Sunday, December 27, 2015

212. 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.  WOULD  YOU  LIKE  TO  BE  A  MILLIONAIRE? one asked.  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 current AARP Bulletin, distributed widely to golden oldies, has an article entitled “Season’s Cheatings” that mentions several online scams practiced at this time of year 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 abroad 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.  (I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it here again, since it exemplifies this post’s theme.)  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.)  An article by Maria Konnikova in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times of December 6 of this year argues 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, so that he instead relied on a newfound friend of meager means; 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 no fool, 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.

     The Maria Konnikova article cited above gives another example of a con.  On her first day in New York a college student named Robin Lloyd encountered a loud-mouthed performer behind a cardboard box on Broadway who invited the crowd to “follow the lady” as he switched three playing cards about face down with lightning speed; if you bet you could guess correctly where the “lady” – a queen – went, he would double your money.  She was taken with the offer, excited, all the more so when another bystander wagered and won.  So even though she had only two $20 bills in her pocket and no winter coat, she wagered all she had.  The moment she did so, she regretted it, and of course she lost.  The game that duped her is called three-card monte and is still played on the streets of New York.  The monte operator, a good judge of character, had sensed her need and exploited it.  And the bystander she saw win was of course a plant, put there to lure victims in.  Another classic case of a con man in operation who must be deft with his fingers and spiel.  The game itself has been played in many countries as far back as the fifteenth century, and is still being played today. 

File:Three Card Monte.jpg

     Robin Lloyd was tricked because she needed money; my friend Kevin was tricked because he needed glamour; always, the con man offers something we deeply desire.  Which is why con men will always exist, and someone will always be duped.  What do you need?  Be careful, there’s someone out there eager to offer it to you; if you believe him, you’ll be had.

File:Warsaw 1944 by Bałuk - 26196.jpg
Three-card monte in Warsaw in 1944.  Even in wartime, under German
occupation and with the Red Army approaching, it flourished.

File:The game of monte in the streets of Mexico by Claudio Linati 1828.jpg
In Mexico in 1828.  An international con.

     A postscript on cemeteries:  Having read last week's post on cemeteries, our friend Carol tells how, when her stepfather died, she and her mother toured a cemetery in New Jersey, looking for a plot.  A blustery bleached blonde drove them around.  She kept up a running conversation, assuring them, "The place is well kept up.  You'll never find any empty plastic milk jugs lying around here."  A great comfort to the bereaved family. 

     Freakish weather:  Tuesday, December 22, the shortest day of the year, was also the darkest I have ever experienced in New York.  A short day, overcast; we had lights on all day.  And Thursday, December 24, was the mildest Christmas Eve I have ever known, with temperatures in the low 70s.  Spring flowers have been reported; whatever their normal season, I see some white ones right next door.

     Coming soon:  Fear of Falling: my fears, and everyone’s.  Then: A daring con man of our time, an alleged whiz kid of deceit.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

Sunday, December 20, 2015

211. Cemeteries and How They Entice

                   Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
                   If Green-Wood don't get you, Woodlawn must.

    In mid-nineteenth-century New York it was the dream of every dowager, and the dream of not a few elegant gentlemen as well, to be “buried by Brown from Grace,” Grace being Grace Church, the fashionable Episcopal church that still lifts its Gothic spire skyward at Broadway and East 10th Street in Manhattan, and Brown being Isaac H. Brown, the sexton of Grace Church, and the city’s definitive arbiter of taste.  It was he and he alone who decided what the “in” thing was for funerals in a given year, what the flower arrangements should be, how the casket (not the coffin) should be decorated, how the dear one should be laid out, and whether or not the casket should include a plate-glass panel to allow the deceased to be visible.  His knowledge was vast, and his decree, absolute – until the following year, when his dictate might change drastically.  (For more on Brown, see post #32, November 4, 2012.)

     To the phrase “buried by Brown from Grace” one should add “in Green-Wood,” for Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn was the desired final resting place of the elite of Gotham: a spacious landscaped park with tombs and mausoleums of granite or marble adorned with sculpted weeping willows, winged cherubs, pensive female figures, draped urns, and broken lutes.  Gone were the simple gravestones of an earlier age, and the crowded graveyards of congested Manhattan, which for reasons of health had been displaced to the outer boroughs.  Gone too were the plain pine coffins from a carpenter’s shop, replaced by polished rosewood and mahogany caskets displayed on the sidewalks of Broadway in front of the elegant shops that offered them, caskets that provoked astonished stares and wonderment from visitors from the nation’s distant provinces.  By mid-century, burials of citizens of the better sort had to be done in style.  Let’s follow one of them of them and see how a dowager of that time might have departed this earth.

Green-Wood entrance in 1891.

