.S. history.

     On another occasion when I found myself at night in midtown, I saw a man trying to sell some paper dolls to some sailors.  Aligned side by side, the dolls were dancing on the sidewalk as if by magic.  It was an old trick still being played. But the sailors weren’t fooled; they were looking for the hidden strings that propelled the dolls.  Seeing this, another man standing nearby announced in a resonant voice, “It’s show time!”  He repeated his warning a second time, and the vendor of the dolls packed them up and moved on down the street.  “I knew there was a hidden string,” said one sailor, “and here it is.”  Looking closely, he had detected the almost invisible string.

File:Charles Ponzi.jpg
Charles Ponzi, who was so successful a swindler in the 1920s that he has given his name to the fraud  where the con man promises investors fabulous returns, then uses the money from later investors to pay the earlier investors.

     Another scam that used to be practiced in the city involved a man entering into conversation with a stranger outside a bank and telling him that banks were frauds, they took your money but wouldn’t give it back.  He would repeat this assertion so consistently, so smugly, that the other man would wax indignant and tell him he was crazy.  “Go ahead, just try,” the first man would dare him, “try to withdraw a sizable sum, and you’ll see that I am right.”  So the dupe would do just that, and it was just a matter of time before he and his money were separated.  How could anyone fall for such an obvious scam, you and I and almost everyone would wonder, and the victim, once disabused, would wonder the same.  But at the time, he fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and – to mix metaphors – got royally fleeced.

     Today the cheats take advantage of the Internet to reach you in your home.  Once, out of nowhere, I got an e-mail: “Aloha!  I’d like to get to know you.  From your profile I think we have lots in common.”  The sender seemed to be a pleasant young woman. Surprised and charmed, I was tempted to respond, but some good spirit deep within me, some demon of skepticism, held me back, and I quickly realized that this was probably a scam, bait to entice you to interact and yield personal information useful to the scammer.  Like all such greetings since, I deleted it.

     On another occasion I got an e-mail purporting to be from my publisher, saying that on the spur of the moment he had taken a trip abroad – I think he said to the Philippines – was in trouble there and needed money; if I could send him several hundred, he’d repay me as soon as he got back.  This smelled fishy, so I asked for more information.  The appeal was repeated urgently, but it seemed fishier than ever, so I asked how he knew me, what was the connection?  No answer came.  I then e-mailed the publisher and got an immediate reply: an account of his had been hacked, and this appeal was going out to many of his authors and acquaintances whose e-mail addresses had been discovered; he was now closing the account and opening another with a different password. Beware of sudden e-mail appeals.  With hindsight, I realize that I shouldn’t even have answered the first appeal before contacting him for verification.

     And of course we’re constantly assaulted by ads that make glowing vague promises.  I once encountered this one:


Amused, I answered by mail as instructed: “Yes, please tell me how to become a millionaire!”  The reply was simply a run-of-the-mill invitation to invest in something or other, an offer so drab and uninspired that it wasn’t worth messing with, even to chuckle or debunk it. 

     I’m not always so canny.  Recently I got an envelope labeled Social Security & Medicare, personal statement enclosed, and in bold red ink, EXPIRATION  NOTICE.  At the very thought of my Social Security and Medicare expiring, I almost panicked and hurriedly opened the envelope.  So what did I discover?  It was an appeal from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, urging me to renew my membership – in other words, give them more money. Looking closely at the envelope, I now saw that the words “National Committee to Preserve” were indeed there, but in small print.  They had tricked me into opening the envelope. But this so annoyed me that I vowed never to give them money again – not exactly the dénouement they intended.

     There are trivial tricks and scams, but serious ones perpetrated by real artists of the trade abound.  The AARP Bulletin, distributed widely to golden oldie, often has articles about online scams practiced on the elderly.  For instance:

·      Notifications by e-mail claiming that the U.S. Post Office or some other entity has a delivery for you; click on the link and you get malware.
·      Rogue retailers offering bargain prices that you find on social media or through search engine results; they want your credit card number or will sell you inferior goods (or maybe nothing at all).
·      Charity cons claiming to benefit police, firefighters, veterans, sick or needy children, or victims of natural disasters; again, they want your credit card number.
·      Gotcha giveaways offering free merchandise or free vacations, likewise hoping to get your credit card or other sensitive information.

