Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 13, 2009

If You’re Working the Short Con – Know Your Geography

Do you ever watch “Leverage?”  Those of us rich in life experience might remember  TV series called “Mission Impossible.”  Both of these shows are examples of the “long con.”  One other example would be Ocean’s Eleven.  The long con generally requires a large, trustworthy staff, significant operating capital, and has far more risk of arrest.  The short con, by comparison, requires very little setup, small staff, and last no more than a few hours.  Often they last less than 15 minutes.  And that’s what you trip across when you’re on your way to lunch.

So I was walking to lunch downtown and I met this on Market Square. He was in his late thirties/early fourties and shabbily dressed, except for the brand new University of Tennessee baseball cap on his head. He explained to me that he was a “graduate student at the University of UT” and just needed a few dollars to go home to visit his elderly mother over the upcoming spring break. As he spoke he kept gesturing toward campus to the northeast.

He was clearly in need, so I helped him out. I told him that if he is going to work this short con on Market Square, he needs to know two things. First, nobody at UT calls it the “University of UT.”  We call it “UT” or “The University.” Not both.  Second, campus was to the southwest of where we were standing, not the northeast, where he was pointing.  I didn’t get a chance to tell him that, while UT does have graduate students his age, without exception, every one of them dressed better than he did, and a filthy backpack like the one he was carrying would simply never been seen on campus.

I didn’t get to tell him ‘cause he had the brass-balled gall to get mad at me for correcting his errors. I mean, honestly. Nobody downtown is going to believe him looking like that. He tried to accuse me of being classist, that is, that he was a poor grad-student, and not “rich” like me. But it didn’t fly. He wasn’t able to pull off the outrage believably, and went stomping off in a huff.  I didn’t pursue him. As I think back on it, what sank him wasn’t what he was wearing: ratty jeans, T-shirt with obscure logo, old sneakers.  He’s right; those are the uniform of the UT student, regardless of pre- or post-graduate rank.  But while UT grad students may dress like bums, they generally don’t smell like them.

It was that he wasn’t clean. Here at the University of Tennessee, our graduate students may have utterly abysmal taste in clothes, but all of their clothes get washed on a regular basis. He didn’t smell bad, mind you, but his shirt had multiple visible stains and his jeans had that dark-slick look denim gets when it hasn’t been washed in a couple of dozen wearings. Sloppy could have passed. What kind of story could possibly draw enough sympathy for someone who looked that skanky to still collect largesse from strangers?

With that in mind, I’ve been sort of giving some thought as to what kind of look would go with what kind of story. This guy basically needed cleaner clothes a marginally better sense of geography and lingo. I had one friend tell me about an encounter with a woman who claimed she needed money for diapers and baby formula, but had a hundred-dollar manicure on the ends of her fingers. I can’t deny that it there are people who would spend their last dollar on a manicure and then beg for money for their baby. After all, people will give you money for a baby. They will rarely make a charitable donation to your manicure. On the other hand, I once did throw two dollars in a hat for a guy whose sign said “Need money for beer.” Truth in advertising should be rewarded.

I’m normally a pretty hard mark. I can eat pork chops in front of dogs with big brown eyes. I was over at a friend’s mom’s place a few years back for dinner, and was so hard-hearted it generated comment. Apparently, my pal and I are the most hard-hearted guys she’s ever seen. Her dog, Buddy, is a beggar. And we sat there and ate five pork chops with rice and apple sauce with him staring at us the whole time. And not only did he not get anything out of us, which she could believe, but we didn’t evidence the slightest discomfort. That he wasn’t able to even make a big enough dent in us to get himself thrown out of the room astonished her.

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  1. I always wonder about those “will work for food” folks on the side of the road. I know folks would rather give them money than work, and I’ve heard stories of these folks refusing food (they actually are after the $). But I wonder if part of the con is to get taken to someone’s house to “work,” and then case the place for stuff to steal…

    • Generally not – most of the “will work for food” people are panhandlers who, once you describe the task, will have a back, knee, or elbow injury that will disqualify them from the labor you are offering.

      But there’s no way I’d let a panhandler near my property to work. I’ve been ripped off too often. Although I will occasionally pay people who are working the short con. If they tell a good story, I figure I’ve gotten $3 – $5 bucks worth of entertainment.

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