Miranda, who helped take care of the daughter, was upset, close to tears, visibly shaking when I got home. She started apologizing and apologizing. I barely held off the panic mode I felt closing in. Miranda then told me that it had nothing to do with the daughter. Instead, that afternoon someone rang the bell. When she answered, a young man asked for the ladder. He used my first name and stated that I had said he could borrow my ladder, an extra-tall one because of our high ceilings. Miranda hesitated. I had not told her that someone was going to use the ladder. He continued that he was working at a house under renovation, a few doors away. Miranda could see that its door was open. He repeated my name and said that he could get it from its storage space under the stoop where, indeed, it was kept. He said that he would bring it back in a half hour. She relented, and he dug out the ladder. She watched him carry it to the pointed-out house. The ladder was not returned in thirty minutes or even an hour. When an hour-and-a-half had elapsed, she went over to the neighbor’s house. Miranda asked about the man and the ladder. The workers there had no idea what she was talking about. They had plenty of their own ladders.
Miranda was, of course, upset because she had lost an employer’s property, but also because of the embarrassment we all have when we are taken. I was hardly concerned, however. I was relieved that it had nothing to do with the daughter, and I had a certain admiration for the con man. I had no idea who he might be. Somehow, however, he had learned my first name, which he could have heard sometime as I greeted a neighbor or workman, but he had also learned where I stored the ladder and that was more unusual and not easily-acquired knowledge.
I replaced the ladder. It may have cost $60 or $80, and I thought about that con man. I actually hoped that he had some use for the ladder–that he was renovating something or that he was doing work for others because I thought that if he had tried to sell it, he maybe got ten bucks for it. Hardly worth the risk, it would seem.
But by then, as Legal Aid attorney in New York City, I had represented many people charged with worse crimes, and seldom would I have thought that their risks were worth the rewards. I had represented many who had committed street corner robberies, muggers in other words. If they had a knife or a gun, this was an armed robbery with a potential punishment of twenty-five years in prison where routinely sentences were three, ten, fifteen years. Few people daring the streets where the muggers worked had much money and carried little of it. Seldom did the robbers get as much as $50. To make anything like real money, the mugger had to do it repeatedly with each robbery increasing the likelihood of an arrest until invariably prison resulted.
I learned that these were not really economic crimes. The mugger was not so much driven by the money as by the thrill of pulling a knife on a stranger on a darkened street corner with escape not entirely certain. It was about the adrenalin and the domination even more than about the dollars.
And for the con man who got my ladder, I am sure that it was more about the successful play and the feeling of superiority than it was about the object obtained.