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.