innocence found

Why did I fall for it…again?

Maybe it was the end of summer and my brain was fried from sun and children.  Maybe I ate too many carbs the night before, or had too little coffee that morning.

Or maybe it’s because I get so tired of being cynical and hard-bitten that I let go briefly.

Whatever it was, as the founders of Las Vegas used to say, there’s a sucker born every minute. And this sucker was born again that day, the most recent of several sucker- incarnations. If there’s sucker nirvana, I’m sure to get there any day now.

The first time, I was a junior in college, traveling in Spain with a friend, both of us age-appropriately naive but old enough to know better.

In the train station on our way back to school in Paris, we were approached by a dapper, but frayed-at-the-edges older man, a Swede, who told us this tale of woe: his Mercedes had broken down in front of the station, his wife was home ill and he had no way of getting cash (he’d left his wallet at home, you see). He needed as much as we could spare to get his car fixed so he could get home to his poor darling.

With a mixture of feeling-like-such-good-people and trepidation, we gave him the equivalent of $70 in French francs — a fortune for us at the time — and our addresses in the US to which he was to send repayment.

As we got on the train back to Paris, the holes in his story began to worm their way into our silly, sweet brains…why didn’t he just take a cab home to get his wallet? Why wouldn’t the garage where he was getting his car fixed take him home? Couldn’t he call a friend to help? And his shoes…did you see his shoes? They were pretty crappy for a rich guy.

Ugh. We (finally) realized we’d been duped. Taken. Hustled. Grifted. Fooled, in the most awful way one can be – not through our greed or vanity, but by playing on our best impulses, our desire to help, our empathy, our basic humanity.

All that sweet goodness we’d filled up on turned into roiling sourness and acid, like too many bags of cotton candy, mini-donuts and cheese curds after you’ve left the State Fair.  We both felt nauseous, upset and burned.

I guess that’s what loss of innocence with a side of humiliation tastes like.

We vowed to never, ever be taken in by anyone again. We also vowed to never speak of it because we were so embarrassed.  Yes, I am “speaking of it” now because I’m no longer embarrassed (who was that dumb, foolish kid?), and I figure the statute of limitations is up after 20-plus years.

Have I mentioned I learn things the hard way? Because after that horrible, scarring experience, lo and behold, it happened again. That same year in fact, while I was in Italy with a different friend. Another older Swedish gentleman, this time claiming to be deposed royalty (beware, young travelers — Europe abounds with ancient Swedish grifters posing as earls seeking to separate you from your riches!). He somehow bamboozled us into believing such astonishing stories, and feeling so sorry for him and moved by his infinite, ex-pat loneliness, that we ended up at his very seedy apartment high above Rome. At night. With no way back down to the train station.

Did I mention that no one who cared about us knew we were even in Rome?

I won’t go into great detail, because the statute of limitations will never run out on this stupid move, but suffice it to say that we got him to take us back into the city, relatively unscathed, but shaken by our own stupidity, gullibility and the fact that we obviously weren’t as ready for the world as we thought.

Through the years, living and traveling in big cities, I have come to believe no one, trust no one asking for money is on the up-and-up. But I have occasional, inexplicable lapses. Like the time I gave money to the guy standing at the Dupont Circle Metro stop in DC. You know the story: I just need a few dollars to get the bus back to Baltimore where I have this great job waiting for me, which I really need so I can pay the medical expenses for my poor, sick elderly mother.

I knew it was bull-crap, but something about the way he told the story, his bravado or gall at using such a tired line, something, made me stop. “Look, I know you’re bs-ing me. Tell me the truth and I might actually give you some money.”  A sheepish, but somehow winning grin spread across his face. It was nice to stop playing the game for a minute. “Alright, lady, but don’t tell no one else. I’m gonna use the money to get a drink.” Normally, I am beyond opposed to contributing to someone’s addiction, but he’d told me the truth, so I gave him a buck.

My cynicism is truly and fully intact. My belief system hardened and formulaic: anyone asking for your sympathy, or money for food, bus fare, medical expenses, broken-down cars, wants it for something else, is using your best impulses to pay for or get something awful and dirty, some horrible vice like drugs, alcohol, sex or gambling.  I ignore people at freeway entrances and street corners. I am an immovable object…except for that pregnant woman that one time…and, oh yeah, the mutilated child in the Paris metro. Other than that, though, I am stone cold.

Fast forward to a couple months ago. My doorbell rang. Outside stood a woman with a desperate look on her face.

“Do you have any work I could do (ahh, we have a work ethic — good one!)? I need $28.97 (brilliant use of a specific number!) to buy antibiotics for my sister who had back surgery at Hennepin and they messed it up — it’s their fault (poor, poor victim of the system!).”

After some back and forth, even the offer that I could keep her phone until her boyfriend dropped off money to me later that day (of course I wasn’t going to take her phone, dumb rich lady like me!), I gave her $14, all the cash I had on hand, spoke to her sister (who called just at the right moment to seal the deal!) who God-blessed me a few times (the sainted, unselfish invalid!) and lauded her self-sacrificing sister for walking all over the city for her.

It was…sublime. I fell for it on purpose. With calculated innocence, an abandonment of everything I’d learned about the worst of human nature. Because I really, really wanted to believe it, and deep down where I was honest about knowing that it was a ruse, I decided that it really didn’t matter why she needed the money. She actually needed it —  her desperation was real, palpable, cloying.   And, I think, underneath the lie, and (perhaps?) a faint feeling of self-loathing, she was truly grateful to me for being willing to fall for it.

So call me a sucker, a naive, an innocent idiot. My humanity got the better of me again.

Sure, those women “fooled” me, but deep down I hope I never lose the occasional willingness to see beyond a lie to the core of emptiness and despair that drives people to such depths. It could have been me in their place, having to lie for a few dollars. I guess I figured it wasn’t much to pay for the luxury and good fortune of always being on the other side of that very sad equation.