Would you rather …

I wasn’t presenting a particularly inviting picture today. Dirty and sweating in my shorts and steel-toes, I was hauling heavy bags of sand from the front yard to the back to make a nice little suburban patio in my nice little suburban yard. That’s why I was so surprised when a car pulled up across the street and a frazzled-looking woman jumped out of the passenger side and ran wildly towards me. “I’m Carmen. I’m your neighbor. You live here, right? I just live around the corner and I’ve been meaning to introduce myself—I’m sorry I never have. I was just wondering–”

“Are you okay?” I interrupted, because she didn’t seem to be.

“No,” she said. “I just got a call that my husband, who’s working a construction job up in Rancho Somewherio, somehow managed to cut off three of his fingers, I don’t know what happened, he did it with a Skil-Saw, and luckily my nephew here is driving me up to the hospital, but I didn’t get a chance to . . .”

I was horrified. Three fingers!! She blurted out a bunch of names of LA-area towns where the hospital and the job and everything else were but I didn’t hear them—I was too upset by the image of three fingers hitting the ground softly, of the husband feeling the shock and seeing more than he should of the inside of his body, of her getting one of those phone calls that means your life has just changed (only a little, perhaps, but changed nonetheless, irrevocably).

I wiped dirt across my face, rattled and a little confused. “Do you need something? What do you need? Do you need to use the phone?”

“I just need to fill the tank to get up to the hospital, and I’ll leave you my license, and I’ll come by later tonight with the money, I’m so sorry to ask, but I’ll leave you my license so you know I’ll come back.” She fumbled in her pocket for the card. “If you could help me, if color isn’t a barrier, I just need enough gas to get to him, and he’s . . .”

Her words became unintelligible as my mind stalled on the last thing I had heard. “Did you just say ‘if color isn’t a barrier’??”, I interrupted, appalled, and she began to cry. I couldn’t stand it. “Don’t say that!” I said, touching her arm gently. “Don’t even think that way!”, though I knew of course she had every reason to think that way, and that it was my own race that had given her reason to think that her color might keep me from helping her.

Plus, I know this shouldn’t matter, but she said she lives around the corner, right here! Now, I have a lot of great neighbors. Earlier today two of them had offered separately to help me move the heavy stones I was hauling when she ran up, and the night before one chased off a tagger from the other’s house, then called animal control for a wounded dove in our yard that I was upset about (another of the neighbors even helped me catch it when it started to run away). Since I started writing this, yet another neighbor whom I don’t even know just dropped by with a receipt of ours that she found and thought we might want. Yes, it’s been a busy couple of summer days on our tiny block, and the neighbors have been out in force, exchanging tips and jokes, petting each others’ dogs, and helping each other out. I thought I might recognize Carmen from a few streets away, maybe, but even if not, I was feeling especially neighborly and could not believe this terrible thing was happening to one of my own neighbors, even if we’d never met.

Scott drove up just then and I demanded his wallet. Slightly perplexed, he handed it over; I pulled out a twenty and a five, explaining to him (as if she were going to buy them back), “Her husband cut his fingers off.” When I handed the bills to her and asked “Is that okay?”, she said apologetically, “Well, I really wanted to put in forty.” I pulled out his last five and said: “Sorry, that’s all I got, but I sure hope your husband’s okay.”

“Let me give you my license,” she insisted again.

“I don’t need your license—you might need it at the hospital; take it with you!”

“Thank you, thank you, what’s your name? Thank you, Stephanie, I’ll be by later tonight with the money.”

“Please! Don’t worry about it tonight! Tomorrow is fine. Just take care of him.”

“Thank you so much, Stephanie!”

Not until hours later when I was explaining why I hadn’t just hired someone to move all those rocks—I’m low on money so I’d rather do the work myself—did Scott, who hadn’t made a peep when I emptied his wallet to a stranger, say: “You just gave someone thirty bucks to buy drugs and you can’t hire honest labor?” And only then did I realize how blatantly, blindingly, obviously right he was.

