Twenty minutes after I picked up my mother at the El Plumerillo airport in Mendoza, Argentina, we heard a popping sound near the back of our rental car. When the Chevy Corsica began to drag, I slowed down. A man of about thirty, with curly black hair, a pale face, and wide, excited eyes jogged next to the passenger door, saying, in Spanish, “You have a flat tire!”
I pulled to the side of the road, one of Mendoza’s major thoroughfares. The man said he would help me fix the flat tire, the right rear. After I opened the trunk, we removed my mother’s bags—she had brought presents for my two daughters and my wife and a new computer for me—and put them in the back seat so we had access to the spare tire. I had changed tires in my life, but I was driving a rental car (a Budget sticker was plastered on the back windshield) and I wasn’t sure if the South American-made Corsica or its tire-changing equipment had any peculiarities. So I accepted the man’s help, expecting to pay him for his trouble. On every corner within sight, lavavidrios (squeegee pests) waited to make a few centavos. I figured he was one of them and had seen an opportunity to reap a greater windfall.
But I wasn’t convinced money was his sole aim, so I kept an eye on him as the two of us removed the lug nuts from the wheel and jacked up the Corsica. My mother, meanwhile, sat in the shade of a nearby elm tree. When the lug nuts were off and the car was raised, the man, his eyes still dancing—I thought he might be mentally ill or on drugs—said he needed another tool for the job. “I’ll grab it from my house,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” Before he left, he patted me on the back.
I removed the flat tire and put on the spare. I put on the lug nuts. I lowered the jack. I began to tighten the lug nuts. Where was our Good Samaritan? What tool did he think we needed? Although traffic streamed by and horns honked, the noise faded as the blood in my temples throbbed. Something was wrong, and I knew what it was even before I opened the rear door to discover my mother’s bags, as well as my backpack, which contained my and my daughters’ passports, gone. But even as my mother and I sat in the local police department and recited what we had lost to an indifferent officer, we didn’t understand how the man could have taken our stuff. Hadn’t we been watching him the entire time?
Later the same evening, however, we came up with a plausible theory: The man must have had accomplices in a car who at some point during the tire change had driven up next to our Corsica. I recalled the man ushering me away from the car’s back door before I could lock it. His accomplices had simply opened the back door, removed the bags and knapsack, and driven down the street, where our Good Samaritan met them for his getaway.
But how did they know we had anything in the trunk? Because they had followed us from the airport, of course. Perhaps they had targeted us from the moment my mother, gray-haired and in her sixties, had exited customs.
And who had popped our tire? They had, of course, with a knife or other sharp instrument as we waited in traffic. Their plan had worked masterfully. My mother and I had played the roles of gullible tourists exactly as they had wanted.
For days afterward, I replayed our encounter with the Good Samaritan, wondering why I hadn’t been savvier, more suspicious. Why hadn’t I read the intention on his face? Why hadn’t I seen nervousness, rather than mental illness or drug use, in his jittery expression?
My mother and I weren’t the Good Samaritan’s only marks. In subsequent weeks, the Mendoza newspapers reported on half a dozen incidents in which the tire of a vehicle rented at the airport was popped and, as the tire was being changed, computers, cameras, iPods, cell phones, passports, and money were stolen. I found guilty comfort in this. I wasn’t alone in my gullibility.
My wife, our two young daughters, and I had moved to Argentina in January of 2009, when my semester-long sabbatical from my university teaching job began. During our four-month stay, the country was experiencing a crisis of inseguridad, and the newspapers were filled with stories of violent robberies, rapes, and murders. In comparison, the Good Samaritan’s crimes appeared gentlemanly. One newspaper, Los Andes, wrote, with what bordered on admiration, “He commits his robberies in full daylight, without pointing a gun or even speaking a single malicious word!”
Eventually, the rental companies caught on to the Good Samaritan’s scam and began warning their customers. When a German couple had their tire popped near the airport, they drove on the damaged wheel until they were out of danger. After this, I read of no more Good Samaritan crimes.
What, I wondered, did he and his accomplices do next? Did they immediately concoct another scam? Did they turn to violent robberies? Or did they give up their lives of crime and find jobs?
