Last week I started a guide to European Gypsy street theatre that turned into too much funny for one blog so this is part two.
And by street theatre of course I mean the complex dance of swindler and victim, predator and prey, gypsy and tourist. I’m not writing this as a warning because if you need to be warned about these overt and comically incompetent scams then it follows that you can’t read. This is for those of you who view these practices as you should – entertainment.
Previously we discussed Three Card Monty and the Petition Scam. Fine classics that never fail to please. These are ensemble pieces, though, and hence often a little too over-choreographed. For a taste of the indie-minded short con there are some one-man shows and partner acts that you can catch in the streets of Europe’s capital cities.
The Golden Ring
This is what the gypsies do with their old people when they’re still too young to play the leper or war refugee or whatever they’re meant to be. I’m going to admit up front that I’m not entirely sure how this is supposed to work because I’ve only seen it about a hundred times and that’s apparently not a large enough sample to gauge a success rate. An old man effects to keep pace with you and then swoops to the sidewalk and pops up with a shiny, gaudy, ugly gold-coloured ring. It’s also huge and would be embarrassing on an abnormally extroverted Christmas tree.
Now the con is on and you’re offered the ring because he thinks it’s yours and he’s “honest”. When it’s been tried on me I say “No, I did not lose that ring. I threw it away” but my nuanced wit is lost on them and they offer it to me as a gift. Presumably I’m meant to reward them if I happen to actually believe that I lost a four pound chunk of yellow tin or because I’ve been longing to have one.
The show’s not over once it’s been tried, by the way, and you really need to stay for the encore. Once it’s failed (or, presumably, not failed) they’ll repeat it on the very next pigeon they see, right in front of you. A pudgy old lady tried it on me on Pont des Arts in Paris once and I waited all of a minute before she was trying it again on a tall blonde American woman who, amazingly, accepted the ring until the issue of a reward came up, when she gave it back. The twist that makes this worth retelling is that when I tried to snap a picture of her in the act the inept swindler got all shy and flashed me an adorable conspiratorial smile.
The Friendship Bracelet
This is a significant departure from the repertoire because first, it’s not practiced by Gypsies but by Africans, mainly in Paris. And second because it’s less like a con and more like a mugging. The practitioners install themselves near tourist meccas, most particularly Montmartre for some reason, near sellers of “legitimate” tourist cack. They’ll greet you, try to shake your hand but above all tie a braid of coloured yarn around your wrist and tell you that it’s a friendship bracelet.
And now you’ve bought two cents worth of yarn and your new friendship hasn’t been consummated until you’ve paid between five and ten euros for it. Women are the common targets for this scam because they, wisely, like to keep a hand on their purses during the transaction, rendering the instinctive reflex to pull off the well-tied bit of string and throw it to the ground and spit on it a clumsy manoeuvre, made all the more challenging if the crook manages to keep ahold of your hand.
I’ve seen this one actually work. Clearly not because it’s so devilishly subtle but because of the practiced and intimidating contention that the victim agreed to buy something and is now reneging. Of course the pigeons know they’re being scammed but they’re tourists in a strange town where they don’t speak the language and they’re being accused of a crime. I expect in those circumstances €5 can look pretty cheap.
This also sometimes works. Some might argue that just straight up asking for money isn’t really a scam, as such, and they’d be right. But the Gypsies make a proper show out of it with tranquilised babies or a little card with an appallingly exaggerated story of woe or gloriously hammy interpretations of injury or illness.
These pantomimes have no business working but they do consistently and exclusively when the performers happen upon a tourist, usually an American, with an understanding of European economies formed and frozen just after the end of WWII and, of course, no experience with Gypsy beggars. They look with Christian benevolence upon this destitute soul and her strangely tranquil baby who’s doubtless too hungry to open his eyes and astoundingly buy the whole package for two euros. If it ended there you could say that the mark got something for his money but if you give one of these beggars money they’ll ask you for more and keep on asking until you tell them to do what you should have told them to do in the first place.
Those commenting just to explain that I’m a racist because most of the scammers in Paris are Gypsies can save their ire. I know it already. The rest of you, of course, don’t need to have it pointed out that the statement “most scammers in Paris are Gypsies” doesn’t equate to “most Gypsies are scammers in Paris”.
Furthermore this is a cultural distinction. It’s a recognised fact that there exists a subset of Gypsy culture for whom this is an economy and a proud and ethical way to make a living. The ethics are founded on a definition of property. Speaking analogously, if your neighbour discards a stereo and leaves it unused and unprotected in the rain, is it still his stereo? Well, yeah, it is, but I’d understand if your view was that it was in a very meaningful way yours for the taking. To the Gypsy swindlers any money they can get out of you was being insufficiently cared for and it’s not your money anymore. And their ham-handed dodges are hardly inescapably and spell-bindingly clever so maybe they have a point.