on the snuke
The first person I ever scammed was my grandmother, who had Alzheimer's disease and could never remember from one minute to the next whether she'd just given me ice cream or not. I'd polish off a bowl, drop it in the sink, walk out, walk back in, ask for another, and get it. Boom. They say you can get sick of ice cream if you eat too much. I found that was not the case.
They also say you can't cheat an honest man, but I say you can. The honest ones never see it coming.
In first grade, I cooked up the Golden Recess, which was a Ponzi scheme, though I didn't know to call it that then. I got my classmates to pool their allowances for me to invest in something. Action figures? Baseball card futures? I really don't remember. By the time the pyramid collapsed, I'd netted twenty bucks--huge money for first grade--and I didn't even do time because, though of course I got caught, no one believed a little kid could have such larceny in his soul.
Honest people. Like I said, they never see it coming.
And snukes--scams or the people who perform them--may have a bad name, but it's not always the case that someone gets burned. In fact, when you think about it, the best cons are the ones that leave people feeling like they got something for their money. And you know what? Sometimes they even do.
Consider the Doolally shorthair.
I'm like nine, ten, something like that, and I find this stray dog. He was a real mess, with matted, gunked-up fur and scarry evidence of many fights. I knew if I took him to the pound, they'd kack him for sure, and I couldn't stand to see a dog go down. So what I did, I shaved him and sold him to unsuspecting yuppies as an exotic purebred: the extremely rare and fairly expensive Doolally shorthair terrier. I charged a ton because, again, with honest people, they definitely think the more you pay, the more it's worth. Of course, it wouldn't do to have his hair grow out on them--who ever heard of a longhaired shorthair? - so before I sold him, I trained him to pigeon home. Which, at the first opportunity, he does. I shave him again and take him back again, and oh, the happy couple, they can't believe I found their precious pooch! I explain how the Doolally is so valuable and rare that they all get GPS microchipped at birth, and these yuppies are so grateful, they give me a reward, which I protest taking but take just the same.
So the dog bolts again, and I return him again, this time spinning a yarn about how the chip only has a limited number of resets, whatever the hell that means, and had to be replaced--at cost, of course. This they totally buy, and why not? I mean, just look at me, such a choirboy. Beatle bangs, cherry cheeks, scout's-honor smile. That's always been a strength of my game: I look so straight, you'd never believe I'd try to sell you your wallet out of your own back pocket.
Anyway, the dog jets again, and I trot him back again and get paid again. I'm definitely thinking, good times.
But it can't last forever, right? Even the dullest dull normal will eventually catch on, so after the Doolally's last scamper, I show up with another mutt, some additional stray I rescued. I suggest that the Doolally is a little more peripatetic - at that age I was all about the SAT words - wandery, yeah, than they can handle, but this other dog is a real homebody and won't go nomad like the Doolally. A schnufflehund, I called it. Very rare.
Sadly, the schnuffle costs a bit more, and would they mind making up the difference?
I kept that one dog, the original Doolally, and placed him in about five different homes before he had the bad luck to get run down by a rototiller (how does that happen?), and in the meantime, that's the lives of five other strays I saved, plus five other families who got the loyalty and love of a worthy woofer, even if they sort of overpaid for it. So you see, it was like the Haiphong phone book--a Nguyen-Nguyen situation.
Which is not to say that every day is Sunday in the park with George with me. Having been a grifter now for about twenty years (if you count the ice cream thing as the start, which I do), I recognize the big pitfall, and no, I'm not talking about getting A) arrested or 2) the crap kicked out of you. (Both I have, and neither's a big deal.) I'm not even talking about what they call grift drift, where you have to make rootlessness your root and homelessness your home because it doesn't pay to set a stationery target, not in this line of work. No, the real problem with life on the snuke is how it makes you cynical. Once you know how easy it is to pull wool--and it seems like I knew it neonatally--you start to expect the worst, or at least the least, of people. It's not fair and it's not fun. So I work hard to keep up my pointillist perspective - make every day indeed Sunday in the park with George if I can - and I always try to give my victims the metaphorical reacharound, so they can feel like crossing paths with me wasn't the worst thing that could've happened to them in life.
