“Say, That’s A Nice Hat”; Or, I Get Touched

I should have known better. Me. Mr Street Smarts. A man who has actually vacationed in Detroit. On purpose. A guy who has walked all over New York City, trudged up and down Ellis street in San Francisco without flinching, and ventured through Whisper Alley amidst throngs of drunken Marines.

Yet none of that mattered yesterday.

Now I get a lot of compliments on my hat, a white Panama (pictured above and purchased here). On Saturday for instance I was stopped twice and told how pretty. My theory is that it isn’t so much the hat that is remarkable, and even less so the wearer, but that people like to see an adult wear an adult hat while suitably suited. It is so rare a sight, particularly in some areas of this grand country, that it is worth celebrating even if the spectacle is carried out by a fellow like yours truly.

So it wasn’t a surprise to hear a voice yesterday (Sunday) call out, “That’s a nice hat.” There were other words, too, but I didn’t catch them. The man who spoke, however, stopped and turned. Which out of a misguided sense of politeness made me do the same.

“Hey, you don’t remember me, do you. I saw you coming and even complimented your hat. But you don’t remember me.”

It was at this point, early on, that I made the fundamental mistake. I spoke. “No, sorry I don’t.”

“We met years ago. I’m the brother of one of the women you work with. You remember. Black woman you work with.”

“Deborah?” I volunteered (not her real name). The first name to pop into my mind. And I didn’t think to question why he, a black man, had to tell me his sister was also black. Nor why he made me guess.

“Yeah! Deborah. We met years ago.” He proffered his hand. Which I shook. “When’s the last time you saw Deborah?”

“Oh, must be years ago.”

“Then you haven’t heard. She had a stroke, man. Paralyzed below the waist. Has to use a walker to get around.”

It was at this point that, for any intelligent person, Klaxons would have been going off. But I remained sweetly oblivious. How the hell could she be paralyzed from the waist down and use a walker? “Oh no! Can she still teach?”

“Oh, yeah, she can still teach.” He also, in the course of this interview, reminded me several times of how I had ignored him, how he had liked my hat, and that I should have remembered him.

He was good. He already had me at this point, but he didn’t go right for the kill. He wanted to secure the hook a little deeper first. So he talked of this and that. Got me to say a few things. Then he began.

“I bought this car. That’s why I’m in this neighborhood. I’m parked over there. I just bought this thing. But the gas gauge is broken. I thought I had a full tank of gas. I thought I had great gas mileage. But it’s out of gas.”

This was another chance for me to make a break. I knew then it was a touch, but I had lingered so long I couldn’t figure a way to make a decent exit. Which is absurd, because once I knew it was to be a touch, I could have said and done anything in good conscience.

“I had to search forever to find a gas station. But there’s none in this neighborhood.”

I stupidly was still playing along and pointed, “Except for one up…” An answer he nearly simultaneously mimicked. As if he knew where the station was.

Then came the tale of a deposit on a gas can and lack of cash. I said he was good and he was. He didn’t ask for the money but waited patiently for me to volunteer it. I did. Five bucks and some change. Just to end the thing and escape. As I forked it over he asked if I could get more, go to a cash machine or something. And then I told the truth. “I don’t have my wallet on me.”

Ever the pro, he did not try to rush off. He tried to get my contact information so that he could “return” the money. I insisted he just keep it—I didn’t want him having my name, which I had only then realized he never knew, never used, and never asked for.

As he left I marveled how very like a storefront psychic he was. All the information about Deborah, including her name, the gas station, teaching, he had got from me. He just parroted it back and wove it into a plausible story. If I weren’t paying attention, when I later recalled the conversation I might have convinced myself that he really was Deborah’s brother. But then maybe I would have felt like I had done a good deed, instead of realizing what a big dope I was.


  1. Luis Dias

    Mr Briggs, the almighty writer of anti-psychic books, all aware of cold reading able people, caught so red-handed? 🙂

    OTOH, I do remember when I was in my 19s of a dude walking by me and convincing me he was one of my oldest colleagues in primary school (or something), just giving himself in by trying to sell me green magical leaves. For a moment, he did got me there. And I would love to think I learned my lesson, although I really do not want to really know if I did or didn’t.