I suspect it wasn’t the latter. Argentina’s unemployment rate, which had soared past 20 percent as recently as 2003, was in the mid-teens at the beginning of 2009. And even though the province of Mendoza, Argentina’s wine region, was the wealthiest in the country, one-third of Mendocinos were receiving some form of public assistance. Jobs for uneducated Argentines paid poorly. On the vineyard outside of the city where we were living, workers received two pesos (about 60 cents) to fill a plastic box with thirty pounds of grapes. If they worked quickly, they could fill four boxes in an hour. The country’s minimum wage had recently risen to 1,240 pesos ($350) a month, but two million Argentines (in a country of forty million) were employed in jobs exempt from minimum wage laws. It was no wonder crime seemed an attractive alternative.
The land my family and I were staying on belonged to my wife’s cousins, who lived in England and owned a chain of Argentine steakhouses in Europe. In addition to the small vineyard with a guesthouse, the property included a swimming pool and a pine tree with a resident white-faced owl. The four of us indulged in long, lazy dinners at the table under the guesthouse portico.
The property’s caretakers, a Peruvian couple named Pasqual and Maria, lived in a smaller house in front of ours. Pasqual did everything from trimming the hedges on the property’s perimeter to cleaning the swimming pool to handling the six bull mastiffs who patrolled the grounds at night. Every year, he made his own wine with grapes leftover after the harvest. Maria made jellies from damaged peaches she collected from a neighbor’s orchard. As with the Good Samaritan thief, Pasqual and Maria confronted their tough economic circumstances with creativity. Unlike the Good Samaritan, they did so legally.
In the United States, the economy was also struggling, its bleakness symbolized by bankrupt auto companies and white-collar hucksters. At the same time my mother and I met our Good Samaritan, stories about investor Bernard Madoff, who had run a $65 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in history, pervaded the Internet. To most of his marks, Madoff was far from a stranger on the side of a road. Indeed, to them he was “Uncle Bernie.” Madoff even stole millions from his best friend, someone he had known for thirty years.
Madoff came across as the ultimate Good Samaritan, someone to whom one could entrust one’s fortune and whose investment acumen ensured it would grow in both good times and bad. If greed motivated some of Madoff’s clients to sign over their entire life savings to him, so, too, did security. With guaranteed double-digit returns, Madoff’s investors could anticipate escalating levels of economic comfort. Madoff’s marks included some of the most successful people and institutions in the world such as Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg, and New York University. They also included men and women of more modest means—a physical therapist, a corrections officer, a real-estate broker—who had given Madoff every penny they had.
Suckers all. As I had proven to be.
A confession: I was once a con man. Or a con boy, since I was fourteen at the time. It was the summer of 1982, and my best friend, Eddie, and I owned and operated a carnival game called Jacob’s Ladder on the pier in Ocean City, Maryland. We’d seen the game at a Renaissance Festival the previous fall, and, with a loan from our parents, we bought a three-ladder model.
The object of the game was to climb two dozen rungs up a rotating rope ladder and ring a bell at the top. Winners received an enormous stuffed animal. But climbing the ladder was impossible without practice. It was simply too difficult to keep one’s balance. Time after time, climbers spun off the ladder and fell onto the inflated air mattress below.
Eddie and I had practiced climbing our ladder all spring, and once we set it up on the pier, we made the task look simple. We used our youth as part of our con. We would approach men who had their arms wrapped around their wives’ or girlfriends’ shoulders and say, “Don’t you want to win her a prize? Look—I’ll show you how easy it is. If I can do it, so can you.” And we would dash up the ladder like monkeys.
The men would hand over a dollar, step onto the ladder, and spin onto the mattress without having ascended a single rung. We would encourage them to try again. We would even give them a little instruction. They would hand over another dollar. And another.
If Eddie and I saw that a customer was becoming even modestly proficient at climbing the ladder—usually after he or she had spent twenty dollars or more—we would go behind the ladder’s net screen at the back and tighten the steel cords connecting the ladder to the base below the air mattress. A tighter ladder was even more difficult to climb. Sometimes Eddie and I tightened a ladder so much even we couldn’t make it to the top.
