Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Another Turn of the Screw

by Michael Dymmoch

This is the time of year when the media have human interest stories revolving around Christmas themes—home for the holidays, secret Santas, gold coins in the bucket. Some publication reruns Royko’s famous “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style" (Chicago Daily News, Dec. 19, 1967). TV news reports the theft of Christmas by real grinches. Channel 5 reruns It’s a wonderful Life. This year, I stumbled into my own Yule season story. Only it’s more like the “Turn of the Screw” than “A Christmas Carol.”

It started when I was approached in front of the AMC Theater by a diffident young man with a South Shore Metra schedule in hand. His red hair and beard made me think of my mother, whose always been partial to red-heads. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you help me?”

I stopped. He looked lost and a little depressed, and I’m used to giving directions to tourists.

"I’m trying to get home for Christmas. My mother told me I’d be more likely to get help from a woman.”

OK. That sounded like something I might tell my son—only I’d add that a woman might be more likely to be scared of a strange male asking for help. This kid didn’t look scary.

“I have to get to the South Shore station at Michigan and Roosevelt,” he told me.

Easy enough. I pointed toward Michigan. “Just go up to Michigan Avenue and take a bus to Roosevelt.”

“I can’t. My wallet was stolen. They took my student ID, credit cards, everything.”

“Then you need a policeman.” I looked around—never a cop in sight when you need one.

“No, I’ve been to the cops. They gave me this....”

He shoved another paper at me. I didn’t look closely, but at a glance it was a...

“...Police report. But that’s all they could do. I need to get to the station by four o’clock or I’ll miss my train.”

Ah. It was either a scheme to scam me out of train fare or a real hard luck story. I couldn’t tell which. So many panhandlers accost us with sad tales that city dwellers are pretty much inured to hard luck stories. But his story was plausible. And what the heck. I’m willing to plunk down $25 in a bookstore for a good yarn, why not bus fare for a line I haven’t heard before? I gave the kid $2 and said, “This’ll get you to Michigan and Roosevelt.”

“But I don’t have money for the train. I just need $44 to get home, $18 to get to South Bend and $26 for the bus from there to Evansville.”

“Can’t you ask your folks to send it to you?”

“They can’t. That’s just the thing. They won’t wire you money if you don’t have an ID.”

I hadn’t thought of that. But I wasn’t going to give him $44 even if I'd had it.

“OK,” I said, “Let’s go to the station.” I figured I could buy him a Metra ticket with my credit card and he’d be that much closer to home. And maybe his fellow Hoosiers’d be willing to front him the difference.

He followed me back to the steps leading up to Michigan Ave, and took the lead crossing it to get to the bus stop, ignoring the don’t walk signs and signaling a bus driver to let us on even though we weren’t at a proper stop. As we rode south, He explained that he’d come from school on a train and had fallen asleep, waking up at 71st street without his money and IDs.

When the bus driver called the South Shore stop at Michigan and Randolph, my new young friend told me he wasn’t going to go in there because he’d been there earlier, begging for help, and he’d been told by a cop to leave or be arrested for panhandling. We stayed on the bus.

At this point, the needle on my bullshit meter was flopping in the red, but I wanted to see how the drama would play out. When we finally got off the bus, the young man led the way to the Metra station. Climbing snow-covered steps and following him down onto the enclosed platform, I wondered if what I was doing was sane, never-mind safe. But there were other travelers around, and I really wanted to see how far things would go.

The end was anti-climax. The Metra station ticket dispenser wouldn’t accept credit cards--something I find amazing, since you can even pay for parking with credit cards these days. Unable to buy the kid a ticket out of town (which he wouldn’t be able to use or return if he was just scamming me), I broke down and gave him what cash I had ($9) and wished him luck.

He said he’d go back to Michigan Avenue and try his luck with other passersby.

I noticed, however, that he didn’t stay on Michigan, but kept going west. So I was left thinking he may be just a scammer with a better than average line. If he was scamming me, he’d worked really hard for my $9. And I got a story out of it.

But what are people to do when they get robbed in a strange city and can’t prove their identity? What would I do under the circumstances? What would you do?

20 comments:

Corey Wilde said...

Exactly what you did: Try to help someone who may have been victimized while making a possible scam artist work for his dinner. You went well out of your way, too, so fact is you probably did more than I would have.

Sometimes we just have to risk being scammed in order to live with our consciences later. I'd rather be suckered out of $10 bucks than be left wondering if I had entertained an angel unaware.

Dana King said...

First, you deserve all the credit in the world for playing out the string with this guy for as long as you did. I was hit up in similar situations a few times when I lived in Chicago, and never had the time, or the disposition, to see how far the story would play out. I like to tell myself I'd follow up to see if the person was really running a game on me, but so far I've never done it.

