I Accidentally Got a Scammer Tortured by Police in Tanzania
It was when they manhandled him onto the table, tethered him to a water pipe coming out of the ceiling, and pulled his pants down to his ankles that I experienced a change of heart. For weeks I’d been consumed with hatred for the man on that table. But it’s funny how your perspective changes when someone is about to be tortured, especially when you’re the one that put him there.
It had begun, like many tales of misadventure, in that most anarchic staging post for travel: the Tanzanian bus station. Ever been to one? This is how it goes: The long-distance buses tend to leave at dusk or before; schedules are mind-bogglingly irregular; a tourist tax on the price of a ticket is all but inevitable. Like transport hubs the world over, they’re a magnet for the wretched, the transient, and the dispossessed. And you endure it all for the privilege of cramming yourself into a bus driven by some prepubescent boy-racer in a country with a traffic-accident rate six times worse than that of the UK.
A Guy Who Looks Like Psy Is Scamming Rich European Kids for Free Drinks
Last year, a French-Korean guy named Denis Carre went to Barcelona Fashion Week and was mistaken for Psy almost everywhere he went. Yes, Denis was wearing the sunglasses from the “Gangnam Style” video, but that clip has been viewed more than 2 billion times—you’d have thought people would be able to differentiate the real Psy from a slightly tubby French-Korean man in a suit and black sunglasses. Could the cult of celebrity really make people this blind? And, perhaps, even a little bit racist? Or was it more that they just wanted to believe that they were looking at the most viewed face on YouTube?
Denis is a friend of mine, and I was accompanying him that year, taking photos of the whole thing. So I witnessed—among other surreal moments—club owners offering him bundles of cash to perform, and car dealership managers trying to hand him the keys to sports cars, just “because it would be cool to see him drive.”
A year later, we returned to one of this year’s Barcelona Fashion Week parties to find out if everyone would still be excited to see Denis in a suit.
According to the op-eds, our generation’s cultural attention span looks something like an endless loop of “smack-cam” Vines. So we figured people might have forgotten who Psy was, or why they ever gave a shit about him in the first place. To jog their memories, we had a bunch of stickers, T-shirts, and temporary tattoos made up that read: “DO ME GANGNAM STYLE.”
It turns out that this was probably a waste of money; people generally seem to remember global epidemics that dominate popular culture for an entire year.
How to Buy Jewelry Like a Jeweler, by Clancy Martin
For years I owned a chain of luxury jewelry stores in one of the wildest, most flamboyant, most duplicitous jewelry markets of them all: Dallas, Texas. I won’t tell you every kind of subterfuge I learned from when I first started in the business at age fifteen (the owners of that notorious store that taught me all I know eventually went to federal prison), but with Valentine’s Day coming up, I will tell you what sort of jewelry scams are popular throughout the world now. And just to make it easy, I’ve boiled them down to ten basic maxims. Follow these simple rules, and you will never go wrong in buying luxury jewelry. You’ll even seem like an expert. And that’s rule number one, which I’ll give you for free: If you seem like you’re in the know, if you come off as someone who’s in the business, most jewelers will be hesitant to try to dupe you. Never act like this is your first—or even fifteenth—time in a jewelry store. You cannot be intimidated by your salesperson. You must be confident and in complete control. Better still, tell the salesperson you don’t know much about jewelry at all—and then let slip, through the tricks I teach you below, subtle hints that convince him you’re an expert in disguise. Then the dealer will suspect you are trying to dupe him. And he will fear you.
1. All colored stones are treated.
There is simply no such thing as a “natural”-colored gemstone, particularly not in a jewelry store, and certainly not if it’s been set in a piece of finished jewelry. (Incidentally, “finished jewelry” is a term you should remember: It means a piece that has been completely assembled, rather than, say, a ring setting that is still waiting for its center stone.) So if someone is telling you a stone is natural, you can smile and say, “Oh, it hasn’t even been heated?” Now your salesperson must either admit that it’s been heated or lie to you or simply reveal his incompetence. In any event, you have established your superiority. There are natural pearls, but they are so rare that you should insist on a certificate guaranteeing their authenticity (more on such certificates below) and only buy from an established business that specializes in natural pearls. The most respected jewelry stores and auction houses in the world have been fooled into selling cultured pearls as natural and into selling treated colored stones as untreated.
