What I loved about Jay Robert Nash’s (1976) Hustlers & Con Men was the way it depicted scamming as a parasitic ecosystem curling through the equally carnivorous American sales monster. Nash focuses on individual scammers and loosely categorizes them, ending with a glorious “chronology of cons.”
In each mini bio the swindler eventually gets his or her comeuppance, and on their day in court they blab about how it wasn’t the money that lured them in, it was the thrill of conjuring another story and contouring it perfectly to fit a mark.
My favorite took place in 1950 in Wetumka, Oklahoma, a town of about a thousand not too far from my old teaching post in Tahlequah.
“Wetumka was swell, an untouched suckerland and a con man’s paradise.” Until J. Bam Morrison drove into town. He told them he represented Bohn’s United Circus, and the circus was coming to town. “Why, it’ll be the biggest thing that ever hit this sweet little burg,” he said. “People will come from a dozen towns around here. Your business will zoom, so you better lay in those supplies, folks.”
Morrison sold ad space and sound truck announcements. He pressed the local scout troop into hurly-burly service and absorbed as much hospitality as he could while orders for hundreds of pounds of wieners and boiled peanuts piled into the tiny Okie town.
As Circus Day drew near, Morrison left. He’d be back, he said leading a mile-long convoy of elephants and acrobats and tigers and clowns.
On the big day tourists came from as far away as Dallas to watch the circus parade into town. They waited. And waited. And the sun set and the crowd grew restless and quarrelsome, a package from J. Bam Morrison arrived. The town’s mayor slid in a crowbar. He snapped it open to reveal a pile of hay. They’d been had.
Fearing a riot, the mayor issued an emergency proclamation: today was “Sucker Day.” He commanded the local merchants to roast their stockpiled weiners. It became an annual tradition.
The Wetumka police chief eventually tracked Morrison down to a Missouri jail; they invited him back as Sucker Day’s guest of honor. Morrison said he’d come back on condition that the town pay his expenses. This was a bridge too far: “That much of a sucker, I am not,” the chief said.
Nash calls the long con scamming’s loftiest art. High stakes, high investment with an enormous payout that requires tremendous skill. It’s about understanding a mark’s life enough to tell him the story he wants to hear. It’s like building an escape hatch: a way for the mark to wriggle out of his ordinary life and into the plausible extraordinary.
I think of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and his Marco Polo’s many Venices and imagining cobwebs of transactions pumping currency through a subterranean circulatory system and a strange protuberance growing above ground to lure another sucker. An angler fish dangling a glowing lure.
I was approached on Indeed (which is an online job searching ‘platform’) by a man named Katz who wanted me to help him write a bid for a contract with the City of New York.
The request for proposals (RFP) was something like a hundred million dollars to make the City of New York a cybersecurity hub. (This was before they scuttled the Amazon HQ 2 bid and New York was scheming to cast itself as the grownup version of Silicon Valley.) Here’s the pitch: Big business doesn’t want to move fast and break things, they want secure infrastructure they can trust. My employer’s angle was an exclusive contract with Technion University (Israel’s MIT).
Katz offered me $40 an hour at a time when I was adjuncting for $2200 a semester. He hired me on Christmas Day. We rushed to get the proposal together, working at least 16 hours a day. He left voicemails for me which I transcribed and translated into officialese and added to a huge PDF he said he was sending out to potential partners, big names in consulting, the biggest, like McKinsey and Booz-Allen Hamilton—it all sounds fairly convincing doesn’t it?
As all this madness was going on online, I was in the middle of a messy divorce and three rounds of interviews into becoming Oklahoma governor’s deputy press secretary (where I would have been writing a pamphlet of Governor Mary Fallin’s official memoirs). Fallin was a contender for Trump’s VP. The team was suspicious of my New York pedigree.
Whenever an objection was raised, they’d summon me and drop everything, run my credit card up to fill my old Jeep with petrol, dress in what was left of my office clothes and drive across the state to be quizzed about things like “what church do you belong to?” “Was what Michael Wolff had done ethical?” “Why would anyone list ‘daytrading crypto’ as a hobby?
Katz let me use my weekend days for the impromptu interrogations. I christened his project The Rear Admiral Grace Hopper World Cyber Center. As a reward, Katz said I could become his chief communications man, which was to be a C-suite position, with a corner office in downtown Brooklyn and a couple hundred K a year plus lots of equity in the startups. Would that be okay? At the time I was on the brink of turning 40, earning less than $25,000 a year. One of my molars was crumbling in my mouth. Swank sinecure was what I deserved; it felt like the next phase of my life was about to begin. My real life. I was salivating.
Cracks were beginning to appear. The graphic designer he’d hired was appalling. The PDF we made was a piece of shit. It was riddled with typos and clip art. How could this possibly pass muster with McKinsey? I begged him to hire a copyeditor and another designer. No one ever reads these things, he said.
My pay kept getting delayed. It had been four weeks. I was owed several thousand. But his excuses seemed plausible: McKinsey just made their deposit and he was waiting for the check to clear. FedEx was caught on the tarmac.
I was used to waiting. Freelance writers are treated like scum. I had to email the Paris Review every month for two years to fill a hundred and ten dollar invoice. Four weeks wait was easy peasy.
The axe fell the same day Governor Fallin said no. Katz’s secretary sent an email to everyone on his list excoriating him for his “abuse of the online secretarial service” and how she was owed money for six weeks of working day and night for him and that she couldn’t watch any longer as he took us all for a ride and was putting her foot down. Right now.
I googled his full name. Furious reviews from burned freelancers filled the page. I put in a complaint with his DA. Never heard back. I’m not sure he wanted money. I think he was a frustrated freelance consultant who’d become fixated on Cyber and thought if he could just hustle and fake it enough eventually the fantasy he’d created would spring to existence and he’d be left running the thing while the experts took care of the details.
I used the demented Grace Hopper Cyber Center proposal as a writing sample to land my current job in Santa Cruz, California. (Esteemed colleagues, please forget that last line).
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I bought Hustlers & Con Men (1976) from Amazon. It used to be a library book. It was probably stolen.
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