I felt overwhelmingly discouraged about humanity for a while, along with feeling overwhelmingly stupid for having smoothed over my San Francisco edges after too long in easy, suburban Long Beach. (Yeah, it’s the LBC, but Snoop didn’t come from this fussy little part of town, lemme assure you.) Back in the city I was approached with wild tangled yarns from imaginative junkies all the time and could spot them a mile away. Now I have a “neighborhood” and wouldn’t dream of not helping a neighbor—in fact, I was thrilled to. What a patsy. I even felt some irrational anger at Scott for being the one to burst my bubble of community and remind me with that one question that humans are nothing but corrupt, self-serving liars and cheats.

Mostly, though, I was disgusted with myself. How could I not see it? And how easy of a mark am I? I generously offer a stranger twenty-five dollars, she angles for forty, and I’m not even tipped off? And is playing the color card the sure-fire way to get a guilty white liberal to whip out the cash? Does it work every time? What would she have done if I had been ready to accept her license? Would she have pretended to look for it, been “unable to find” it, but been so frantic on her way to the “hospital” that I would have waved it off and urged her to go?

But then I started thinking about the options, the questions this situation raised. Would I rather think she was flim-flammin’ me for a fix, or that she was telling the truth and her husband had lost three fingers and worked so far away that she needed a full tank of gas to get to him? Which is a worse scenario? On many levels, I’d prefer she were just heading out to spark up in the sunshine than going to face the grim trauma of triage.

And what about what my decision to give her the money means for me? What will I do next time someone approaches me with a story like this? I think I’d rather be bamboozled into supporting someone’s jones than to ever opt not to help someone who’s truly in trouble just because I suspect she might be lying. (Don’t give out my address, though, or a whole parade of shysters will start marching my way now that word’s out I’m a soft touch.)

So tomorrow, if my good neighbor Carmen does not come by, I’ll understand; I’m sure she’ll be quite busy in the coming weeks, what with changing bandages and helping her husband re-learn how to manage simple tasks with seven fingers and all. And if this is not the case, and months go by and I finally have to accept that she was conning me and I got suckered like the naïve suburban pushover I have become, I can comfort myself with the heartening fact that this means nobody got three fingers cut off with a Skil-Saw! Hurrah!

I guess that’s worth thirty bucks.

28 responses to “Would you rather …”

  1. MF says:

    Wow. What a story.

    It’s nice to feel like you have a neighbors that help and care and say “hi” as they pass by. When someone challenges that feeling of neighborliness, they take something.

    On the flip side… it was a $30 loss (and not a complete ransacking of your house with full electronics theft). For $30 you got to tell one hell of a story.

  2. Mark says:

    To paraphrase from the Academy Award Winner, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

    Sure, I’d be happy to

    You just produce three fingers
    and I’ll release forty dollars

    I want to see these digits first hand

    (It’s alright, it’s just a druggie
    I’m setting a trap for her)

    Steph, I’m sorry, did you say
    you wanted to see the fingers?

    Yeah, roll them old bones over here
    and I’ll dig up your money

  3. Scotty says:

    I would like to state for the record what a pleasure it is to be with someone who believes “that humans are nothing but corrupt, self-serving liars and cheats,” but at the same time refuses to give up the (maybe) impossible belief that this is somehow not true – someone who constantly tests the ever-thinning ice of humanity, hoping to find areas thick enough to have a pleasant skate party.

    I didn’t even mention how amazing it is that you moved a half-ton of sand by yourself. Damn girl! You’re quite a package.

  4. Marleyfan says:

    You set this up just like Paul Harvey- Now we want to hear “the rest of the story”….

    (p.s. I think she’ll bring the money)

  5. Tim Wager says:

    Wow, nothing like a good story well told to start the day!

