As you can probably tell from the fact that you’re reading words I’ve put on a page, I’m a writer. And if you know something about the state of writers in general, and in New York in particular, then you know I’m poor. Luckily for me and the city’s taxpayers, I’m not yet food-stamp poor (I checked, I don’t qualify), but I’m cash strapped enough that if I’m out to dinner with a friend, I’ll make sure she pays the extra dollar she owes instead of splitting the check down the middle — because, after all, that’s why I got the PBR and not the glass of house wine.
All of this is to say that I can’t afford to just hand out money to strangers on the street, especially when it comes in the form of paper and not coins. Yet, despite the fact that I’ve lived in New York off-and-on for more than 12 years, that is exactly what I did a couple of weeks ago. I handed $30 to a scam artist.
The story starts on 10th Street between First Avenue and A. I’m walking out of Juice Press (I know: bad money decision, but I felt like I deserved a treat after making my own juices for a week) with my dog, headed over to my friend’s apartment, which will be empty because it’s the middle of the day and she and her roommates, unlike me, have real jobs in real offices with real paychecks. I’m going there because she, with her real job and real paycheck, has cable, and I, with my freelance existence and paychecks that are often under $100 each, do not. But I like Homeland and I like Masters of Sex, so I go to my friend’s to watch them. Thanks, friend!
Except on my way over, I’m approached by a frantic man. “Please help me,” he implores. “No one will help me.” He’s probably in his mid-forties, bald, white, wearing some kind of old-looking varsity jacket, and looking completely desperate. “Please. My van is about to be towed. I ran out of gas. My kids are in the van, and I just need $26 to get a can of gas.”
Now, as it turns out, for whatever reason, I actually have some cash on me, but I’m reluctant, of course, to just hand it over to a stranger. “Which van?” I ask. He points behind him to 10th Street. “Which?” I ask again, because there are a million vans and who knows what this guy is talking about.
“That one,” he says, and I see a double-parked van with its lights flashing. “Please, nobody will help me. I’ll leave you with my wedding ring, with my cell phone, with my jacket. Please. I’ll come right back.”
Heartstrings sufficiently pulled (he offered his wedding ring! there are kids in the van!) I offer him ten dollars, telling him he can just take it and I’ll be on my way. After all, I really want to see the new Homeland. “But I need $26 for the gas.” He has a point: if the gas can is $26, what good is ten? He starts showing me cuts on his hands and telling me if he can’t get the gas can, he doesn’t know how he’ll push his van all the way to the station.
This is when I flash back to probably ten years ago, standing at the ticket counter in the Tel Aviv airport and needing $200 to change my ticket, but having no cash because my bank had frozen my ATM card thinking someone had stolen it for an Israeli joy ride. Just as I thought I was stuck in the Holy Land forever (not really such a bad deal, is the truth), a yeshiva bocher behinds me offers to lend me the money if I’ll send him a check once I’m home. After he received my reimbursement (along with a gracious note), he e-mailed me to say thanks – his friends told him he’d never see that money again.
“Fine,” I tell the blue-collar desperado, feeling like I owe it to the universe.
“Thank you! Here, take my wedding ring,” and he starts trying to pull it off, even sticking his finger in his mouth for lubrication.
“That’s okay, I don’t feel comfortable taking your wedding ring. I’ll take your phone.” He pulls out two phones, hands me one. I think nothing of the fact that he keeps the smartphone and hands me the shit phone. I just assume it has something to do with his van business.
I pull out thirty of my hard-earned dollars, and he tells me to wait on the corner. At this point I am still annoyed at the delay in my juice-and-Homeland plans. I’m standing around. I’m liking things on Instagram. But then. Then I think, “Hey, who’s with the kids?” I turn around and the van is gone. I pull out the phone, thinking maybe I could call “Home” or “Mom” or someone that can help me track this guy down. The phone is a fake. The screen is a sticker. The flip on the phone doesn’t even work. “Floor Sample, Not For Resale” it says on the back.
And then I realize. I have just been scammed. I call 311, blame Bill de Blasio for the city’s immediate turn into a depraved crime den, and ask the operator to connect me to the local police precinct. I dial the button for “Crime Prevention.” I get an answering machine and leave a message along the lines of, “Well, I was calling to report a crime, but since nobody is answering, thanks for fucking nothing.” I do not leave my name or number. My money is gone; it will not be recovered.
A week later, my roommate (remember, I’m poor – I live in a tiny East Village 2.25 bedroom with two roommates and two dogs) tells me a short, white, creepy-looking bald guy tried to run the same scam on her friend Annie on 7th Street, offering up his phone as collateral. I asked Annie about it a couple of days ago. “Yeah, I just kept walking,” she said.
Good choice, Annie. Maybe that’s why you have a real job, and as my parents like to remind me, I do not.