Archive for January, 2002

The Con Man

January 18, 2002 Comments off

I was nineteen when I first encountered a con man. The greenhouse where I worked usually hired single guys like me, youngsters without any plans who could get by on a dime or two more than minimum wage. But one day the boss brought in a white-haired fellow named George. He was not much taller than the women who worked at the potting benches, he had an oval face and a padded body, and he moved comfortably along the rows of plants, whether he was watering in the morning or carrying a woman’s wax begonia to her car in the afternoon. When his wife picked him up at five each day, they looked like a matched set of happy retirees. I figured he was cushioning a meager pension with a retail job among the ficus and the ferns.

As you would expect of someone who turned out to be a con man, George had the common touch. He would strike up rambling conversations about almost anything. Whether the topic was Watergate or what you got for lunch, he steered us along with quick questions and light comments. In the first few days I had an odd sense of him as a very friendly guy I would never get to know very well. Then one day he brought a big sack to the morning break and showed me the craft project he and his wife worked on in the evenings. They would cover an empty wine bottle with short strips of masking tape. Then they coated the tape with brown shoe polish and buffed it until it shined. From a distance, at first glance, the result looked like a beautiful old leather bottle, something none of us on a dime over minimum wage could afford. But George wanted me to buy two of these shoe polish bottles for $5.00. That was about three hours’ pay. He was a little pushy about it, but I said no thank you.

George stayed at the greenhouse for less than two months. One Friday he missed work, and we never saw him again. Sometime that day two paychecks vanished from their usual spot tucked in behind the time cards. The first check was George’s and the second belonged to one of the young guys, Bob Grant. Nobody knew what to make of this, nor of the tray of tiny, multicolored cactus plants that was also missing. When the bank found the checks a few days later, the curtain parted and we saw George another way.

It turned out that he had become a regular visitor to a bar across town, buying drinks and telling people his name was Bob Grant. On that last Friday George cashed his own paycheck somewhere else and then headed for the bar where everyone thought he was Bob. He ordered a round for the regulars, then told the bartender he had forgotten his wallet. The bartender agreed to cash the second paycheck – after all, he had known this amiable fellow who called himself Bob Grant for several weeks by then. Money in hand, George and his wife headed out of town in their old car, with their clothes and a few possessions, and who knows, maybe a tray of odd little cactus plants to sell at their next stop.

Back at the greenhouse we could finally see the clues. George – if that was his real name – tempted others to reveal themselves, he always asked questions but never answered any, and he pushed a little selling those bottles just to see how far pushing would take him. Perhaps we were naive not to notice that he and his wife were as phony as the bottles they tried to sell – not lovely old leather, just masking tape polished until it shined – and now they were gone, in search of the next shortcut, the next scam.

In spite of his social skills, his gift of gab, his strategic reserve, his ability to spot a person’s weaknesses and exploit them, George made little for all his troubles. He had only Bob’s $75 dollar paycheck and a tray of little plants to show for the chances he took and the bridges he burned. And what would happen, I wondered, if his wife become ill and could no longer run with him from town to town? What if she died? I came to imagine him spending his final years without her, immersed in loneliness, a punishment he more or less chose for himself, I thought, when he realized he could keep the world at arm’s length and still find just within his reach the things he wanted to steal.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired January 18, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.