By C.T. Heaney
I had been warned about her ahead of time.
Shortly after I began classes at the University of Washington, just north of Seattle's ship canal, I noticed printouts taped to the sides of lamp-posts, newspaper boxes, and parking kiosks along University Way--the major restaurant/bar avenue immediately west of campus. They shouted "BEWARE!" followed by a long paragraph about a young woman who insisted she had just come from out of town, her car wasn't running, and could anyone help her out with a little money to get back on the road. She's a scammer, the poster asserted, and she prowls the University District constantly, looking for marks. The poster's creator had heard her jawing on a cell phone after a particularly good haul, bragging about the expensive clothing she was planning to buy with it. Surely he'd also been hoodwinked; only revenge would make someone go through this much trouble to publicly shame her. There were dozens of these notices posted up and down the street, and I moved on smiling without much more thought.
Sure enough, I was headed home one weekend evening a few days later, and was approached from across the street by a college-aged young lady. She asked if I could help her with some gas money; she'd moved here only three days ago, lost her wallet, and her car wouldn't start.
"You're the one," I said. "You're her. It's real!"
"What are you talking about," she replied dully. I informed her about the bad press she'd received, though surely she knew already. She kept up face for a few questions, but when I definitively said I wouldn't give her any money, she sighed heavily and moved on.
Several weeks afterward, I left a bar on University Way after midnight, none too sober, and she found me again. She didn't recognize me. "Excuse me, I just got to Seattle, I've been here three days, and my car ran out of gas, so do you think you could help me out?" I was too incoherent to properly interrogate her, but I tried to ask pointed questions about the specifics, which she rebuffed with a constant patter of "What are you talking about"s. She didn't walk away, but presently I did, in search of donuts and slumber.
Two months passed. An acquaintance and I left our regular Tuesday night pub quiz, pleasantly buzzed, and were walking home when a familiar voice called out to us from behind. "Excuse me," it said, and my face lit up as I turned and saw her for yet a third time. Each time I met her, she had essentially the same look. She kept her light brown, wildly curly hair pulled straight back, and wore a smattering of mascara, just enough to sharpen focus on her pale eyes without distracting. She had on flared jeans and an unremarkable top, a pullover or hoodie that hid her figure; in her business, I imagined, seeming sexy could be a liability. Good eye contact (again, an essential in this line of work), and not unpretty, though her teeth were set wide in a gummy smile that didn't flatter her. Ultimately, she was ordinary-looking, resolutely so - someone who would have effortlessly melted into the college backdrop if she needed to.
She was becoming rather a regular character in my life, and I was in an exceptionally good mood; why not run with this for a little while? I waved off my acquaintance, who headed home, and started calling out the huckstress at her own game. I repeated her lines before she had a chance to get them out, and followed with a flurry of fascinated questions. What kind of people did she meet doing it? Was it some sort of human observation project, or just an old-time con? Was she a budding sociologist, probing people's responses to staged deceptions? She blustered for a few minutes, asserting her story again and again, and repeating stone-facedly, as if it were a mantra, "I don't know what you're talking about." But something kept her there. After all, she could have just left, but she doggedly stuck to the script as we walked up University Way and I pressed her on details. Where'd you come from? How long had you been in the city? Where did you live before then? She fired back, and quickly, with the stock answers, but I could tell the repetition was starting to wear her down. I asked, did she grow up in Seattle, or somewhere else in the country? She knew she was losing the battle, and her answers got wilder - she wasn't born here, she was born in Belgium. Oh? So, were you an army baby? Your English is perfect, surely it must have been your first language? "No, actually, my first language was Chinese." At this, she cracked a smile, almost despite herself. I pressed her again, if she'd lived in the city for three days, where had she found a place? "In the northwest." Oh, up by Fauntleroy Way? "Fauntleroy Way is in the southwest!", she retorted, and at this point definitively gave up the ghost. We both knew how unlikely it was that someone who'd spent three days in north Seattle would know where Fauntleroy Way was.
Still, she remained, and started answering my questions - perhaps not honestly, but at least without the patina of bullshit. She wasn't from Belgium, of course, but was a Seattle native, and had lived here most of her life (aside from a short period in Idaho). Her apartment was, indeed, in the northwest of the city - she was vague about exactly where, but from what she hinted, it was probably in Ballard, Crown Hill, or Greenwood. Naturally, she didn't offer her name, but I insisted I'd need some sort of moniker, just for the sake of conversation, so she told me I should just call her "Chevelle". (There wasn't a car of that model near us at the time, and she said she was no fan of the rock band, so I'm at a loss to explain why she chose it). Chevelle claimed to be 22 years old (which looked about right) and had an associate's degree, obtained through a special high-school program which granted her a high school diploma and the degree at age eighteen. She had a day job, a clerical position at an unnamed place that sounded like a Fedex-Kinko's, but seven days a week, she spent her evenings around grocery stores, campus spots, and restaurant strips, hustling the story about just getting into town and running dead out of gas.
