Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Scammers of the Seine

You won't do this on the first day you're in Paris, or the second or third, or maybe even the first week. There are museums and towers and jardins to see, and bridges over the Seine at night. And baguettes to eat and wine to drink. So much beauty, such good bread and wine. But after a while, when Paris has settled into you, and you to it, I recommend this diversion. Meg and I call it spot the scam.

Go to one of the pedestrian bridges over the Seine, where we all go with our lovers to gaze upon the light on the river, and watch the hustlers work. There are many scams in Paris, but on the bridges, the "gold ring" seems to be a favorite. It's fascinating, really, to watch the women who do it. They sit on the benches looking bored and talk to one another and every once in a while one of them gets up and trolls for a mark. She (always a woman) bends down in front of some prosperous looking person and pretends to find a gold ring. "Is this yours?" she asks sincerely, with a hint of longing. After a time we identified at least a half dozen women and girls, of three generations, languidly working together, chatting up the sellers of paintings and love locks between forays. Theirs was obviously a family business. One of them seemed to handle the money. What we didn't know was how they got it. What the scam was. 

So we watched. Maybe it's a pickpocket diversion, we speculated. One gets the mark focused on the ring while her accomplice lifts a wallet. We watched for a long while, but we couldn't see anything dramatic happening. One of them came toward us. "Look out over the river, like we are absorbed in one another," I said to Meg. Sure enough, the girl produced a gold ring from the ground at our feet and asked if it was ours. About the same time, one of the guys who we had seen being friendly with the women passed behind us. We guessed that if we had stood up he would have magically looted us.

It turns out--thank you, Youtube and Wikipedia--that the scam is more prosaic: if you hesitate when asked, she will say you should take the ring, that her religion forbids her to wear jewelry. When you reluctantly accept, she will tell you she is poor and could use some money for food, for her sister, for whatever. You, already feeling guilty for keeping the ring, fork over a few Euros for a worthless piece of brass.

Another group you see on the bridges and at the Tuileries are the petition girls. "Do you speak English?" they ask, looking earnest and pitiful all at once. Say "Non," if you are wise. A "yes, gets you several of them swarming around you, asking you to sign for freedom for sex slaves. They brush you with the tenderness of a bird's wings as they pursue the freedom they are actually seeking, which is of your wallet from the bondage of your pocket. Pickpockets are legendary in Paris. If you go to the Eiffel Tower, as you're packed in the line or on the elevator like Pringles in a can, you will hear the recorded warning, "Pickpockets are active in the tower." They play it instead of muzak.

Pickpockets practice a vulgar art, though. They may be agile and light-fingered, but they don't play on our own cupidity. The gold ring girls are running a low-level con. When one of the younger ones returns to the bench where a much older woman waits, you can almost here her asking, "Grandma, when are you going to teach me to play the big con?" Newman and Redford would approve.

On the way back to our apartment, just below our third-floor window, we came upon a small crowd gathered around a man squatting over the shell game. He was using shallow wooden boxes, about the size of matchboxes, and a bright white pea. His hands were fast, but he tipped the boxes back slightly when he moved them so that often I could see where the pea was, as could anyone watching carefully. Those in the crowd held out their Euros and guessed where the pea was. Sometimes they were right, sometimes wrong. If you watched long enough, you began to realize that many in the crowd, men and women, were his confederates. 

They were also excellent actors, feigning enthusiasm, nervousness, joy and disappointment. Every once in a while a live prospect walked up. The pea man often let him pick without betting, and when he got it right, one of his peeps would say excitedly, "You've won." She might even offer to lend a reluctant mark money to try her hand. The ultimate result is pretty much what happens to most of us in Vegas, or when we buy lottery tickets. The way the shell man keeps the odds in his favor is by, at critical moments, simply palming the pea. He's good. You never see it. 

But he and his pals see everything. I had my camera phone out, down by my side, and I snapped a few pictures, inconspicuously, I thought. Apparently not, as I drew a finger wagging reproach from one of the helpers. A short time later, Meg photographed them out the window of our apartment. They saw her too, and her long lens broke up the game. As he walked off, the maestro looked up at me. I was standing back in the room, thinking about something else, but somehow his gaze compelled me to look toward him He pointed at me in a way every man understands: this is a game for players, not rats; surely I kew what happened to rats.

I have to admit, I kind of like cons. Harold Hill was always one of my favorites. The best ones   leave you never knowing you were conned. The hustler makes a living and you don't get hurt, or at least you don't know it, not right away anyway. It's so much more civilized than sticking a gun in someone's face and scaring the hell out of them. 

Like Ponzi schemers, the gold-ring and shell-game scammers along the Seine are just looking for an edge, and depending on the greed of others to give it to them. Whom do we have to blame for that? A con artist has no chance except with someone looking to get a little something for nothing.

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