Another way we thwarted would-be prizewinners: As a customer ascended, one of us would hop on a free ladder, climb it quickly, then leap off, jarring the mattress and therefore the entire structure. At this point, the customer would usually lose his or her balance and tumble off. But they never complained. No doubt our youth shielded us from their suspicion.
In our eyes, the cost of our stuffed-animal prizes—twenty-two dollars wholesale—justified anything we did to keep them. During the entire summer, we surrendered only three stuffed animals. While we never popped anyone’s tires or stole property, we did deflate hundreds of egos and leave people’s wallets lighter. Eddie and I delighted in our craftiness and trickery. We called ourselves “carnies” and were happy to fulfill the stereotype. We were the heirs of P.T. Barnum.
The true carnies we worked with were mostly men in their twenties and thirties who hadn’t graduated from high school and spent eight months of the year on the road. When the summer was over, they would work in the pier owner’s traveling company, which ran the Maryland State Fair as well as smaller fairs across the Midwest and South. The men were amused by us; they were also impressed that we had the gumption—and the resources—to own our own concession.
On one occasion, Don, one of the men who ran the Super Himalaya, a high-speed backwards carousel, asked Eddie if he could borrow $50. Don was tall and blond, with a golden mustache and a ready smile. He had a girlfriend with long brown hair who wore tight-fitting jeans and looked, to my teenage eyes, like a movie star. At the time, I envied Don’s life. But now I wonder how he must have felt asking a fifteen-year-old for money. If Eddie was his best option for a loan, Don obviously moved in a far from affluent crowd. He did repay the loan, although much later than promised.
On the pier in Ocean City, Eddie and I grossed as much as $600 in a single day. Even after we gave forty percent of our earnings to the pier owner, we had a small fortune. I was thirty-four years old before I made as much money per hour in any other job I held.
Eddie and I imagined running our Jacob’s Ladder every summer until we graduated from college—hell, maybe every summer of our lives. But the following summer, the pier owner told us he had bought his own rope ladder. He would be happy, he said, if we would run it for him. He offered us fifteen percent of the gross—a pay cut, we quickly calculated, of seventy-five percent.
Eddie and I turned down his offer; we could have made the same amount of money bussing tables.
We’d been out-carnied by the boss. Our careers as conmen were over.
At the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, where my family and I applied for new passports, we were told about other scams perpetuated on Americans in the country. The most memorable: An American tourist walked into a bookstore, where a man in a pinstriped suit asked if he could check the tourist’s bag. The tourist handed it over. When the tourist finished shopping and returned for the bag, he discovered the bookstore had no bag check. Money, camera, iPod, passport—gone.
Throughout history, tourists have been easy targets for scams and worse. The experience my mother and I had in Argentina had a violent precursor in the United States. In April of 1993, a German tourist was robbed and murdered after leaving the Miami Airport when her rental car was bumped from behind and she stepped outside to inspect the damage. Five months later, another German tourist was killed in Miami in similar fashion. These weren’t isolated events. The previous year, 3000 “bump-and-rob” incidents occurred throughout the United States.
My mother and I had been fortunate our Good-Samaritan thief had relied on deception rather than guns. We were lucky in another respect: My mother’s insurance company covered all of our losses. She even received an extra thousand dollars from her credit-card company because she had bought the new computer on her card, which covered items lost or stolen within thirty days of purchase.
“I think I made out like…well…like a bandit,” she said.
Pasqual and Maria, the couple from Peru who looked after the property where we were staying, didn’t make enough money to own a car or pay for cable TV. For transportation, they relied on public buses. For health care, they depended on Argentina’s public hospitals. When the doctors in the public hospitals went on strike and Maria had terrible stomach pains, she couldn’t afford a private hospital. She had to wait until the strike was over. The strike lasted weeks.
When Maria was feeling better, we employed her to clean the guesthouse where we were living, paying her ten pesos an hour, as an Argentine friend had recommended.
The first time she cleaned the house, it took four hours.
The second time, it took five.
The third time, it took six and a half.