We walked up and down University Way in much the same way she would have done in my absence, but Chevelle never told me to get lost. She seemed to relish the attention, and perhaps thought that, eventually, I'd decide the story of her "real life" was interesting enough to merit relinquishing the few dollars that I'd been unwilling to fork over on the basis of the con. Twice she pointedly paused our conversation and asked me for three bucks, for the sake of making her quota for the evening. The second time she did so, she was in the midst of straightening bills against a fat wad of fives and ones, the day's earnings. We had just walked out of Safeway, where she had cashed a roll of quarters and the rest of her accumulated coins into the change machine (somebody, she stated with showman's pride, had handed her his laundry money).
Did people often recognize her? Of course, all the time. She worked the same spots over and over, and became a familiar face to some, but there was enough traffic and turnover to keep the place reliably lucrative, so she saw no reason to quit the area. Did she get yelled at? Sure. Sometimes she'd hear self-righteous tirades from people who'd been suckered before. She didn't like to work past 1:30, because drunk people get angry and rarely give up any dough. Did she fear the cops? No, not in the slightest. We walked by two police cars and she casually scoffed when I asked if she ever experienced trouble with John Q. Law. She said the cops knew her, but what could they do? They had no case. (This is a friendly city to beggars, and what she was doing was, in effect, more of the same; what could they book her for that would stick?) She said she'd been confronted by one woman cop, who told her, "I know what you're doing, and I don't like it," but simply told her to scram.
Chevelle was audacious, in both the positive and negative senses of the word, since she grifted without fear of discovery, prosecution, or retribution, boldly and confidently playing the trick day after day. Occasionally, she bragged smugly, she'd managed to play folks multiple times, after convicing them she'd never met them before. So far as I could tell, she had no compunction about stopping strangers for anything, even as my presence prevented her from completing her immediate task. She asked several passersby for the time and for cigarettes. She waved to a fellow across the street who was a regular panhandler on 45th, remarking that she didn't like to compete in his territory, as a matter of professional courtesy. She even stopped one passing girl to ask if they'd attended the same local middle school. They had, but there was little to say beyond that, and they quickly waved goodbye. Not a good mark, after all.
Chevelle kept to a schedule of sorts. Every Monday, she plied the suburb of Bellevue (she took a city class there on - of all things - self-improvement). She switched things up on other days, but had a list of regular spots: the University Village shopping center, the QFC supermarket in Wallingford, Northgate Mall. I asked, did she ever work the downtown? Never, she replied; she wouldn't work any farther south than lower Queen Anne, just up from the Space Needle. The best money was farther north, in places like Wedgwood and Sand Point. A supermarket parking lot in those neighborhoods, full of wealthy, well-educated, middle-aged, compassionate progressives, was a gold mine. Some nights, so much poured in that she would set multiple quotas for herself; she'd work a block for $100, and then change spots and shoot for $200 at the next spot. She ballparked that the con alone was bringing her as much as $12,800 a month, which would push her into six figures annually. The math of it didn't quite work out, and she was probably embellishing, but if she was pulling in even so little as $200 a night, six days a week, it works out to over $60,000 a year, all tax-free.
What did she do with it all? She bought stuff, of course, but not quite in the way I'd expected. Not drugs, nor booze (she declared she'd quit drinking cold turkey after it got to be a problem). The poster, it turns out, was absolutely right - she told me she was wearing $200 shoes and $200 jeans, and had purchased a considerable wardrobe with her gains. But with a day job, and a 7-day-a-week night beat, did she ever have time to enjoy herself? That wasn't what drove her; what drove her was the game itself. What drove her was working the trick, refining it to make ever more money. "It's a proven fact and statistic," she informed me, that people are more likely to give money to people who look nicer. They hand over nickels to the frowzy homeless; they plunk down twenties to help a clean-cut young woman in a temporary bind. So she kept stylish. She felt she had a knack for fashion, and eventually wanted to go back to school for fashion and business, perhaps when she got too old for the gig, or tired of it. This job, after all, was bringing in a comfortable nest egg, since all she seemed to spend it on was clothing, rent, and transportation. She claimed to have a '96 Benz, with 110,000 miles on it, but the car she had that day (a friend's, I was told) was a sputtering, mid-nineties Crown Vic that reminded me of nothing more than the Peanuts character Pigpen. Her Mercedes wasn't registered in her own name, adding another layer of protection in case somebody decided to follow her and get down her plate numbers.
By midnight, she'd made a call to a friend and arranged to meet up. We walked back to her car, and she asked me once more if I could throw her a few extra dollars for her spent time. For the third time, I smirked and replied, "Are you trying to hustle me?" Perhaps I should have been a bit more magnanimous - after all, we had been talking for almost two hours. As she pulled out her keys, she decided to try one last con, right in front of me, on a young lady jaywalking past the Crown Vic's trunk. "Excuse me, I've been in town for three days and I just need a few dollars because my car ran out of gas...do you think you could help me?" The lady replied, "Sorry, all I've got is my EBT card...", and after fishing in her pockets for a few seconds, she held out her hand. "Here's four cents, sorry...but it's all I can do." Chevelle took the pennies with a curt thanks, climbed into the car, and drove away.