According to me, I'm moral.
Plus, according to me, I'm normal, which is not at all abnormal when you think about it, because everybody's default view is the view from inside their own skin. Though I appreciate that I strike some as strange. First, there's my career, my chosen line of work, which few would choose. Next there's my inexpressive expressiveness. I learn like a sponge, and like a sponge I hold everything without judgment and sort without order. I'm equal parts lunch bucket, pop culture, and string theory, and this can make me appear quite random at times, though I find that people find that part of my charm. Of course, what they call charm I call a tool, but that's a subject for a different time.
Then there's my name: Radar Hoverlander. Seriously, who's got a name like that? People assume it's a fabricat,* possibly something I cooked up between when I entered Harvard at the age of fifteen and when I got expelled for celebrating my eighteenth birthday in the apse of the Appleton Chapel with a bottle of absinthe and the underage-yet-in-my-defense-wildly-precocious daughter of a Radcliffe provost. That's a reasonable supposition. Certainly if I'd been cursed with a Doe-value name, my first order of business would have been to tart it up to suit the grift. Zakaz Koureni, Vietato Fumare, something like that. But Radar Hoverlander I was born, and I have the birth certificate to prove it. Which assertion, of course, might not be all that assuasive, since when it comes to birth certificates I had six at last count. What can I tell you? Documents of identity are to my line of work what bromine and xylene neutralizers are to an EPA cleanup crew. You like to have choices. Anyway, for my given name I can thank my father's whimsical bent toward palindromics. Which, when you think about it, thank God for Radar, for I could just as easily have been Otto. Or Grogorg. Milton Notlim. Lysander A. Rednasyl. All of this, by the way, according to my mother, for by the time I was old enough to ask such questions, the old man was long since coopgeflonnen. North to Alaska. South to Ixtapa. Or just into the vapor where grifters go when grift drift takes them too far too fast.
Hoverlander, they say, is a family name. German or Dutch, they say. Fabricat, say I. Pure Ellis Island improv. Probably the original was something with an unspeakable number of consonants, or an unsightly and un-American -ilych or -iliescu suffix, which would never do for this conniving bloodline of mine. From what I know of my family - on both sides, because like attracts like - we've followed the main chance for a thousand years, with moving on and blending in our ancestral stock-in-trade. Find a place, stay till you wear the welcome mat flat, then scat. That's how we ended up in California. We just kept heading west till we ran out of west. The earliest memory I have of my mother is her standing on the end of the Santa Monica pier, saying, "Guam. I wonder what that's like."
Shortly thereafter, my mother discovered that while a deftly batted eyelash can cadge a drink or liplock a landlord, no amount of coquettish demur can deter the clammy hands of cancer. So with Dad in the wind and Mom in the ground, it was just me and my mentis non compos nana through all the years of my childhood. I perpetrated the fiction that she was taking care of me, though of course it was the other way around. In the end, I had to forge some papers, reinvent her as a navy nurse (with Antarctica Service Medal, because if you're going to lie, lie big) and park her in a VA hospital where liberal applications of morphine derivatives eased her transition from this life to the next.
And by the way, if you want to know why I got kicked out of Harvard, really the apse and the absinthe were just the tip of the icebag. I always said that the thing with the provost's daughter was an affair of the heart, but in the wake of that myocardial infraction they went back and exhumed my application, cut through the Gordian knot of its lies--so I made up the Finnemore World Prize for Teen Excellence and awarded myself one, so sue me--and gave me the boot. I think they should have given me a scholarship. Doesn't imagination count for anything in this world?
Still, Harvard at fifteen, that was something. I've always had a restless mind.
But a real problem with honesty.
It gets me into trouble sometimes.2.
the noochis of this world
Look at this flapdoodle. I mean, just look at it.
My name is Patrick Noochi, the Fund/Property Manager to Mr. Kim Woo Koo, Daewong Group founder. Last November, my client Mr. Kim come to South Amfrica and made a fixed deposit valued at US$55.5M with Rand Bank South Africa. Howsomever, Mr. Kim has been sentenced to ten year's in prison for fruad and embezzelment relating to the collapes of the firm under $8.2 billion dollars of debt. I am contacting you to asist in repatriating the money and will renumerate your effort to the some of 20per:Cent of the gross.