“Is the house growing?” my wife asked me, joking.
The vineyard manager had told us that Maria was “slow” and “simple.” But her ever-more-leisurely house-cleaning pace proved she’d mastered the art of working by the hour.
If Maria had reached a new record-high time with her next cleaning, I was prepared to suggest to her a flat fee. But six and a half hours proved the standard.
My daughters became close to Maria, joining her in harvesting peaches from the orchard next door and helping her hang laundry on the line behind our houses. One morning, when Maria invited them to her house, they noticed familiar objects on her tables and bureaus—broken crayons, old magazines from the States, a mate gourd with a faint odor of vinegar. All items we had thrown away.
At dinner the same evening, my daughters asked my wife and me why Maria was using things from our trash. I tried to put an environmental spin on it: “Because she likes to recycle.” But even my six-year-old wasn’t satisfied with my answer, so I added, “And because she’s poor.”
Afterwards, whenever we met someone new, my youngest daughter would ask, “Is he poor? Is she poor?”
“Are we poor?”
I had been poor only by association and proximity. My maternal grandfather often talked about how his ancestors had fled a potato famine in Ireland to come to the States. When my father was growing up, he lived with his mother and his grandmother in a one-bedroom house in Cleveland. His father, an alcoholic, had left the house when my father was eight and contributed nothing to my father’s rearing. If my father hadn’t earned a basketball scholarship to college, he never would have gone.
I had also seen poverty up close. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1990s, I visited the Guatemala City dump, where families lived in tents made of plastic bags and competed with wild dogs for food. For days afterwards, my shoes smelled of decay and something worse. Eventually I had to throw them away.
I hadn’t visited any Argentine garbage dumps, but on a trip to Buenos Aires, my family and I drove on a highway overlooking vast neighborhoods of shacks made of cardboard, rusted metal, and crooked sticks. I expected my youngest daughter to ask if the shack’s inhabitants were poor. But the answer was obvious, and she said nothing.
The economic inequality between rich and poor is most striking in countries such as Argentina and Guatemala because poverty in these countries is so dramatic. As heartbreaking as poverty is in the United States, poor families haven’t yet colonized our landfills. But while Argentina and Guatemala made a recent Gini Index list of the twenty countries with the most inequitable distribution of wealth (Namibia was first), the United States did not make the list of the top twenty—or even top thirty—countries with the fairest distribution of wealth. Denmark, Japan, Sweden, Ukraine, Croatia, and South Korea all distributed their wealth more equitably than the United States.
Certainly the American Dream has historically been nothing but a mirage for a certain segment of the U.S. population—African-Americans, for example—but it’s questionable whether it has become any more accessible over the years. From 1998 to 2008, according to the Gini Index, wealth inequality in the U.S. grew more disproportionate. Men and women, native or immigrant, who start with nothing are far more likely to remain with nothing rather than move up even to the next rung of the economic ladder. During the previous decade, only three percent of the country’s bottom twenty percent of income earners moved to the top twenty percent. The majority of the country’s poor have remained exactly where their parents were.
American Dream or American Scheme?
One hundred and forty-odd years after Karl Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital, the economic system his masterwork examined—and his more polemical works decried—is still functioning in most countries around the world, in one form or another. It isn’t, therefore, surprising that in countries such as Argentina, with its long- entrenched Peronist government, Marx’s ideas remain tantalizing alternatives to capitalism. No such Marxist enchantment exists in the U.S., whose economic inequalities would put a smile on the face of any Latin American oligarch. Decades of “Better Dead than Red” Cold War rhetoric have distorted and demonized his ideas, and the collapse of the Soviet Union has made them seem, at best, quaint. Besides, it’s difficult for U.S. workers to heed Marx’s call to unite when their unions have been dissolved and their jobs have vanished.
If Marx’s ideas have enjoyed a renaissance in Latin America, as evinced by recent leftist or left-leaning governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, they have yet to prove panaceas for long-standing economic ills. One of my Argentine friends told me he was stunned by the poverty he saw when he visited Venezuela in 2009 to play in a series of rugby matches. One of the fields he played on was surrounded by hills full of wooden shacks and cardboard houses. It seemed there were slums, he said, all the way to the sky. If this was the best face Venezuela could show the world, he said, imagine what it was hiding. Despite Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s belief that “socialism builds and capitalism destroys,” more than thirty-five percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line.
