Thursday, June 17, 2010

I've heard that story before

The other evening I was walking up Westminster Street in Providence, Rhode Island, a city I'd visited only twice before. A white-haired gentleman wearing a windbreaker passed me going the opposite direction, and nodded in a friendly way. I nodded back in a friendly way, why not? A few steps further on I heard the man call back to me. I turned around. He started to tell me a story.

It's a story I've heard before, though the particulars vary. Here's the outline:

  • Apologize for troubling the listener
  • Establish an empathetic connection: the teller and listener are both "one of us"
  • Tell a shaggy dog story about a journey, by bus or car or train
  • Explain how the teller got stuck wherever the story's being told
  • Teller asks listener for a small, specific amount of money -- just enough to get unstuck from the present circumstance
  • Teller make fulsome promises to pay the money back as soon as the immediate crisis is past

The first time I heard this story was in the city where I live, about thirty years ago. I was walking up Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, when a man hailed me at the corner of Blake Street. He'd been driving home from work, and his car broke down. Maybe it was the radiator, maybe it was the clutch -- I don't remember, this was thirty years ago. Anyway, he had a family waiting for him at home, and it was going to cost plenty to get his car fixed but he had no money on him -- and he wouldn't be able to fix the car 'til the next day anyhow, because the shops were all closed -- but he could come back to Berkeley tomorrow and get it all straightened out after getting money from home ... only because his car was broken and he didn't have any cash on him he couldn't get home. Bus fare out to Milpitas (or wherever it was he said he lived) was $4.55, he explained, and asked if there was any way I could see clear to loaning him bus fare, he'd be so grateful, and of course he'd pay me back.

I was skeptical. This was Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, you couldn't (and still can't) walk thirty feet without somebody spare-changing you, and I'd grown reasonably hardened. But this guy was so sincere. And his story seemed so much more ... particular than those told by the usual incoherent layabouts. And he wasn't asking for money to fix his car, only enough to get home.

So I gave him a five. He asked me for my address so he could mail the money back to me.

Hmmmm. Okay, I just gave the guy five bucks, which means I believe he's telling me the truth, that he's not pulling a low-stakes con, right? But do I believe him enough to give him my address, just a few blocks away from the corner we're standing on?

No, I didn't. Now that he'd gone that extra step, trying to make arrangements to pay back five bucks, I started feeling a little bit stupid. Well, five dollars wasn't the end of the world, lucky for me. I told him to forget it, and -- over his protests, his insistence that, really, he can't take my money if I won't allow him the chance to repay it -- walked away.

Imagine how sheepish and disgusted I felt when the next week, or maybe it was the one after, the same fellow approached me on Shattuck Avenue and started to tell the same damn story. I was also fascinated. I listened long enough to see whether he'd ask for the same sum of money -- and he did! he asked for exactly $4.55! -- before reminding him we'd met a couple weeks back and he still owed me five bucks. He skedaddled.

I didn't fall for the tall tale again. Not that second time on Shattuck Ave., nor the times after in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, or Santa Cruz. I've had guys (and women too) try to tell me this story all over, one time in Seattle, another in New York.

And this week in Providence.

Sometimes the story's about getting home from work (hey, I'm a working stiff, just like you); sometimes it's about paying for prescription medicine; sometimes about getting home to feed a brood of kids. There's always a specific sum of money involved, and usually a vivid disclaimer that the storyteller never found him or herself in this situation before, would never ask a stranger for money, couldn't possibly ask for a handout but would insist on paying back a stranger's assistance.

No one's ever tried to pull the similar, better known gas can or robbed traveler cons on me. But I keep attracting this one. I guess I look like a particular kind of sucker.

This time? This time, like the last dozen or so, I didn't wait around to hear the full setup. The fellow in the windbreaker apologized effusively for bothering me and explained me he'd been driving from Groton, Connecticut on his way to Brockton, Massachusetts -- all this in a rush of words, he couldn't have taken more than seven seconds -- I shook my head, turned, and continued on my way.

I'd heard that story before. Have you?


  1. I have heard that before, also $5.00. Once during lunch I realized I'd forgotten my wallet and ended up eating a package of bologna for my lunch that I bought with change scrounged from the car. I ran into a guy in the parking lot in an ill-fitting suit who told me he needed some money as he'd forgot his wallet. I told him that I, too, had forgotten my wallet, so I didn't have any money to give him. He seemed confounded by that.

  2. Yeah, that same thing happened to me not long after I moved to Berkeley. I gave $5, even my address. Yes, I knew I was being a country bumpkin -- but he seemed so sincere and I liked the friendly face in the new city. Then it happened again, less than a week later, this time an older woman. I think she actually got $2 out of me. I haven't listened to the full story since ...

    But more recently one of our regular street people came up to me -- I'd seen him for years -- and he represented himself as a visitor from Africa who needed taxi fare, or something. I mean, I was so baffled by hearing this "I'm a poor foreign visitor" speech from someone I'd been seeing around town for years that I couldn't quite get all the details. My heart's been hardened to the sob stories, I guess. But I do occasionally give to street musicians.