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main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry Mar 2009               

Everything is related to Naples
Number 76 in this series. Link to all items here.
 

The Gentle Street Scam

 

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 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.


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