The King of the Pickpockets
The Snail is the best pickpocket in Ciudad Juárez. He’s stealthily snatched wallets and cash from politicians in Sonora, federal police officers in Durango, and undercover cops in Mexicali tasked with his arrest. If half his stories are true, he’s the best in Mexico, but that’s hard to say for certain. There’s no way to quantify achievements in petty theft, no Pickpocket Hall of Fame, but there was a time—if you believe him—when the Snail was so respected by the police that they let him go about his business undisturbed.
I found out about the Snail after I became interested in pickpockets—their stories, their ethics, their art of nonviolent robbery. I started asking people with ties to the criminal world whom I should talk to, and everyone from former beat cops to the pirated-DVD vendors on the street told me I needed to find the Snail, who they referred to as the “king of the pickpockets.”
I tracked him down and discovered he’s retired now, a dark-skinned man in his mid-50s running a soup kitchen on the El Paso border. He still receives gifts from old friends— cops and gangsters both—and a handful of glommers-on are always around to rub shoulders with greatness and pick up tips and tricks. One recent afternoon, I drove out to the kitchen to meet him.
I went to Shanghai with the idea that I might casually get laid. My loser low confidence—at bars, parties; any hook-up situation with which pensive celibates are obsessed—would finally be reprieved because I would be among “my people,” or so my racist preoccupation went. In the end I got scammed by two pretty ladies at a tea shop.
A True Rip-Off Artist
In 2009, I moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to New York City to “make it” as a photographer, a process that involved living in an apartment the size of a hallway with a view of a brick wall. I was broke, lonely, and desperate for work, when out of the blue I was contacted on Twitter by someone who went by the name C. S. Leigh.
Through the omniscient and infallible knowledge database that is Google, I learned that C. S. Leigh was a film director and a curator. An image search revealed photos of a balding, almost spherical man with black-rimmed glasses and a double chin. He told me he liked my stuff, and before long, I had agreed to take some photos for an art magazine he was putting out.
It seemed like the best thing that had ever happened to me. I did a fashion shoot featuring models in clothes from threeASFOUR and Chado Ralph Rucci and portraits of world-renowned perfumer Frédéric Malle and artist Meredyth Sparks. There was talk of my going to Paris and London for the Frieze Art Fair and Fashion Week, or perhaps attending Coachella to photograph bands for his magazine. It was as if C. S. had opened a door to the exclusive world of art and fashion and quietly slipped me into the front seat.
Riding the Dirty Dog: A Love Song to the Greyhound Underworld
In the 1957 Jayne Mansfield–heavy film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s mostly forgotten novel The Wayward Bus, an assistant mechanic named Kit Carson stands chatting with a lunch-counter girl with Hollywood ambitions in a little dusty Central Valley bus depot named Rebel Corners. “I wonder if there’s going to be any important people on the bus today,” the girl asks. “Important people,” Kit tells her, “don’t ride buses.”
Nelson Algren taxonomized the nonpeople he would run into while traveling in his bookNonconformity, written in the 1950s: “The pool shark hitchhiking to Miami or Seattle, the fruit pickers following the crops in the 1939 Chevy with one headlight gone and the other cracked… The ‘unemployed bartender,’ ‘unemployed short-order cook,’ ‘unemployed salesman,’ ‘unemployed model,’ ‘unemployed hostess,’ ‘self-styled actor,’ ‘self-styled artist,’ ‘self-styled musician’… Their names are the names of certain dreams from which the light has gone out.”
Turgenev and Herzen might have called these people “superfluous” Americans. The dregs of the American dream. Though seemingly dated, vanquished Beat-lit stereotypes, these hustlers, dealers, prostitutes, and “freelancing phonies” never really went away—they’re still here today, tucked on the back of a Greyhound bus.
