Tuesday, May 04, 2021

No Words

A car pulled up beside me in a parking lot.

I heard a window go down, and when I looked inside the car, I saw a black man about my age, with a blue fabric mask pulled down below his nose. 

He was sitting inside a dark Oldsmobile 88 from the mid 90s. There was trash in the floorboards, and the ashtray had a partially smoked Swisher Sweet cigar with the plastic tip.

"Excuse me, sir." he said. "Can you tell me how far I am from downtown?"

I pointed. "Not far. It's only a few minutes from here."

"Can you give me directions to the Spectrum Hospital Cancer Center? My phone is out of battery."

"Sure," I said, pulling out my phone. He looked worn, somehow, like people do when things have been wrong for a long time.

"How far is it from here?"

"A little over two miles," I said. 

"Two miles? Man." He looked at me. "I just bought this car, and it's a piece of crap. I haven't even cleaned it up yet." He moved his left leg. "I hurt this leg in the service."


This sounded like a scam, but I didn't react, because people who run this kind of con fascinate me. Plus I liked this guy. He had a soft-spoken, gentle quality.

"There's a product to plug the radiator until you can get it fixed, but it costs twenty-three dollars." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small group of crumpled, folded bills, showing them to me. "I'm twelve dollars short."

"I'm sorry, man," I said. "I don't carry any cash. Who carries cash anymore?"

"Almost no one," he said. "Nobody carries cash."

"If you have some paper, I'll write down the directions for you," I said. "You just get on Lake and it takes you to downtown."

"That's all right," he said. "I'll find my way."

I turned to walk away, but I'd only gone a couple of steps when I came back. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," he said. 

"Look, I'm going to apologize in advance if what I ask offends you. It's really awkward."

"Don't worry about it. It's good."

"All right," I said. "Again, I apologize if I'm wrong, but what you just did has a lot in common with someone running a con. I'm a writer, and people who are good at doing this really fascinate me, and you're good at it. Would you mind if I asked you some questions so I can learn how you put this together?"

He looked at me for a few seconds, and he said, "I like you, brother. I'll tell you." He looked away for a moment, then he looked at me and said, "The throes of addiction make you do things you're not proud of."

"I understand," I said. "And I'm sorry you're struggling with that."

"What do you want to know?" he asked. 

"I can't understand how someone can approach a total stranger and gain their confidence to the point that they give them money. How do you handle the conversation?" 

"You have to establish control. You do as much of the talking as you can, and you give them so many details that they can't concentrate on just one. You just don't give them the chance to say no."

"How do you build the pitch?"

"The pitch doesn't really matter," he said. "What matters is you look them in the eyes, and you're polite. You're polite at all times."

"So how do you handle the moment when someone becomes suspicious? I assume most people have resistance to what you're telling them. How do you get past that and make them trust you?"

"You offer them something of value. If you have an iPad, you let them use it to look something up. Or you offer them something that they know is valuable to you. That makes them think that what you're saying is true."

"You were really, really smooth," I said. "How long have you been doing this?" 

"Too long," he said. "In rehab, they said that people with addictions are powerful persuaders, because we're desperate. I lost my wife, and my car, and a ranch-style home. I lost it all. I'm almost living out of my car at this point."

"Man, I'm sorry," I said. "I  can't even imagine what that must feel like."

"Nothing else matters when you're addicted. You won't spend a dollar on anything else. I've had three of these 88s. I buy them used, in bad shape, and I run them until they're ruined. Blew the "A" gasket on the first two. It'll blow on this one, eventually."

"What are you going to do?"

"I've got a plan to get free. God is working with me." He said it like a wish.

"Listen, do you have an address where you can get mail? I'll send you twenty dollars, just for the conversation."

"No, brother, you keep your money," he said. "It felt good to let it go."

"I hope you make it," I said.

"So do I."

I shook his hand, a long handshake, and walked away.

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