Ignoring for the moment all the heinous crimes against syntax, is this not the weakest, most obvious sort of scam spam you've ever seen in your life? You wouldn't fall for it. I wouldn't fall for it. No soul in his right mind would fall for it. Which means that the Patrick Noochis of this world, if they expect to make a living, must find souls in their wrong minds. While these are not exactly plentiful, lesser life forms do rise to a Noochi's bait every day. And I suppose you could argue that the Noochis of this world are doing us all a service by systematically financially culling the ignorant herd. But that argument is a slippery slope for a grifter, one that slides straight downhill into a big, steaming pile of smug. Because if you figure that the dense deserve to be punished for density, you soon become an avenging angel for stamping out stupidity, which can never happen because they'll always have more stupidity than you have stamp. So you end up just wasting your time, plus ignoring the manifest difference between moral and morally superior. I will tell you this much: I never hold my marks in contempt. I respect them as people. I do. Which is why I cherish my wins.
It's not easy. Do you know what the failure rate is in my line of work? For every ten scams you try, nine won't work. The mook is either too clueless or timid to catch your pitch or, at the other end of the spectrum, too wary or chary to buy in. Really, the population of possible marks exists on the narrowest bulb curve between too dim and too bright. That's why these days so many use the Noochi method, casting a worldwide net on the web. You've won the lottery! Lose weight by osmosis! Mr. Kim needs your help! Be a secret shopper! Have a ten-inch johnson! Yeah, their win rate is micrometric, but they make it up in volume. Like tossing dynamite in a stock pond--you're bound to kill something. Me, I prefer a more sporting approach. Hook a big fish, see if you can land him. You want to work for your get. That's how you earn your sense of self.
And by the way, being a good con artist takes much more than knowing how to copy and paste the text of someone else's snuke: Make thousands at home stuffing envelopes! Even the gift of gab is not enough; hell, any fast talker can sell you a car or a condo. Or even nothing. Do you know how many scut-level grifters are working door-to-door at this very moment selling services they never intend to deliver? Home repair, driveway paves, window work--if someone offers you a deal on aluminum siding that sounds too good to be true, trust me, it is. They'll take your deposit and be three states over before the check clears.
Or maybe not. Maybe they'll loiter a while to strip-mine your bank account. After all, you've just given them a piece of paper with your name, address and phone, account number, and signature. A license to rob you at pen point, Merry Christmas.
But bunco at the highest levels requires a complex package of skills. I can read lips, pick pockets, pick locks, run a six-minute mile, hot-wire a car or disable its engine, field-strip an M16, throw a pot, and build a working computer from scratch. I know biology, geology, and half a dozen other ologies, including theology, which is more useful than you might imagine in this God-fearing world. I can preach a sermon, hit a baseball, bake a cake, splint a broken bone, jam on electric guitar. None of it's wasted. None of it. You never know when you're going to need to come off as an expert. Or jump off a roof and know how to land. When I was a kid, they called me a polymath and imagined that I didn't know what that meant. That's really the key to a grifter's skill set: knowing what they don't know you know. Like languages. I’m fluent in German, Russian, and Portuguese, and could get conversational in, say, Greek in a week.
This one time I was working unlicensed salvage from a NATO base in Baden- Württemberg, selling, I don’t know, missile parts or something to some random Hans und Franz.
They were spreching
between themselves, and guess what? They’re undercover oink. If it weren’t for me knowing German and them not knowing I knew, I’d be stewing in
a Stuttgart hoosegow now.
I can operate a forklift, make brandy, read a blueprint, and do fairly heavy math in my head. I shoot scratch golf, which is just bedrock useful, because golf hustles, like pool hustles, are insurance, something you fall back on in slim times. The one I like best is where I let the mook play best ball. Taking three drives, chips, and putts per hole, and
playing the one he likes most, he thinks he’s getting a huge edge - so huge that he’ll often give odds - but what he doesn’t realize is that all those extra swings add up. He’s playing like fifty-four holes of golf while I’m playing only eighteen, so by the back nine, his ass is dragging, while I’m still as peppy as a preppy on Red Bull. Even playing best ball, he doesn’t stand a chance. Plus, people can’t putt for money. Not if they’re not used to it. Pressure is leverage. A good grifter eats pressure for lunch.