Sometime in 2002, having dropped out of college and moved back home to North Carolina, unmoored and without job prospects or definite plans, I caught a chance ride to Fort Benning, Georgia, for a protest against the School of the Americas—the academy responsible for training all the Latin American paramilitaries and death squads. There, as frocked Catholic priests thrust themselves over the base’s ten-foot-high fence in nonviolent civil disobedience, I became friends with some young transients on their way down to Florida. After the protest ended, we caught a ride with a guy in a Buick, taking turns driving through the night. On a misty two-lane road in southern Georgia, a rural sheriff pulled us over and ran our IDs. One of the transients had an outstanding warrant and was taken to jail—his girlfriend was only 17, and apparently her parents didn’t approve. We drove around to three different ATMs to get bail money and made it to Gainesville the next morning, stumbling into Denny’s bleary-eyed with exhaustion.
There, as if by magic, an expired Greyhound Ameripass made its way into our hands. (I don’t remember how exactly, but I think these crusties got it from a friend of a friend.) For the uninitiated, the Ameripass was a reasonably affordable pass that got the buyer 30, 60, or 90 days of unlimited bus travel throughout the United States and Canada. Originally marketed toward European backpackers and students on a budget who wanted to wander cities and towns by day and sleep on the bus by night, the Ameripass offered a nice glimpse of the “real” America before being rebranded as the Discovery Pass and then permanently discontinued in 2012.
1 On April 1, Malcolm L. Shabazz was arrested at a bar in South Bend, Indiana, where he was visiting friends. “America is eating me alive,” he told his imam.
2 He returned to his hometown in the Hudson Valley and flew to Los Angeles to meet his friend Miguel Suarez.
3 Miguel, a 30-year-old undocumented immigrant and labor organizer, was deported from Oakland on April 18. Malcolm met him in Tijuana, hoping a trip south would inspire him to live up to his legacy as Malcolm X’s grandson.
4 Miguel and Malcolm took a two-day bus ride to Mexico City. They dreamed up a plan to unite black and brown people in Mexico and beyond.
5 On May 8, their plans—and Malcolm’s tumultuous life—were cut short after a bar scam they fell for went horribly wrong near the Plaza Garibaldi.
—Investigating the unsolved murder of Malcolm X’s grandson
How I Scored Visits to the Nicest Hotels in the World…for Free
In 2010, a friend of mine started a travel magazine and asked if she could publish an article I had written about a Kashmiri tailor, during a month I spent living on a houseboat in Kashmir.
I had stayed on the tailor’s boat during the winter, and I was the only guest. George Harrison had stayed there 47 years earlier, when he was studying the sitar with Ravi Shankar. I typed the piece on the hotel owner’s typewriter. But my friend who ran the magazine, a grifter like me, couldn’t pay real money. She compensated me instead with “hotel trades.”
She explained how it worked: I would approach independently owned hotels with a copy of her media kit and a proposal. In exchange for a two-night stay, I would write a 500-word review. She advised me to avoid big corporate hotels, because press people there had to go through so many chains of command they would often dismiss the request outright. “You need a small place,” my friend said, “where somebody can make the decision right there.” She added, “Don’t bother with inexpensive places. It’s bizarre, but the more expensive they are, the more likely they are to agree.”
I grew up in a state of financial volatility. Until I was 18 and my grandmother died, my grandfather would visit me and my mom at our home in Houston, from his mansion in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and for a week, money would flow like water. One Christmas, he saved all the money wrappers from the cash he’d spent and proudly put them in a photo album: they totaled $10,000. But then he would leave, the money would dry up, and we’d go from feast to famine. Sometimes, our lights, water, or phone would go out. Sometimes we’d spend $80 on tomatoes. Or my mom would spend $8,000 on Chinese antiquities, but we’d run out of gas on the way home. It wasn’t that bad, it was just crazy.