Thu 11 Mar 2010
Scam IV: The Moron of Piccadilly Circus
Cost to me: 50 pounds
Cost to others: 20 minutes of vacation time
This is the latest (but almost certainly not the last) true con I have fallen for, and I begrudgingly admit it was by far the best. For simplicity, execution and sheer artistry, it was flawless. And I feel I have the requisite experience to make such an assessment.
This one occurred about six years ago, in London, England. It involved my friend Dean, whose wife was/is a flight attendant, meaning he had precious access to insanely cheap flights. It also involved my friend Tim, a professional student and musician with eclectic listening tastes. Tim was a long-time fan of a guy called Jandek (pictured), a mysterious, reclusive musician from Houston with a small but dedicated cult following. For decades, Jandek would independently record and release records out of the basement of his home. Fans could order them through a catalogue at dirt cheap prices, and some of them would even receive personalized pieces of correspondence from the artist. But he never revealed his true identity, nor did he play live shows. This went on until one day in late 2004 when, out of nowhere, Jandek made a live, non-publicized performance at a festival in Glasgow. Needless to say, this was huge news among his fan base. And it was soon announced that he would be playing his second ever live gig at a festival in Newcastle, England, in the spring of 2005.
The announcement of the second show just happened to coincide with mine, Dean and Tim’s discussions about doing a whirlwind long weekend trip somewhere in Europe. So we thought we’d kill two birds with one stone and go to England. Now, Tim had tried to get both Dean and I into Jandek at numerous points in the past, but we had arrived at the conclusion that his stuff was, to put it mildly, unlistenable. I’m a pretty opened minded guy when it comes to music, but there must be something that experimental musicians hear in Jandek that I don’t, because to me he sounded like he was almost intentionally trying to make listeners hate him. Go on – take a listen. See if you can get past the :45 second mark.
Still, the plane tickets were cheap, there was kind of a cool mystique surrounding the show, and the five-hour drive from London to Newcastle would give us a chance to see part of the country we otherwise never would. So Tim got us Jandek tickets, Dean got us plane tickets, I did absolutely nothing, and we were off to the U.K.
As I said, we were only going overseas for four days, due to both time and money being a factor. The plan was to fly into London and get in about 8:00 p.m. Big Ben time on Friday night. Since we were getting in so late, instead of getting a hotel, we decided that we would just buy alcohol at duty free, head into the City, and stay up through the night drinking and walking around the entertainment district until the car rental agencies opened up in the morning. We would then rent a car and take turns driving and sleeping on the five-hour trip up to Newcastle for the show Saturday night.
In accordance with said plan, we flew into Heathrow, picked up a bottle of scotch, and took the tube into Piccadilly Circus. By the time we arrived, it was about 11 o’clock at night, and the streets were packed. Needless to say, we were pretty damn excited to be there. We were also fresh off a full day of flying, unshowered and sweatily lugging around backpacks, but we didn’t care. We started booting around, taking deep pulls from the bottle and soaking in the sights.
And oh, what sights there were! Tons of loud, drunk people, most having an awesome time, some puking, some fighting, some pissing in alleys (both male and female). You know, typical Benny Hill Show stuff. And when your whole plan for a night is to walk around people watching in a new city, there’s a certain plant, when smoked, that really enhances the experience. More than once I said to the guys that it would be awesome if we could score some weed.
Well, let me tell you, the gods were smiling on us that day, friends. Because as we entered a particular square packed with shitty tourist stands and street vendors frying hot dogs and onions, we were approached by a raggedy looking gentleman who had just the product we were looking for! I believe his exact words were, “‘Ello, lads, fancy a pinch of some right proper ‘erb?”, or something to that effect.
I couldn’t believe our luck! Yes, I told him! Yes, we most certainly would!
He said, okay, what are you looking for. I said just an eighth. He said no problem, that would be fifty pounds. That seemed reasonable to me. I mean, it was a significant mark-up from what we would have paid back home, but when fate intervenes, you don’t barter with it. We then started into a conversation with the guy (who, for a homeless looking fellow, was really quite friendly and coherent) – where we were from, how long we were staying, plans while we were in London, etc. From my perspective, this idle banter provided me with additional time to assuage any lingering doubts I may have had that this guy was a cop (or “bobby”, if you will). Meanwhile, from his perspective, I now know he was simply building up a rapport with me, so that I wouldn’t realize he was absolutely playing me like a fiddle.