Not to mention scams that relieve some oldsters of their life’s savings, or induce them to send money to rescue a grandchild who is reportedly in some kind of unforeseen trouble. 

     Being a bit of a tightwad and suspicious by nature, I’ve never fallen for any of these cons, but long ago a friend of mine was outrageously conned by a master of the trade.  My friend Kevin, a natty, sophisticated New Yorker, told me he had just met an interesting visitor from South America (I forget which country) named Vergilio and was quite taken with him.  The next thing I knew, Kevin had arranged with a friend who was going away on vacation to let Vergilio move into her place temporarily. Kevin’s praise of Vergilio grew ever more intense, and finally I met this paragon when Kevin invited me over for cocktails. Vergilio was a good-looking young man of about thirty, no kid, well-groomed and well-mannered, with a soft, pleasing voice and a gracious smile.  Good enough, but everything about him, while pleasing, seemed strangely vague.  He was right there in the present, but he seemed to have no past and no discoverable future – a mysteriousness that made him that more interesting to Kevin.   

     “What is it about this guy that so gets to you?” I asked Kevin later.

     Kevin flashed a look of intensity.  “I’ve never known anyone like him.  He’s fascinating.  He has glamour!”

     Glamour – a word I associate with Hollywood brouhaha – was something I had never hankered for, but it was clear that it appealed to some need deep in Kevin’s psyche.  But I was worried.  For me, Vergilio, who had appeared out of nowhere, was a smile over a cocktail glass, nothing more.

     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: photos of a narcissist.  By now even Kevin sensed something amiss, but his need of glamour locked him into 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.  Kevin’s response: "I feel like I've been kicked in the teeth.”

     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.  Since his finances were habitually precarious, I doubt if he ever repaid any of his friends.  But of one thing I am sure: Vergilio was 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.

     Vergilio was a classic example of the con man, and Kevin a classic example of the dupe.  (Note my insisting on “con man” and never “con woman” or “con person”; it seems to be a males-only game.)   It has been argued that we humans are born to be conned, that the true con artist makes us feel good about ourselves, makes us think he’s giving us just what we deserve.  The victim is always swept up in a narrative that at the time seems absolutely compelling. 

      So it was with Kevin.  He had a deep need to experience glamour, and Vergilio satisfied that need marvelously, to the point that Kevin ignored all the danger signs: the vagueness of Vergilio’s ailment, and his obvious good health; Vergilio’s inability to get help from old friends and family; Vergilio’s trip to Europe supposedly to get medical aid, a trip memorialized in photos of Vergilio in luxury settings that belied the very purpose of the trip.  Kevin was a sophisticated New Yorker, but he fell for the con that a shrewd operator offered him, and his awakening was harsh.  The wound was long in healing, if it ever did heal completely.

Coming soon: Something about a spotted pig, the deplorable Chupi, a pulsing river, a Beaux Arts masterpiece, Korean marvels, and an art-filled john.  All in one short walk.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.



"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

2.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

"... I enjoyed reading Dark Knowledge and Clifford Browder definitely managed to recreate the vibe and feel of that era so that I could almost smell the salty sea air and feel myself transported to that period. The characters are very well drawn, and in addition to Chris and Sal, who are fantastic, all of the other family members, former ship captains, etc. also have their own flavor and personalities. Sal is shown to be a smart and capable woman which I appreciated. But most of all, this is Chris’s story and Clifford Browder succeeds in highlighting the horrors of slavery through this book. This is great read!"  Five-star Readers' Favorite review by Gisela Dixon.

New release; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

4.  Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, liberated Women, Creators, Queers and Crazies (Black Rose Writing, 2018).  A collection of posts from this blog.  Short biographical sketches of people, some remembered and some forgotten, who lived or died in New York.  All kinds of wild stuff, plus some stuff that isn't quite wild but fascinating.  New York is a mecca for hustlers of every kind, some likable and some horrible, but they are never boring.

Fascinating NYers eimage.jpg


"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there." Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

To be published July 26.  You can order it here from the publisher and get a discounted price (plus postage), but it won't be shipped before that date. Also available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, minus the discount but with the delay.  A few signed copies are available now from the author (i.e., me) for $20.00 (plus postage, if needed).  

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

©   2018   Clifford Browder

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