Your final question is much harder. Two or three facile answers flashed through my mind and, crime writer and reader that I am, were shot down in a matter of seconds. This just reminds me of how smart my parents were when I took a high school band trip to Europe. Neither had traveled much. My father had been to Germany in the army; my mother had never been farther out of the US than Niagara Falls. (Still hasn't, and won't.) They crafted me a small cheesecloth, drawstring bag that I wore around my waist, under my clothes. I was fairly easy for me to get to (worst case would be to go into a men's room if something got tangled) and no one could get at it without me knowing instantly, even if a crook thought to try that location. I kept most of my cash and my passport there, except for a few dollars (pounds, francs) in my pocket for minor expenses. Worked like a charm, not least because I was always aware of its presence, in a comforting, if slightly uncomfortable, way.

Mark Raymond Falk said...

This reminds me of a personal story, a lesson learned, and probably something I will turn into a novel later in life.

I was in Oklahoma City back in the late 80s, away from home for the first time, and had a few paychecks worth of cash on me from a summer working in a slaughterhouse.

Being young, stupid, and overconfident, I walked around not sure where I was going or who I was going to meet, but up for a good time.

On my second night in the city a young girl (18 or 19) came running up to me and said that she'd just escaped from some guy that had abducted her from a college party. She showed me her wrists and said she'd been tied up. Even though I didn't see anything obvious, I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

She asked me if I had ten dollars because she needed to get back to Norman and her purse/money/identification was back at the party and she didn't want to go there.

Instead of digging into my pocket and pulling out ten dollars, I did what any over eager twenty year old would do, I said, "Let's go back to the party. I'll get your purse."

I thought maybe she was full of shit, but like I said, I was looking for adventure, she was cute, and there wasn't much to lose.

Or so I thought.

As we were walking she seemed to have a hard time remembering exactly where the party was and judging by the neighborhood we were in, I was pretty sure it wasn't near any college. I got a little more suspicious, but still believed her. I continued to believe her until we finally came to a stop next to a convenience store where some shady looking guys were hanging out in the back parking lot.

After they got done beating my ass and taking all of my money (I think the girl even kicked me a few times), I spent the rest of the night walking around town, trying hard to find my way to even a remotely familiar street, wanting to get back home, wondering why in the hell I ever left in the first place.

I found myself having to beg for money, laying a sob story on the people I passed (I checked first to judge how likely it was that somebody would have money). I was surprised that the second person I talked to actually reached into his pocket and gave me $5. It didn't do much to replace the $300 that was stolen, but it was enough to get me food and a phone call home.

So now if I'm ever in a big city and somebody comes up to me asking for money (sonsofbitches are barking up the wrong tree), I can't help but wonder if they've just "gotten abducted at a college party" or if they just got the crap kicked out of them in a 7-11 parking lot.

redgrange said...

It's a scam pure and simple. Always. Middle class people pretending to be lost or short a few bucks are the most disgusting form of urban criminal. Think about it: who would actually beg if they were middle class and robbed? Like the cops wouldn't let them call their loved ones from the police station to come and pick them up? If you EVER see someone approach you with a train schedule who wants something other than directions, keep walking. It's a tried and true scam. As a general rule, anyone who walks up to you and says they need money, with the exception of a straight-up panhandler, is trying to scam you. Period.

Jordan Marsh

Diane said...

Tough call. I always find myself narrating tomorrow's news story to myself while making such a decision... "body found near train station... witnesses saw a man begging for money for fare..." and picturing how I would respond to the story: "Well of COURSE it was a scam/trap and what was she thinking?!?!" That being said, I once gave Greyhound bus fare to a sobbing middle-aged woman near the Loop station post office. She told me her story (had driven to the city to do some volunteer work, didn't know her way around, parked the car, couldn't find the place, car got towed) and was clutching a scrap of paper with phone numbers and auto pound address and cost to bail out her car. She seemed confused and terrified to be so alone, kept clutching my arm, didn't have the cash for the auto pound, and just wanted to go home and come back for the car the next day with a friend. Then she mentioned she lives in Rockford, which is also where I'm from. She wanted bus fare to Rockford and swore she'd repay it, but I just handed her the money and gave her directions and wished her well. If it was a scam, her performance was worth the $30-something. I couldn't have lived with myself if I'd passed her by.

Mark Combes said...

I ran into a fellow in Mexico that was working his way around the Caribbean on the kindness of strangers. He told me that I would be amazed by how kind people could be. Offering shelter, food, a few pesos - even in countries where the want is greater than ours. He was having a grand 'ol time and was rejoicing in kindness of humanity. Sure, there were people that wouldn't help him, but he said there was always at least one person that would. I'm glad to say, I was one of them.....

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