    One thing I noticed that I hadn’t thought of before with this kind of ploy is that it very neatly follows the time-worn method of distraction so prevalent in a magician’s act. Get your audience to look at the flash of a bright coin in one hand, and they won’t notice that you’ve reached into your pocket with the other to produce a live rat (or whatever).

    And her trick was a lot like magic, too. She dazzled you with the image of “three fingers hitting the ground softly” (lovely description, btw) and the names of a bunch of far-off towns, and the money practically started floating out of your (well, Scott’s) wallet. When you hesitated, most likely due to your own shock and also your thoughts of how you could help her even more, she pushed the magic race button and, voila, out popped the money.

    Personally, I’d much rather live in a social world that I falsely trust more often than I don’t and get ripped off every once in a while (as long, of course, as it doesn’t mean real deprivation for me or my loved ones).

    Strangely (but not that strangely, really), however, when I turn my eye to the wider polis, in the form of representative government, my preferred innocence and naivete are instantly replaced with hoary cynicism. I hardly believe a word that comes out of any politician’s mouth.

    I guess for one thing it’s much more difficult to maintain that kind of cynicism in the flesh-and-blood presence of another human being in full panic mode, someone who desperately needs my help.

  6. Tim Wager says:

    Oh, and also, I have to credit Scott here for not puncturing your bubble of trust at the moment of the scam. He must have sensed that it would have been too much for you right then, that he would have been too much the bad guy. Letting you down gently later on was the better tack to take, even though it cost him thirty bucks.

  7. Taryn says:

    My favorite part of this story is the explanation you gave to Scott as you demanded his wallet: “Her husband has lost three fingers.” And, as #6 said, that Scott handed the wallet to you without question and let your hope for humanity clean it out. Thank goodness he was only carrying 30 bucks!

  8. jeremy says:

    First of all, there’s no chance you’re getting your money back. Which, of course, means that although I’d rather have a little more faith in humanity than I do, I’m just too cynical. It’s hard to ever go back.

    I’ve actually been reeled in by a similar scam, about 15 years ago, when I was a broke and struggling college student, and an older man came to my door at midnight (I was still up, writing a paper) asking for money because his car (which was just around the corner!) had run out of gas while he was on his way to pick up his pregnant wife. He said he’d leave his box of tools (saying something like, “my tools are my life!”), which of course I said wasn’t necessary. I can’t remember how much I gave him–15 or 20 bucks–but I knew almost immediately that I had been ripped off. He never came back.

    It’s difficult to celebrate your own faith in people after one of those people takes something from you, preying on that faith. And, like I said, it’s hard to go back.

  9. ssw says:

    My grandparents used to go to Mexico for the winter months and supposedly my grandfather was trying to buy a hat, offered up his $20 or whatever, and the guy selling the hats said he didn’t have change, and would my gpa mind waiting while he went to go get it. My gpa says sure, no problem, but you’re going to have to leave me the rest of the stack of hats so I know you’ll come back. The guy takes off (never to return) and my grandpa claimed it was the best deal for everyone involved–he had tons of hats to give to friends–the guys got $20–there you go. I’m sure the only person who lost was whoever had actually bought the hats in the first place that were stolen by the man selling them to my gpa. that happens in NYC all the time (what you’re buying is stolen).

  10. LP says:

    It’s amazing to me how widespread this particular scam is — I’ve heard variations on it from many different people, and been approached at least 4 or 5 times by scammers with similar stories in Washington, DC. After a while, it’s just second nature to cut the person off as soon as they start in with “I just need to fill up the tank!” One wonders how the stories get around — how so many people in different places use the same technique, almost as if there’s a handbook floating around.

    I was on a train from DC to New York last year when a guy in an electric blue suit tried the same thing. He stood up in the aisle and announced, “I work for Bear Stearns. I’m an honest guy. But I’ve lost my wallet and phone and BlackBerry on this train – I think someone took it. I don’t have any money for a cab on the other end — can someone please help me out?”

    The woman in front of me started to reach into her purse, but just then a conductor walked into the car, and the guy turned and hustled out.