     Mourning is duly performed in a draped parlor steeped in romantic gloom, the mourners in the bleakest mourning, dabbing their eyes and sniffling, with visitors signing a guest book recording the dear one’s dearest friends.  Hovering in the near-distance is Isaac H. Brown himself, red-faced, ample, bald, in elegant black, and lucky they were to get him (at a price), his eye vigilantly surveying the furniture, the flowers, and the casket with silver-plated handles and a calla lily cross at the foot, and at the head, a bed of moss and evergreen with the word MOTHER in violets.  When the mourners finish their viewing, at a nod from Brown the attendants close the casket’s lid, with the dear one elegantly visible through the panel of glass, and cushioned comfortably in velvet and lace, a hint of a smile on her face, suggesting, after this world’s tribulations, the deepest  sleep and peace. 

File:Viewing (museum display).JPG
The ultra in how it's done today (minus the dear one).
Robert Lawton
     Six sturdy pallbearers in gray kid gloves bear the casket down the steep brownstone stoop to a black-plumed plate-glass hearse, with the dear departed visible to all and sundry, showing bystanders the status and elegance of the family.  Following the hearse are a series of shiny black carriages (most of them rented), bearing the dear one’s family in solemn procession through the streets to the waterfront, where, accompanied by only the closest, dearest kin, who are determined to see the dear one through to the end, the hearse is put aboard a ferry and borne across the East River to Brooklyn. 

     There, on that alien shore, the retinue disembark and proceed through unfamiliar wilds to Green-Wood, whose Gothic gates loom large, topped with spiky spires, and panels showing appropriate funereal scenes, the whole effect suggestive of a medieval cathedral.  Beyond those gates, opening up to mournful eyes is a pleasing vista of hillocks and ponds and fountains and planted trees, and scattered discreetly among them, noble monuments dedicated to other dear departed of like status and elegance.  Awaiting the dear one is a mausoleum of the finest marble, bearing the family’s engraved name.  Here she can rest in peace with other dear ones close about her, and all around her the soothing presence of Mother Nature, offering tranquility and ease after a lifetime of struggle and strife amid the urban turbulence of the city of New York. 

File:Anders Zorn-The Widow.jpg     Less happy, perhaps, are the prospects for the feminine bereaved, who by the rigid dictates of society must cease to be seen in public for a matter of weeks, if not months, during which they remain sequestered at their domiciles, garbed in black that will gradually yield to a dash or two of purple.  As for the males, sober clothes and a band of black crape on the topper suffice, and no confinement at home, since they must, of course, see to the running of the world.

     By 1880 the funeral director was taking charge of the entire operation, and services were held at a funeral home or church, with sermons eschewing the old fire-and-brimstone rants designed to scare mourners into virtue and compliance, replaced now by shorter spiels meant to console the bereaved and assuage their grief; as for the deceased, to get to heaven now, they had only to die – a condition that still holds today.  Clearly, this transformation of the funeral and mourning reflected the transition of the final resting place from crowded urban graveyard to the vast and soothing expanses of the landscaped cemetery.  The whole sad business of seeing off the dead had become, if not pleasant, at least less challenging, albeit at greater cost.  

File:Ca 20150703 (19384855101).jpg
Costica Acsinte Archive

     Ah yes, the cost.  According to James D. McCabe’s New York by Gaslight, published in 1880, a first-class New York funeral could cost $2,191, the biggest items being flowers, $100; rosewood coffin, $300; Green-Wood lot, $600; and granite monument, $900.  The smallest item was gravedigger, $5, and I’m sure the poor guy, who did the meanest bit of physical work, deserved more.  (In pondering these figures, bear in mind that an 1880 dollar would be worth $22.35 today.)  McCabe’s comment: “As only the rich can afford to live in New York society, so only the rich can afford to die in it.”  And die they did, with flair.

     The preeminence of Green-Wood as a final resting place was unchallenged throughout the nineteen century, its residents including such stellar names as editor Horace Greeley, jeweler Charles Lewis Tiffany, assorted richies of the time, and the century’s most famous preacher (and sinner), Henry Ward Beecher.  To which might be added another name of dubious repute, for once, when I was traipsing Green-Wood’s vast domain while doing research for a biography, I was amazed to come across a plot bearing the name TWEED and, within it in a commanding position, the grave of the Boss himself, who, even though hounded from office by reformers and fated to die in prison, was still deemed by his family to be deserving of a distinguished last resort.