But pressure is a double- edged sword— for the truth is revealed under such, for snuke and mook alike. Truth about your essential nature. Truth about what you want out of life. Sometimes a truth you didn’t even know was out there. Like maybe the control you thought you had was just the illusion of control all along.
Which brings us by roundabout means to the start of our tale.
It was Halloween. I had crashed a party in the Hollywood Hills by putting on no costume whatsoever and walking in the first open door I saw. When they asked what I was supposed to be, I said, "Party crasher," and this struck them as so charming and conceptual that they just pointed me to the bar and said have a good time.
I had nothing in mind so crass as a petty boost. Not that I couldn’t. Infiltrating a host’s bedroom is easy as getting lost on the way to the can, and the things people think are hiding places . . . really aren’t. But that’s not what I’m about, not on Halloween.* See, for most people, Halloween is their one night a year to sell an imaginative lie, while for me it’s just the opposite, my one day of the year for me to be me, should I so choose. After all, tell people on Halloween that you’re a con artist and what’s the chance they’ll believe you? You’re just all charming and conceptual, that’s all. So - literally - a busman’s holiday.
Even so, one thing I was doing - the thing you never ever stop doing on the grift - was prospecting for leads. At any party, anyway, you’ll find me chasing the main chance, seeking that sweet harmonic convergence of deep pockets and weak mental defense. Defenses drop on Halloween, as a function of altered identity but mostly as a function of booze. Plus, I have some lovely Christmas cons that take about six weeks to put the partridge in the pear tree, which makes Halloween sort of the kickoff to the Christmas scamming season.
So there I was, panning for grift in a stilt- level Mulholland Drive mansionette with a stunning view of the San Fernando Valley, the magic of its twinkling lights alchemized out of dust, grit, and imperfectly combusted hydrocarbons. This was a Hollywood producer’s party, as I gleaned from context: the framed signed movie posters in the front hall and the swarm of urgent actorlings costumed in disguises sufficiently elaborate to impress but not so elaborate as to hide the
identities of people whose need to be recognized is, let’s face it, pathological.
I disqualify these struggling artisans from con consideration, for they generally prove to have no money, plus, their interpersonal answering machines are so relentlessly set on Announce Only that you can’t get your pitch in edgewise.
At Hollywood parties, even Halloween ones, actors and others are always working the room. Unlike me, they’re not trying to steal an honest buck; rather, they carry this myth inside them, the Myth of the Perfect Party. They believe that they’re always just one party (or industry softball game or even AA meeting) away from encountering that one producer or casting director or studio executive who’ll change everything for them forever. With this flawed thought in mind, they relentlessly parse everyone they meet into two groups: Those Who Can Help My Career and Those Who Don’t Exist. To be “nonpro” at a Hollywood party is to be a wallflower perforce.
I noticed this one older couple, clearly nonpro and therefore fully marginalized, completely ill at ease in their homemade Raggedy Ann and Andy drag. Hopelessly adrift on this surging sea of ego, they had eddied to a corner of the living room and stood isolated in their own private backwater. I had it in mind to join them there, pitching myself as a socially awkward inventor of medical devices - in search of investors, of course - as out of place as they in this clove-cigarettes-and-appletinis crowd. First, though, a quick spin to the bar to collect some sparkling water, for we socially awkward inventor types are notoriously teetotal.
As I waited at the bar, the woman beside me said, “Couldn’t find a costume?” I looked left and absorbed at a glance the parts of the whole: Nordic nose, slightly seventies cinnamon shag, big silver hoop earrings, bas relief collarbones, and the rounded curve of breast beneath a creamy satin vest that missed exactly matching her teal blue eyes by
about 5 percent of spectrum tilt toward true green.
“You either, it seems.”
“No,” she said, looking herself down and up. “I misunderstood. I thought it was come as you are.”
“Like I said, I misunderstood. What are you drinking?”