    Amazingly, the woman in front of me still believed him. “The poor guy!” she said. Others in the car (including me) tried to convince her he was a scammer — “Would you stand up and make an announcement like that if someone stole your stuff? Why wouldn’t you just go straight to a conductor? Couldn’t they just make a couple of calls for you, and have someone from your work meet you at the station in NY?” It made no logical sense at all to believe the guy, but the woman wouldn’t budge, and an awkward silence settled over the train car as it hurtled along. The weird thing is, it made me feel kind of bad for insisting the guy was a scammer, like I was branding myself as an untrusting and skeptical person.

  11. Beth W says:

    Stephanie your post is so well written and engaging that I literally had goosebumps. The intensity of the situation really came through.

    Believing that people aren’t scammers is a type of faith. It’s a way of choosing to believe the world is the way you would like it to be. Believing (even blindly) in the goodness of all people is a much nicer way to live than to be suspicious of your neighbors.

    Choosing to help people can also be a selfish act. The other day at a parking garage, the attendant gave me far too much change. I returned the extra money to him. On the surface level, returning the money benefited the attendant but it was a selfish act. It wasn’t my mistake but it would have weighed on me. I returned the money to ease my mind, the side benefit being the attendant wouldn’t get fired.

  12. AW says:

    A great story and some good things to think about. Thanks.

  13. swells — one of my favorite parts of this post was the categories up top.

    also, for the record, that time last summer i said i needed to borrow $40 because i’d cut off three fingers with a skil-saw? that really happened.

  14. Miller says:

    I swear to you this happened to me just a few weeks ago:

    On my way to work I stopped to get gas. The gas station by my apartment happens to be by a recycling center, and as I pulled up I noticed that a large, beat-up van was parked in front of the area where bottles and cans are gobbled up. Standing next to the van was a jittery, dirty, torn-up looking man. As I started to pump my gas I made eye contact with him and he proceeded to walk towards me. My first instinct (of which I was completely ashamed) was to get in my car and lock the door. Since I was so embarrased by my predjudice, I decided against my better judgement and smiled as he said, “I’m so sorry to bother you, but do you have some change? My wife and kids and I tried to recycle some cans for gas money, but it’s out of order. Now we’re out of gas and I just need to fill it p enough to try another recycling center.” I felt so horrible for their situation (if they have to recycle just to get gas money, how are they eating?) and my initial reaction that I gave him all the cash in my wallet ($10… I’m still a starving student). I swear he appeared to have tears in his eyes; he thanked me profusely and told his wife, who then came over and thanked me as well.

    Now, are you telling me that those tears in his eyes were from the shear drug delight that he knew would await him? Did they both thank me while really thinking they scammed some unsuspecting, naive girl? I never even questioned it! Now I’m rethinking the whole situation…

    The fact that I am now so devestated speaks to how great this post is. I’ve always fashioned myself a cynic, but I guess I still have some hope in humanity as well.

  15. PB says:

    Stephanie – great story – so well written – really loved it.
    It is interesting, we can think all these grand Lord of the Flies ideas, but it is so hard to look another human being in the face and say, “no! I think you are a lying scammer, be gone!” In the moment, you just can’t look away, you want to help because of the same instinct that makes us rush to pick up books that fall out of someone’s arms. The instinct to help is often more powerful than the instinct to ignore. I hate that encounters with bad guys make us question our desire to reach out. And what makes a homeless person with a drug addiction any less needy in a way than a person with 7 fingers? These musings from a woman who totally would have given money in the same situation and totally would have gotten ripped off.

