The Dog Inside, or My Other Encounters with Swindlers
I’ve written about being conned (while researching confidence artistry) here on Huffington Post, but my susceptibility does not stop there, nor does my willingness to disclose my own foolishness. Herewith…
About seven years ago, when I was a graduate student, I found myself alone in Rome for a few days. I headed right to the Roman Forum, but not for the ruins. I wanted to see the gypsies that my guidebook had warned me so sternly about.
There I sat on the brick terrace outside the subway station. It was August, and there was nothing to see except a steady exchange of tourists going in and out of the station. Even with my senses alerted to their presence, I spotted no gypsies. I felt my will to live diminishing under the heat, and figured I’d better head into the Forum to redeem the afternoon.
I wandered around rather aimlessly, trying to frame interesting photos in my head. I saw a worthwhile picture of an olive tree against a column, and I opened the large leather satchel I’d gotten a few days before in the outdoor market in Florence. I pulled out my camera and took a few shots.
Just then, two young girls approached me and asked in broken, heavily accented English if I could show them how to get to the Spanish Steps. They unfolded a large map and looked up at me expectantly. I hadn’t been in Rome very long, so I was especially pleased to be able to answer their question, and I leaned down to point out the spot on the map.
Before my eyes could even focus on it, both girls suddenly looked to my left, grabbed the map, and vanished. I must have looked like quite a picture myself as I stood there, camera in hand, mouth wide open, bag gaping on my hip.
It took a good twenty seconds for me to realize what had happened. The gypsies had found me. They’d unfolded the map over my open bag and reached down under it. I could barely breathe. I hadn’t questioned why someone with an Italian accent was asking me for directions, or why someone wanted to know how to get to the one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. I was simply flattered to be asked to help.
When I looked inside, my bag was undisturbed. My wallet and my passport were still there, right where I’d unthinkingly left them. My self-respect was the only thing gone.
You would think that, when this very scenario happened a second time, I would figure it out in less than twenty seconds. Not long after moving to our house in a quiet upstate town, my daughter stayed home from daycare with me, feverish and quiet. She was resting in the living room when suddenly the dog woke her up with a thunder of barking. A few seconds later, a man knocked on the door.
Our neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks and the houses are far apart and wooded, so no one ever just happens by. I came out onto the porch, shutting the front door behind me. The visitor was an older man dressed in a grey suit, and he apologized for disturbing me. He was in town for a business meeting at the clubhouse on the university golf course and he’d gotten hopelessly lost. Could I show him how to get there on his map?
Once again, without hesitation, I bent over the map. This one was quite small and wrinkled. It took me a while to orient it correctly to the neighborhood I was only just beginning to learn, and then I realized my difficulty was because some of its roads were mislabeled. I tried to explain how to get there, but even though it was close by, the route involved a lot of small, twisty roads, and I couldn’t easily direct him, nor could he hear me over my dog’s ferocious barking from inside the house. I finally just outlined the major roads and wished him luck. He got back into his car, an old, beat-up grey sedan, and backed down the driveway.
Only after I went back inside did I realize it had happened again. It was too late to get his license plate number, too late to order him off my property before I called the police, too late to retrieve my pride. At least I knew I’d never see him again. The fraudulent map had given him the pretext and the time to gather all the information he needed about my house. The homeowner might be the perfect mark, but the dog inside is large, loud, and deeply suspicious.