I was walking in Manhattan miles from my home. A black man approached me and in the friendliest fashion said hello. I nodded, thought “panhandler” even though he was not shabbily dressed, and continued on. He turned to walk with me and said with companionable incredulity, “You don’t remember me?” I perhaps took my first real look at him, pondered, and said no. “We met at your place.” I studied him again and hesitated. “My sister works for you, and we met when I came over to see her one day.” He almost sounded hurt. Perhaps I should have walked away at this point. I knew it was a con. A woman did work for us, but her siblings were sisters. I, however, was not hurrying anywhere and was intrigued. “Oh,” I said.
He then continued, “We met when you were coming home from work, I think.” I don’t remember my precise replies, but anything specific I said he would weave into his patter–not immediately, but after a sentence or two. For example, if I had said that I usually got to Brooklyn about six, he would find a way to mention Brooklyn as my home as if he had always known that. Only when the talk lasted long enough to seem as if we were reunited long-lost buddies did the pitch come. This was a familiar one about car trouble. His car suddenly stopped working, and he needed some money for a tow or a new battery. Only rarely do I give money to panhandlers, but I did give him something. I often stop to watch street performers and drop a bill or two into their cap when I especially like them, and I thought this guy qualified as a very good street performer of sorts.
Few street performers I have seen play on race, but a troupe I have watched several times on the Central Park Mall does. They are six or so young black men who do tumbling and acrobatic passes to the background of music with a heavy beat coming from boom boxes. They ask a few of the audience members for their hometowns. The majority are tourists, and what could be a better New York experience than to be in Central Park watching this group perform? You don’t see that back in Ada, Ohio. They have a patter that is as honed as a vaudeville act, and it plays up race and touches on racial fears. As one starts his run for a tumbling pass, another says, “That is as fast as you will see a black man run not being chased by a cop.” “If we weren’t here getting donations from you, we would be breaking into your homes.”
The guy who approached me on the street, however, used race in a more subtle way. His astonishment at not being recognized was a play on white guilt. Don’t many of us secretly worry that we fall into that group that think so many black men do look alike? And not wanting to be rude to a black man then tends to make us stop and at least briefly hear what he has to say.
I wondered how often he had to approach people like me for his sister line to succeed. Does one of every five, ten, or twenty white men walking in a Manhattan neighborhood have a black woman working for him at home? Surely in five or ten minutes he could encounter some such person. And, of course, the odds would be good that the nanny or cleaner has a brother. In any event, probably few of the white men know much about the lives of the women that work in their home. I was different from many because I worked at home for about half the time and chatted with people who cleaned or helped take care of the daughter.
The guy, however, was skillful beyond getting me to stop and listen a bit. Besides the line about his sister, he said nothing that could seem wrong and send up flags. Instead he was adept in getting me to say things that he could use to make it seem as if he already knew me. He was good at his craft.
After I gave him some money, I wanted to stop him and tell him I knew it was a con and ask him how he had developed his line, how often it worked, and how much he made. But, just like insisting on finding out how a magician does his tricks, it would have destroyed the moment.