When the idiot-snaring chit-chat was finished, he told us to come with him down a side street, so he could run and get the weed. Being three relatively big guys in our 20s, we didn’t fear for our safety, so we followed. Besides, this guy would never try to pull a fast one on us. After all, he had asked us where we were from and everything!
So we walked with him for a couple of blocks, away from the neon lights of the bar district. He then told us he would be right back, and disappeared down an alley out of sight. He left us waiting with two even raggedier looking people: a Lurch-looking guy with a bunch of teeth missing, and a black chick who was sans large patches of hair. They were friendly and all, but didn’t have much to say. They kind of just stood there smiling. Which was fine with me because, frankly, I didn’t want to talk with them. I just wanted the weed.
About ten minutes later, our guy came running back down the alley, looking all business. In a real sly, careful fashion (just in case the cops were watching, you see), he said, “here you go,” and handed me a small plastic bag. But along with the bag, he handed me a card with his name and number on it (in the conning business, I believe this is called ‘distraction’). He told us if we needed weed or coke while we were in London, he was our guy. Imagine – we’d only been in London a few hours, and we already had a pot dealer! I truly was feeling like a man of the world.
Two other things I should point out: first, Tim didn’t smoke weed, so he really didn’t give a shit what was going on. He was just happy to be along for the ride on this one. Second, Dean was pretty quiet the entire time, almost pensive. And since Dean was and is infinitely more traveled and worldly than I am, this should have given me pause. But I was so ecstatic over our good fortune, I paid him little mind. What I did pay was the drug dealer, the agreed-upon fifty pounds. He thanked us (I think we even shook hands), and we quickly dispersed, having gotten away with a harmless-yet-slightly-thrilling little crime that was going to dramatically improve the following eight hours we would spend wandering the streets, waiting for a car rental agency to open up.
We had wandered halfway back down the side street towards the square when Dean asked me, “hey retard – did you even check the bag?”
My heart instantly sank. I hadn’t. The thought never even entered my mind. And it dawned on me I had more than likely just been had. I tore the plastic bag open, and inside was…another plastic bag. And inside that one…another plastic bag. The pattern repeated itself three more times, until I was left holding six bags, zero weed, and a wallet fifty pounds lighter than it had been just a moment ago.
I quickly spun around and looked back down the alley and, surprise, surprise, buddy boy was nowhere to be found. His friends were gone, too. I was stunned.
It’s one thing to get ripped off when you’re taking a calculated risk, appreciating the possibility of a scam and factoring it into your expectation-level. That way you can at least take solace in saying to yourself, “I knew it!”, like you expected it to happen. But it’s an entirely different matter to get blindsided. To get played step-by-step like an absolute patsy, never once suspecting that something might be up. I felt like Agent Kujan at the end of The Usual Suspects.
Dean shook his head at me in disbelief, and Tim was doing everything he could not to burst out laughing. I tried to play it off all cool, saying something about how I wasn’t even mad, how that guy beat me fair and square, and that fifty pounds was a small price to pay for a life lesson like that. But that was bullshit. I was furious. All I could picture was those three junkies killing themselves laughing at how stupid I was, and how that was the easiest money they ever made.
To my partial credit, I didn’t let it ruin the night. We still got hammered and stumbled around London, we still managed to stay up until the car rental agencies opened at 7:00 a.m., and we still got to Newcastle, even though we were extremely sleep-deprived, not to mention driving standard on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road. But I’m not going to lie – it took me a long time to stop wincing at the memory of that one. And to this day, if I were to somehow learn that the perpetrator had used my fifty pounds to buy heroin, and that heroin happened to be laced with rat poison, and that rat-poison-laced-heroin caused him to twitch and writhe and foam at the mouth until he expired in front of his cohorts in a savage final act of sweet karmic justice…
…well, I’d probably smile. Smile ever so briefly, and then continue on with my day.
Man, did that limey son of a bitch ever take me to school.
Oh, and the Jandek show? Two hours of absolute torture. But that’s a story for another time.