Utopias flourish only in rhetoric.
My maternal grandfather—he of the potato famine stories—was the most practical of men. He always knew where he could find the least expensive gallon of gas, and always brought a bag lunch to work—even when he was earning a high five-figure income. After he realized he couldn’t send his three children to college on a high-school football coach’s salary, he became an optometrist. He began setting aside money for my college education the day I was born.
But when my grandfather turned seventy, he dispensed with caution and astute calculation and began gambling like a madman. Perhaps he felt Time’s winged chariot at his back. Perhaps for him the nearness of death became a disinhibitor, the way poverty can push the otherwise law-abiding man or woman into crime. He lost $100,000 by investing with a “friend” who promised him a quick, handsome return and instead spent all my grandfather’s money on wine, women, and a luxury boat. And he began mailing off check after check to whatever sweepstakes offer came in the mail. Eventually, the sweepstakes scammers learned his phone number and called at all hours, promising easy millions and soliciting his credit card number. As dementia claimed him, my grandfather became convinced Ed McMahon was going to show up at his door any minute, bearing a check bigger than a birthday cake. “I don’t hear as well as I used to,” he told me one morning. “Please listen for the doorbell.”
We suckers keep waiting for the doorbell because we want to believe that good things will come our way. We want to believe in our fellow humans and the gifts they promise. We want to believe in the possibility of miracles and in the inviolability of even the most casual of covenants. We want to be rich—the faster the fortune, the better—because, darn it, we deserve it.
This makes us vulnerable and all too human.
Being a sucker is optimism with bad consequences.
Or perhaps it’s merely naïveté—or delusion—with predictable consequences.
The morning after my mother and I had had our bags stolen, I called the car rental agency to ask what I should do about the popped tire. I was told I should have it repaired at any convenient garage—and, per the rental agreement, at my expense. There was a gas station five minutes from our house. Attached to the gas station was a gomería, or tire repair facility, in a large, dark, concrete room. In Spanish, goma means rubber or glue, and the place had the sticky feel and smell of rubber and glue.
There was a single worker in the place, a dark-skinned man with oil, grease, and dirt on his uniform and on his arms and chin. The room was unventilated and unairconditioned. Sweat dampened his forehead and neck. He was working over a machine to pull a truck’s tire from its rim. The work looked dangerous; his fingers, I thought, could easily wind up being crushed between hard rubber and metal. He turned the machine off to come talk to me, and after I explained the problem, he said he would repair my tire next.
I sat on a bench in a corner of the room, alternately glancing at a magazine and watching him work. On a few occasions, boiling, I stepped outside to wait on a breeze. In twenty minutes, he was done with the truck tire. He spent the next twenty minutes on my job—separating tire from rim and patching the damaged tube. I’d indicated the two-and-a-half-inch knife slash in the tire, the debilitating blow struck by the Good Samaritan or one of his accomplices.
As the man finished fixing my tire, using the machine to restore the rim, I prepared myself to be ripped off. By my accented Spanish, if not from my appearance, he could tell I was an extranjero, someone who wasn’t at home in his country. We hadn’t agreed on a price—something I had meant to do—and now I wondered if he would ask for 100 pesos or more. At the same time, I wondered, as my youngest daughter might have, if he was poor or, rather, how poor he was. What his house looked like. What he ate for dinner.
He clicked his machine off and strode toward me with the repaired tire. He held it up to show me his work before leaning it against a wall.
“Okay?” he asked.
The tire looked fine. “Okay,” I said. Then, nervously, I asked, “How much?”
“Cinco,” he said.
“Cincuenta?” I asked. “Fifty?”
He shook his head. “Cinco,” he said.
I pulled a five-peso bill from my wallet and handed it to him. He thanked me and turned back to his machine and his work in the hot, rubber-smelling room.
I rolled my tire back out into the bright morning.