     It is in the nature of preeminence to be rudely challenged.  By the early twentieth century a tidal wave of Gilded Age arrivistes were forsaking Green-Wood for its brazen rival, Woodlawn.  Founded in the farther reaches of the Bronx in 1863, twenty-five years later than Green-Wood, this Johnny-come-lately of cemeteries was almost as vast as its rival (400 acres vs. 478) and just as lovingly landscaped, but it had been number two for decades.  Still, it had already enticed to its enchanted precincts author Herman Melville, newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, pioneer suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Admiral David Farragut of Civil War fame, and, for a dash of vinegar, the much maligned Mephistopheles of Wall Street, Jay Gould. 

File:Woodlawn cem Jerrome gate jeh.JPG
A Woodlawn entrance today.
     And that was just the beginning.  In the course of the twentieth century, it gathered to its bosom such notables as Hizzoner Fiorello LaGuardia, the beloved Depression-era mayor of New York; the onetime New York State governor and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Charles Evans Hughes; author Damon Runyon; composer Irving Berlin; and jazz musicians Miles Davis and  Duke Ellington.

File:Jay Gould Mausoleum 1024.jpg
The Jay Gould Mausoleum.  Mephistopheles in the Parthenon.
Anthony 22

     Was Green-Wood worried?  You bet!  What followed, and still operates today, is a sort of Harvard-Yale rivalry, or should one say Macy’s and Gimbels, or Home Depot and Walmart?  “I’ve had to cede all the jazz musicians to Woodlawn,” Green-Wood’s current president, Richard Moylan, recently lamented to a New York Times interviewer; himself a fan of classic rock, Mr. Moylan is cut to the quick when he loses a stellar musician to his rival.  But there is hope: Leonard Bernstein was buried in Green-Wood in 1990, and today, with Brooklyn in the forefront culturally, Mr. Moylan has a wish list of prominent Brooklynites whom he hopes to snag. 

     But he’s doing more than wishing.  For the last eight years Green-Wood has hosted an annual benefit gala to raise money for the maintenance of its historic grounds.  Cocktails are sipped genteelly in an area bordered by the entombed remains of the cremated, whose proximity seems not to dismay the patrician imbibers, old-school richies who view anything trendy with disgust.  The result of the latest gala: $80,000, which followed a gift of $1 million for the restoration of a greenhouse that will become a visitor center.  No question, after a long decline in prestige, Green-Wood is becoming again a place of aspirational burial, the desired last resting place of the city’s socially prominent, especially the newly arrived of Brooklyn’s bohemian elite.  Watch out, Woodlawn; Green-Wood has risen from its ashes, and I don’t mean those of the cremated.  Its spiky Gothic gates are wide open; they beckon, they entice.

      A personal note:  In distant Illinois there is a cemetery plot where my father, mother, and brother are interred, with space for a fourth deceased: guess who?  But I won’t join their merry company, for my partner Bob and I are planning to be cremated, with the ashes strewn over the waves of the cold Atlantic.  No urn, no cremains; we will vanish from this earth.

     All through my childhood my family would drive past that cemetery en route elsewhere, and my brother David often quipped, “That’s a place people are just dying to get into,” which was true enough.  When my mother, long a widow, died, my brother and I had dealings with a local funeral home.  “You can be the skinflint from New York,” he advised me, being well aware of funeral home ploys and strategies.  At the home, while waiting to see the director, we were served coffee.  When we were summoned to the director’s sanctum, David announced loudly, “Bring the coffee, Hal.  It’s the only free thing you’ll get in this place.”  (My brother was not noted for tact.)  The director took this in stride; he was probably used to eccentrics and crazies.  When we were shown de luxe caskets at a hefty price, I inquired quietly, “Do you have anything else?”  “Yes,” said the director gently, then went into another room and returned wheeling in a somewhat plainer item, which we inspected briefly and bought.  The burial itself was routine, nothing fancy.

     Years later, when my brother died, I dealt with the same director in the same funeral home.  This time there was no fuss about the coffin; having recorded our choice on the previous occasion, he simply offered a similar bit of merchandise.  But then he mentioned embalming.  “Is this necessary?” I asked.  “Oh, you want your brother to look his best, do you not?”  I didn’t argue.  They wanted me to provide clothing for the deceased, including a tie.  He didn’t wear ties, and I had none to spare, so the home generously provided that item themselves.  Whether it was included in the itemized bill they sent, I never noticed; maybe not.  Again, the burial was routine; being a carless visitor from New York, I wasn’t even pressured to go to the cemetery.  But the cemetery is still discreetly after me, occasionally sending offers of flowers at a bargain price; I decline.  My clan never went for the fancy stuff; skinflints, if you like, or just unpretentious, not given to pomp.  So it goes.

     Coming soon:  Con men, cheats, and thieves: random notes on people who have tried to cheat me and others, and miscreants who have flourished in New York, where they are legion.  And after that, Fear of Falling.

     The book:  Once again, many thanks to all those who bought my collection of posts.  Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder