1. The Gentle Street Scam (directly below) and 2. The Magliari (here)
It’s a good scam —totally non-violent and even friendly. And unlike phone fraud, ID theft and emails from friendly Nigerian bankers, it’s not out to steal all your money and leave you destitute. It just wants a little taste of whatever cash you happen to have in your pocket. It’s fun to watch, even if you are the victim.It didn’t work on me the first time, either, but I was surprised at how slow I was to spot it the second time. I blame my aging synapses, currently busted ribs and general gullibility. I also blame the fact that I really am a bit prosopagnostic. (That’s the inability to recall faces. Don’t worry; I had to look it up, too. I also suffer from not being able to remember big words.) I have tons of relatives and have also gone through generations of former students and don’t recognize them on the street. So either I just don’t remember faces, or all these people really do look alike. In either case, I am a “mark” for the gentle Neapolitan street scam.
As I said, they’re not trying to pick your pocket (that has happened to me twice) or assault you physically (once); they are either sitting in a car as you pass on the sidewalk, or they drive by you and pull over. Their opening gambit is always standard, something like Pawn to King4:
“Hey, how are you doing? Long time no see.”
Silence on my part. (I'm still studying the difference between the horsey and the piece with the pointy head.)
“Ah-hah! I bet you don’t remember me.” At this point, I’m thinking—ex-student! After all, it has happened. I have bumped into them a number of times on the street, and they always remind me who they are and when they were in my class. Here’s where the scam differs, but very subtly.
“Well, it has been a long time," he says. "Don’t you remember what you were doing 10 years ago.” That’s the hook being baited.“Teaching,” sez I. That’s me taking the bait.
And then comes the process of him getting information by the Neapolitan Socratic Method. (He asks and I spill my guts; in five minutes he knows all about me.) He makes me feel like such a dunce for not remembering him and, furthermore, for not even remembering that person we both knew at school, the one who died! I think to myself, Why, you unfeeling swine! You wretch! You low-life with no memory. But now it’s getting a bit too much. There is something familiar and wrong here…this has happened before…now I see through a glass, darkly; then face to face...cue up music: the title theme to the musical, 'Good-bye, you Rotten Bastard, you!' Note to myself: compose that musical. And I really was in a hurry to get to the bar and beer away my rib woes. I begged off and waved good-bye to my long-lost and new-found friend.
“Wait!”—big smile—“I want to give you something, just for old times’ sake.”
Boiiing! Snap. That’s the line breaking and letting me swim away. I remembered the first time it had happened. Same general story. The first time, he (a different he, I think, but you know us prosopagnostics) wanted to give me a sweater, but he needed some money for gasoline to get home. This time, Whoever-He-Was reached into his car and pulled out a small box. It might have contained a wristwatch, but I was already walking away. The finish would have been —if the hook had stayed in:
“Of course it’s a gift! I just need a few bucks to get home. My tank is empty. That’s why I’m parked near the service station.” He was pretty good at the scam, too. He gave off pheromones of benevolence. I liked him! He had even launched himself at me and kissed me on the cheek when he “saw me again” after all those years. That didn’t really bother me since in this friendly Latin culture, robust men are always kissing one another on the cheek. It still makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, but I’ll accept it, hoping for the day when the custom migrates to strange women, who will then start coming up to me and kissing me on the cheek.
I gave him an E for effort, but not a €. And I didn’t kiss him good-bye.
April 28, 2019
This second part of the Street Scam comes about only because of two or three things that have happened recently to make me see that it is similar to —but not quite the same as— part one. These differences have some interesting things to say about the sociology of Italy and particularly about the so-called "Italian diaspora" and "Neapolitan diaspora" since 1900. The first thing, of course, was that I had to get hit a second time by a street con job. That happened. He was amiable and waved at me from about 15 meters away. I did the "who-me? double-take" to be sure he was not waving at someone in back of me. Indeed. I was the one. He gave me the same "Hi! Remember me?" routine. Long and short of it — he was trying to unload some socks and even gave me a few pairs ("Hey, everyone needs socks, right? Where do you live now?" I nodded casually in the direction of Saturn. When they ask that question I remind them that "since my incident" I no longer have any memory to speak of and that my guard Doberman's name of endearment is Fang the Merciless. Well, he just needed a little cash to keep afloat so maybe... I handed him back his socks and said "Here, I don't really need these." Ok, bye. Still friendly. No harm done. Essentially this was so much like number one (above) that by itself it would not be worth a mention.
Then a couple of days later I came across an old newspaper clipping enclosed in a letter that my late wife got from a friend in southern Germany (probably Murnau in Bavaria). Dateline Rome, June 25 [extrapolated year 1958 from the reference to an upcoming, "as yet unnamed" film by Italian director Francesco Rosi. That film was subsequently released in 1959 in Italian as I Magliari, in English as The Magliari and in German —God help us— as "All Hell Breaks Loose in St. Pauli" (a seedy port section in Hamburg). The clipping is entitled "Neapolitan Swindlers with a Heart, the secret trade of the Magliari, active in Western and Central Europe." The by-line is "from our correspondents" and was obviously assembled from a few different sources and sent out to various newspapers throughout Germany.
Essentially, the column tells us what magliari means (it is the plural of magliaro, a clothing salesman and stems from the word maglia, an article of clothing, possibly knitwear such as sweaters or domestic items such as blankets or towels). It tells us of the Neapolitan clothing scam "present in most European large cities" [in 1958 — actually since 1900 according to the newspaper]. The con: approach the housewife at home while Hubby is at work, offer the goods, maybe a beautiful blanket that you are forced to sell at the low, low price of whatever because you stole it but, hey, "everybody has to work, huh? Sorry. Take it off my hands. No one will know." That's the con. You're giving them something for nothing and only later do they find out that they've bought worthless junk cloth. So there are [again, in 1958] at least hundreds of these good-hearted something-for-nothing Neapolitan con-men in central and northern Europe. It clicks in me and I remember that the recent scammer I mention in the first paragraph was a guy dealing in socks. And I do refer (in part 1) to an earlier sweater salesman. I had been waylaid by pathetic remnants of what used to be a grand profession of roving crooks! They are back selling their wares in the streets of Naples.
Cut to director Francesco Rosi (1922-2015), (the image here is from the 1991 Cannes film festival). In 1958 he was at the beginning of what turned out to be an important career in the history of Italian cinema, on a level with greats in the pantheon, the likes of De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti, and Fellini. Francesco Rosi's films often had political messages (less so later in his career. His last film was in 1997 and with such things as the collusion between organized crime and corrupt government. At the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, 13 of his films were screened in a section reserved for film-makers of outstanding quality and achievement. In 2012 he received the Venice Biennale Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. This early film, The Magliari, was selected to be on the list of the 100 Italian films "to be saved." That was a list of "100 films that changed the collective memory of the country between 1942 and 1978." The project was established at the 65th Venice International Film Festival in 2008. (The complete list is off-site here.) The reasoning behind including this film is not hard. I Magliari is a narrow, precise (and unusual) slice of what helped to "change the collective memory" of Italians. A lot of neo-Realism, for example, deals with the tough times of post-war Italy, but in Italy. This film, however, is about the tough times of immigrant Italian "guest workers" in Germany. Important: they intend to return home. This film is not to be confused with another kind of film about those who went abroad, those who shaped the many "Little Italys" in the world. (Those films are typically produced by directors from within those immigrant communities. Examples of that genre are The Godfather series, beginning in 1972, by Francis Ford Coppola (born in Detroit) or The Gangs of New York (2002) by Martin Scorsese (born in New York City). In Rosi's film, the workers are an exported, intentionally criminal, class with revolving come-and-go links to their base in Naples. If the original film poster (above) can be believed, the activities were anything but gentle. I wonder if that guy with the socks knows any of this.