  16. Stephanie Wells says:

    You guys are way too kind as usual–I am really touched by your support for my idiocy. As the day wore on and I reread the post, with the shock of it all not so fresh, I began to feel embarrassed not only for falling for something that I knew any reader would catch onto by the first paragraph, but even for writing about such a tired old scam that everyone already knows about. Your responses are very generous and make me feel a little better about being so overwhelmingly dupable. And for the record, I was exaggerating about believing that all humans are corrupt, but sometimes I feel down enough to start spiraling there, and this was one of those times. I also need to clarify that I don’t think people with drug addictions are bad. I think people who take advantage of others are bad. Had she just told me the truth I probably wouldn’t have minded at all.

    Still, gotta cling onto the only positive here: no accident, just meanness and naivete. And Miller, I’m going to also cling to your story because unlike Carmen’s, I choose to believe he was telling the truth.

  17. Miller says:

    Stephanie, as long as you believe I will too; I’m so willing to believe in the pure humanity of these situations, although I have to wonder if this optimism is embedded in our desire to help others, even if that hope isn’t exactly realized. As many others have stated before, $30 is a small price to pay in exchange for the hope that maybe someone will take that money and use it for their own good. In some situations you will have closure (if she returns to give you the money, you’ll now for sure that you did the right thing), while others (like my random gas station fiasco) will require some sort of “faith.” Regardless of the outcome, I think you did the right thing, even if you have to gamble each time on which person actually deserves the help,

  18. Miller says:

    BTW, I have to embarrasingly admit that I had NO IDEA that what you were posting about was a scam until the part when you stated that Scatt confronted you about giving money to a drug addict. I was with you the whole time; I had to read it a few times to catch on to when Scott realized what was going one. Even then, like Mareyfan, I found myslef still siding with Carmen, so don’t feel embarrased,

  19. Miller says:

    *Scott. Sorry.

  20. jeremy says:

    by the way, Miller’s example didn’t seem like a scam to me; steph’s was definitely a scam…

  21. stephanie wells says:

    miller, thank you; you are very kind to be as naive as me. i was totally believing, but felt after I wrote it that any normal person reading it would know what was going in by paragraph one. glad there is someone else so trusting.

  22. stephanie wells says:

    p.s. miller,were you my student once?

  23. Stella says:

    My scam experience was in a parking lot in affluent Cleveland Park where a woman who was supposedly with a high profile law firm — and she presented nearly well enough to be believed — was locked out of her car and needed $100…for a moment I believed her but she gave herself away when I suggested she call from the nearby gas station and she started yelling at me. Not very Arnold & Porter.

    But the worst feeling is turning people down. What if this is the non-scammer who really needed that help and you get it wrong? I have a policy of not opening the door to strangers at night…fairly obvious, but what if I ever find myself running to strangers’ homes begging for help and no one helps me?

  24. ruben mancillas says:

    # 15-I think there is a difference between accidentally maiming oneself with a power tool and needing emergency medical care vs. needing money to satisfy a drug fix.

    But I’m less cynical than ever now that my internet is back on and I get to rejoin my whatsit friends so I’ll butter Steph up by assuring her that the money is no doubt on its way…and be sure to buy Scott a drink seeing how he’s light all of a sudden.

  25. lisa t. says:

    steph, when i read this post, i did NOT see it was a scam at first either. and even if i had suspected the woman of an alternate (drug-feuled) hysteria after those few minutes of talking to her, i would never have felt comfortable taking her license as collateral. i would have handed her the cash and hoped that i wasn’t guilty of supporting a drug habit.

    not that holding her license would have been effective as collateral or anything. i, for one, appreciate your belief that people have honest intentions. your naivety will bring you down to earth sometimes, and other times it will buoy you up.

    also, i’d just like to clarify that although i, like steph, didn’t recognize this scam, i am also not turning over my checking account number to that prince of zimbabwe who keeps emailing me.

  26. Miller says:

    Stephanie, I was your student a few years back. I can always email you so you know who I am if you’re curious; I’m sort of enjoying my Miller identity here at this point… :)

  27. Dave says:

    Are you named after the beer?

  28. Stephanie Wells says:

    miller, I’m ready for the reveal, unless you are an angry psycho stalker, which I’m not really getting from this.