  2. Steve Crook

    Had a similar experience while at the main station in Amsterdam. Man obviously the worse for wear from the night before approached me (he was English) and gave me a long story that involved him being drunk, arrested, jailed overnight then released, but without train tickets, and could I spare…

    I knew that it was probably bollocks, but I had this weird ‘that could be me one day’ feeling, and much to the amazement of the work colleague I was with, I handed over about the equivalent of £5 in Guilders.

    In general, if someone asks me for money for coffee or food I refuse to give them money, but offer to go and buy them coffee or food. Refused as often as its accepted…

  3. Big Mike

    In a similar vein, I had a telephone solicitor call me. Through his thick Indian accent, he assured me that he was located right in the very city I was. I asked him what street, and he named a street. I then said “Oh, you must have a good view of “. “Yes”, he responded, “it’s a great view”.

    The fly in the ointment was that, being familiar with the city, I knew it was impossible to see that particular landmark from that particular street. “That’s amazing!” I intoned. “You can see X from Y?” “Oh yes sir, they train us very well” was the response. He knew I was onto him, and he knew I knew he knew (if you catch my drift). The thing that earned him my respect (although not to an extent sufficient to induce me to buy what he was selling) was that he carried on without missing a beat, the whole time giving me the distinct impression that we were sharing a joke and that together we were pulling one over on his supervisors, who, presumably, might review the recording of the call.

    These days, when asked by as stranger if I have a five I can give them, I respond (irascible old cuss that I am) “No, but I’m carrying a 40. Wanna see it?” They usually decline and vanish from sight as mysteriously as they appeared.

  4. JH

    While at a gas pump, a woman carrying a baby approached Mr. JH and asked him to give them a ride back to her apartment. No, he didn’t wear a hat. He doesn’t drive a fancy car. She told him that she had a car but couldn’t afford the gas. She also volunteered her unfortunate, sad stories all the way to her apartment. Well, Mr. JH gave her some money. He also wondered whether he had been conned.

  5. Speed


    You might also wonder what kind of a stroke would paralyze someone below the waist …

  6. DAV

    Many years ago (in the early 70’s) when I was working in Pittsburgh’s Northside, I would constantly be approached by panhandlers. One late evening, as I was departing the building I worked in, I go hit up by this guy. I was dressed in a tie and white shirt although I was wearing a winter jacket (no hat, either) and carrying a brief case so I guess he thought I was an easy target. I don’t remember his story but I came back with: “Gee! I’d really like to help you out but I missed the last bus home; don’t have money for a cab; and it’s a seven mile hike.”

    The guy gave me $5 (close to the equivalent of $20 today) for a cab ride.

  7. Will

    Oh Briggs… I thought the mean streets of NYC would have taught you better..

    If they run a decent game and work in the daytime I offer advice on how they would make more money in sales or telemarketing, then continue to pester them for as long as they stay in the area. Nobody in the begging biz likes employment advice. It’s like heavy metal to hippies…

  8. Joey H

    It’s tough when people approach you or you’re caught off guard. Good thing it was only a few dollars.

  9. Uncle Mike

    Don’t let people lie to you. That doesn’t do either one of you any good. Extract the truth. Do yourselves a favor. The truth will set you both free.

    I do what Will does. I offer advice. I try to help by teaching them how to fish, metaphorically. The Welfare Office is that way, pointing. If they don’t want help, that’s okay. But let’s get the truth out in the open. No good playing charades when the truth is so valuable and desirable.

  10. mbabbitt

    Thank you for sharing this Briggs. It helps me feel not as stupid as I reccently felt when some fake woman contacted me claiming to be in the military and was in Afghanistan and was having a rough time. Wanted to communicate but had to get a secure channel and would I request one. Then the point came on: return email wanted $275 via Western Union to an individual in the Southeast. I googled the so-called military address (too cute-perfect millitary address) and found, to my upset, that my skepticism was correct and it was part of a typical military romance/patirotism appeal scam. But I lost no money.
    Looking back it just pissed me off that somehow my normal protective radar ( I grew up in NYC area too) got circumvented for far too long. Amazing how the vultures know where you are weakest. If not romance then patriotism and good heartedness. Be forewarned, Sgt. Rose Bittner does not exist (especially when she claimed SPC2 rank).

  11. Richard A

    I’m with Steve Crook (crook? really??!!) and Uncle Mike. If you’re willing to help out. help out all the way. Don’t give them money for food, offer to go to the deli with them and buy them a sandwich. Or offer to drive to the auto parts store and buy that $18.62 water pump (that was years ago) and even help them install it. Suddenly they remember someone else who can be more helpful.

