I keep thinking about the guy who took the $20. Who was he? What was his habit, addiction, need? It happened so fast. I was walking to a takeout Chinese place, strolling with my dog on Prospect Place between Underhill and Vanderbilt, near my Brooklyn apartment. I saw the man coming. He was tall, thin and middle-aged, wearing glasses, jeans and a white belt. I smiled and nodded hello as I passed.
“Excuse me,” he said, turning around.
“I — I just moved to the neighborhood,” he said, naming an address on Underhill. “Do you know if there’s a tow truck place around here?”
I opened my mouth to direct him to Bergen Street, which is lined with car repair places, about to say, “They would know.” Before I could get the thought out, he spoke again.
“My mother had a stroke behind the wheel. An ambulance took her. I’m trying to get a tow truck. All I need is $6.”
Six dollars. The words “mother” and “stroke” were all I had to hear to get me reaching for my wallet. As I opened it, I thought of how here I was, alone on a dark stretch of block, with a man who could easily pull out a knife and tell me to give him all my money, my phone, even my dog. I didn’t have $6. I had a twenty. I gave it to him.
“I’ll pay you back,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
We both walked on in separate directions. I turned back a few feet later and watched him go. He did not walk like a man whose mother had just had a stroke. He walked calmly, slowly. Oh! Of course there was no mother. No tow truck. No emergency. That was clear. It had been pretty clear all along. So how did he do it? How did he get me to hand him that $20 bill rather than me saying, for instance, that I don’t carry cash? Or, better yet, nothing at all?
The man had been sober and polite. He knew how to get the conversation started and when to introduce the mother, the stroke, the accident, the need for just a few bucks. He was a convincing storyteller, and I was particularly naïve.
In the morning, still unable to stop thinking about it, I Googled “Prospect Heights con man mother stroke car” and found out he has been telling this story for quite some time: “A friend of mine who was with me the last time I saw the guy said that she thinks she saw him sitting at the bar at Blue Ribbon a few weeks ago, eating oysters and drinking a martini with a girl,” wrote one of several commenters on the Brooklynian’s community blog. The sighting was six years ago.
Liza Monroy lives in Prospect Heights and is a writing lecturer at Columbia University; she is the author of the novel “Mexican High” (Spiegel & Grau).
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