A good grifter adapts quickly to changing circumstances, so . . .good-bye, socially awkward inventor, hello, bourbon connoisseur.
“Fighting Cock,” I said, fully expecting a nervous, entendre- engendered laugh.
Instead I got a haughty, “Here? You’re lucky if they pour Four Roses.”
“Four Roses, then,” I said with a shrug. “You?”
“GMDQ,” she said.
“Not familiar with that libation,” I said.
“Libation.” She snorted a laugh. “Like, ‘Let’s all get libated tonight?’"
“I’m not sure libated is a word.”
“Oh, it’s a word,” she said. “Not that you care.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” she said. “You just don’t strike me as a slave to orthodoxy.”
“I admit I’ve never been accused of that,” I said. “And GMDQ?”
“Get Me Drunk Quick. Two parts vodka, one part attitude.”
“Might want to cut back on the attitude,” I said. “I think you’ve had a little too much already.”
This also created a hole where a laugh should have been. Nevertheless, she extended her hand, offered her name - “Allie Quinn” - and waited for me to offer mine back. This was not as simple a matter as you might think, for I had many to choose from, and your name, let’s face it, defines you. Kent Winston makes you a bowling buddy; Raleigh
Newport is an investment counselor. Who did I want to be?
It was Halloween. I chose to be me. “Radar Hoverlander,” I said.
“Radar?” she asked. “Like that guy in M*A*S*H ?”
“No, but I get that a lot.”
By now the bartender was waiting to serve us. Allie pointed to two bottles and said, “That and that.” We got our drinks and moved away from the bar. “Now,” she said, “what’s up with the mufti?”
“I assume you mean the word in the sense of civilian clothing, not interpreter of Muslim law.”
“Now you’re just showing off,” she said. I shrugged. “So. The costume?”
“I’m a party crasher.”
She gave me a long, blank look before saying, “Oh, I get it.”
You ever get that feeling like you just farted in church?
With four simple words - “Oh, I get it” - Allie ruled my noncostume not charming and not conceptual but merely self- conscious and lame. This would have bothered me were it not for the known true truth that women seduce men precisely by making them feel self-conscious and lame. It’s the first move of an elegant and time-tested three-act play.
Act one: Steal status. Like it or not, in the world of women and men, men hold the high ground. True, women man the sex valve and can shut it off at will, but as long as man has hand, this problem is not irresolvable. Meantime, whether in negotiation, sales, or seduction, it’s difficult to win uphill battles against status, so job one is to level the playing field. Women can do this to a man just by judging. Mock his haircut. Laugh at his ignorance. Look down your nose at his nose. Dis his supposedly clever costume concept.
Belittle a man and he will be little. This is a known true truth.
Once he’s weak and vulnerable, it’s time for act two: Initiate intimacy.
To make a man covet your opinion (and therefore covet you), you need to create a bond, and the best way to do this is to touch. Brush a hand along a shoulder. Stand too close. Push a random strand of hair out of his eyes. Pluck lint, even. Your tender touch renders him like a dog in submission position.
Now comes the third act in this little passion play: Extend validation. Validation (and this is an absolutely historically verified known true truth) is a mighty aphrodisiac. Let a man feel good about himself, and he will adore you out of gratitude. Tell me I’m wrong, guys. Tell me you haven’t ever thought, “I like her because she likes me.” You can’t
help it. It’s human nature.
This is why hospitalized soldiers fall in love with their nurses, and not just in movies but in real life. First they experience this steep status drop from warrior to patient, and they’re forced to surrender control, which they hate. Next, it’s meet the new boss - this nurse who initiates intimacy in all sorts of sponge-bath and bedpanny ways. Finally, the intravenous validation drip: You’re a good man, soldier, and a good patient; you’re going to be okay.
So there you have it. Steal status with a mock or a smugly held opinion. Slice through defenses with the stiletto of intimacy. Then make ’im feel good. After that, you can write your own ticket.
So when Allie absently reached behind my neck to flip down the label on my shirt, I had to believe she was on script.
And when she suddenly started liking my jokes, I knew I was being played.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The California Roll by John Vorhaus. Copyright © 2010 by John Vorhaus. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.