  12. Steve Crook

    Richard A

    Crook. Yes, really.

  13. Matt

    I think Dav’s response to a panhandler has to be the winner.

    Others’ have different methods to get rid of panhandlers, but Dav came out with a profit. 🙂

  14. Doug M

    I think your story may just be worth the $5 and change you paid for it.

  15. pouncer

    Wholly and completely off topic, but,

    Briggs, what is the probability that you have missed the excellent discussion of Bayes’s Theorem in “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” (http://hpmor.com/chapter/20) GIVEN a probability that you’ve read any of the original children’s novels in the past decade?

  16. bob

    Yep. There are some good cons out there. One time I was panhandled by a young couple outside a McDonalds in Augusta, SC. The story was that they were driving to a new job, and their car HAD THROWN A ROD. Since their car couldn’t run, anymore and the young couple were short about $19 for the motel room they needed for the night, they asked me for money.

    Knowing that cars don’t throw rods like they used to, I gave them $20, anyway. Later, we learned that a sect of vagabonds lived in the area and this kind of thing happened all the time.

    The girl was kind of cute.

  17. Mack

    The number of “out of gas” panhandlers in my area is astounding. Must be an inland Bermuda Triangle type phenomena at work. Another common story is that they are from out of town and stranded, needing cash for a bus ticket. It’s gotten to the point where I just flatly ignore anyone who approaches me, which is a shame because I would otherwise go out of my way to help someone truly in need.

  18. Noblesse Oblige

    Be thankful for Eastern entrepeneurial creativity. Compare your experience with mine in San Diego. Two days ago, as I was traversing a parking lot toward a dry cleaners, I was accosted by a reasonable looking man who came up to me and asked point blank, “Got a five?” A month before that, a fellow drove up to me in his late model SUV, honked his horn, scrolled down his window looking for all the world like he was going to ask for directions: instead it was, “Got a five?”

    So in California, the entitlement mentality has reached the point where the exact amount to be given over is specified, with some kind of expectation that it will be fulfilled. No fabricated story is needed. No scam. No wiggle room for the amount. Just, “Got a five?”

    PS. My answer was “No.”

  19. So you didn’t remember that you loaned Deborah $500 and she never paid it back?

    You fool! 😉

  20. I may have run into the same guy Big Mike describes, only it was the “This is Microsoft Support Center. Turn on your computer….” ploy. Usually I tie them up on the phone for about 30 minutes until they hang-up, but this time was too busy and said, “No, I won’t do it, you are just a scam”. “Yes”, he laughed, “I am a scam. Now please turn on your computer…”

  21. Rich

    What are the odds that, had you said something along the lines of, “We both know Deborah doesn’t exist and you’re a scam artist” that he’d have pulled a knife and said, “Just give me the money” or doesn’t it work that way?

  22. About 25 years ago a couple of “college girls” — each one a representative from their own State — in a “scholarship contest” to sell magazines subscription, came to my apartment door. Courteously, I allowed them entry.

    The busty blonde with the low-cut halter top and short-shorts, who enthused over mediocre examples of my ego-boo art on the walls, was quick to seat herself on the couch with me to review the selections brochure with me in a spot-weld that in some cultures would have required betrothal.

    The other lass was reserved, obviously a trainee paired with a pro and uncomfortable with the scam.

    “So what State do you represent?” I asked in response to her British accent.

    Her eyes smiled, in on the joke. “I’m on foreign exchange.”

    Sadly, the coquettish leader could not furnish me with subscriptions to any neuroanatomy, molecular biology, or paleobotony titles I suggested, requiring me to turn her away empty handed.

    My alarm bells keened at the fulsome praise of my high school artwork. However it was a nice day and the view was pleasant, despite that I was more attracted to the quiet intelligence glimpsed in the eyes of the young British woman.


  23. Tim Lambert

    I regularly give panhandlers/homeless money.

    I’ll say, “you don’t answer to me for what you do with this money… but please, at least go to Church”.

    Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But, planting the seed in their mind that they should at least be reverent to their Creator is enough for me.

  24. I usually say, “You must promise me not to waste the money on food!”

    Seriously, though, there’s a proverb that rings truer with every passing day: “Build a man a fire, and you’ve kept him warm for a single evening; light a man on fire, and you’ve kept him warm for the rest of his life!”

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