The Con

The day started inauspiciously enough. Becki had met an Australian guy the day before who was taking her out for the day (night!?!). We had been traveling for over 7 months and had been in London for over 2 weeks, so had long since passed the phase of needing to be glued to each other’s side. Actually I’m not sure we ever went through that phase. We were both small town mid-western girls, rooted firmly in the belief that nothing bad could ever happen to us. In retrospect I envision us like a couple of female Mr. Magoos…knives zipping past our ears, bullets whining overhead, vicious beasts snapping at our heals, all without any awareness by us.

We were staying in a small hotel run by 2 Irish wolfhounds and their humans, a couple of Aussies. They catered to Aussies, New Zealanders and the occasional Canadian or American.

Though I had graduated from college 10 months earlier and had had no job for almost 8 months, I still woke up with that sinking feeling of having missed an exam or overslept for work. After dropping back into bed, a smile would appear as I contemplated my absolute freedom…I had no place I had to be and nothing I had to do. This was the prevailing feeling that I recall on that morning. I moseyed down to the American Express office to check for mail, then strolled aimlessly trying to decide how to spend the day.

I wandered into a café for a bite to eat. Two men, at least 10 years my senior, began chatting me up. Neither was dating material…I had been appalled to find out the German man I had been seeing in Munich was 8 years my senior, so these guys were well past my emotional age limit; they must have been at least 35! However, they were friendly and interested in me so I had no problem chatting them back.

They invited me to sit at their table, which I did. They then proceeded to enlist me in a smuggling ring, sneaking Swiss watches into England without paying duty. I was stunned and excited. I now knew how I was going to spend the day: I would infiltrate and crack an international smuggling ring and then I, as a newly graduated journalism major, would have an incredible story. I could sell it to the London papers, plus I was sure the Wisconsin papers would be so proud of their native daughter they too would pay to publish my adventure. Visions of an international journalism career danced in my head.

I was given a code name, Pat McLaughlin, and the con was on. They told me the woman who normally made the pick-up was sick. All I needed to do was enter the women’s restroom in a specific underground train station, where there would be a man cleaning the bathroom (culture shock!: a man would be cleaning the women’s bathroom while women were using it! Would anyone be able to poop with a man in the room! I managed to hold my features as still as possible and pretend this didn’t blow me away…journalists need to be hip at all times, even in the face of such shocking news.)

I was supposed to say the code words “green cue” to this man and he would hand me a bag with the watches. The watches would all have tags on them. Some would be yellow, some green, some blue, some red. My payment was to be a watch with a yellow tag which I was to take at this time. They didn’t know how little I lusted after watches having never worn one in my life…good grief! maybe they noticed that I had no watch and this inspired the entire con! (Aside: watches have never kept time on me; I have noticed in recent years, though, that my cell phone is always correct…I know I know, different technology.)

They told me my contact in the bathroom had a bad twitch, but to pretend not to notice it as he was sensitive about it. My gawd—did they think I’d been raised by farm animals!? Of course I wouldn’t mention the man’s twitch!

Timing was the big issue of the day…or so I thought. The really big issue of the day was how they were going to part me from my money.

We took cabs all over London, from tube station to tube station, trying to contact the “Big Man.” First one of the men would get into the cab, then I’d get in, then the other guy would get in. The guy on my right would then reach up and slide the window closed between us and the driver. They would then quiz me on my instructions: Pat McLaughlin, guy with a twitch, don’t notice the twitch, green cue.

We’d stop in cafes in tube stations and the guy that sat on my right…I wish I could remember their code names, let’s call the guy that sat on my left Snake and on my right, Worm. Worm would leave Snake and me (Pat McLaughlin) at the table while he went to call the “Big Man.” I now firmly believe he had to leave because it was impossible for him to keep a straight face: he had to go off and giggle for awhile…the WORM!

Now, how did they get my money? They wrote down all the numbers of my travelers’ checks, then told me I had to cash them as they needed the numbers of the bills I got in return for the checks. They then wanted to exchange my money for the same amount of their money. This was somehow going to prove that I was involved in the entire plot so I couldn’t go to the police. I didn’t want to go to the police…I wanted to go to the newspapers. I had another secret code name I hadn’t revealed to them: Lois Lane.
It took some convincing to get me to do this…that’s why this con took all day and we took so many cab rides. But in the end, I figured no matter what they had on me, I could convince the newspapers I was innocent and together we’d publish an incredible expose.

But just at the moment when I was agreeing to the money exchange, Worm came back from a call to the Big Man and said the guy with the twitch, don’t notice the twitch, was in the bathroom and we had to move quickly. Hurry Hurry Hurry! We exchanged money and I ran to the bathroom.

As soon as I got in there I realized I was in trouble. There was a man in the women’s bathroom cleaning the sinks, but he was black and had no discernible twitch. If they mentioned the twitch, wouldn’t they have mentioned he was BLACK? I dashed outside but the boys, Snake and Worm, were gone.

Hope springs eternal in the human heart, probably because the brain is filled with the fluff of our own stupidity and hope has sunk to the heart. I went back into the bathroom, sidled up next to the man (the black man with no twitch) cleaning the sink, began washing my hands at the adjacent sink and whispered “green cue” out of the side of my mouth. He didn’t respond. I whispered it louder, making eye contact this time. A look of alarm appeared on his face, but I persevered. This time I dropped all pretense of a whisper and snarled “green cue” at him. He backed away from me, saying (in a Cockney accent I might add, which briefly distracted me as it was the first time I had ever heard a black man speak with that accent) “whatdya want, do you speak English?” Speak English! I’m an American from America!! Should I have said verdigris pool stick! No time to discuss this…tears are on their way.

I ran back outside and began to cry. I still hadn’t reached in my pocket to see what my new money looked like. Slowly I pulled out the bills. They weren’t British Pounds, surprise surprise. They were called Pengas and were printed in Budapest in 1946. My father confirmed that they were worthless a year later when the heat of my humiliation had cooled enough for me to relay the story to him and my mother…which is a story in and of itself.

One would think that not much more could happen in a 24-hour period, but one would be wrong if one thought that. I was now basically penniless in a foreign country, wouldn’t it be prudent to go back to the hotel and wait for Becki? Prudence, however, is not a name to which I answer! Ah, but that’s a story for another day.

    • Ruth Curtiss
    • July 19th, 2010

    Sarah, how well I remember that trip of yours and our meeting you in Ireland, I think it was. When you gave us the sanitized version of how your money was exchanged for pengas we couldn’t believe you were so naive. A friend you had met in Germany later told us he tried to warn you that you couldn’t trust strangers as you seemed to feel there was no reason anyone would want to hurt you. It was a rather expensive lesson. I don’t think you have exchanged foreign money since for anyone. Love Mom.

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