by C.T. Heaney
When a Seattle grifter and I parted ways late in January, I had expected to see her again shortly; after all, she was a familiar face on University Way, and I walked up and down that street almost every night. Week after week, she didn't show, and I wondered if she'd given up the game, or been collared. As it happened, more than two months passed before I would see her again, and our next encounter would not be in the University District, but in Ballard, a hip, bar-saturated neighborhood well west of the UW campus.
I had just alighted a bus and was on my way to see a concert on a Friday night, fighting foot traffic on a crowded sidewalk, when I caught sight of her passing almost directly in front of me. I cried out, "Chevelle!", and, perhaps bizarrely, she responded instantly to the impromptu nickname she had given herself when last I had seen her. We exchanged quick pleasantries, and when I asked how 'business' had been, she said she'd spent a month in Spokane, explaining her absence from the university scene. She confessed to having forgotten my name, and after I told her, she remarked that I hadn't actually given her my name in January, since we were both being rather coy about our personal details. In response - perhaps in the interest of fairness? - she told me her real name was Taylor. Chevelle, it turns out, was the name of an ex-boyfriend's dog.
She insisted I accompany her on a walk around to scope out a few new restaurants and saloons. Along the way was the venue where I planned to spend the evening. I had a ticket, and the show was due to start very soon, but the entrance line was "hella long", as she put it (she used the word "hella" no less than a dozen times that evening), so she suggested we stroll around a bit more, and in the span of perhaps fifteen minutes she had walked me around four blocks and given me mini-reviews on nearly every tavern, restaurant, sweets shop, and fitness center in the neighborhood. During this time, she filled every possible second with talk, unceasingly rattling off tidbits and opinions about whatever building we were passing by, as if silence were poisonous. She would read entire menus off of storefronts, the way one would do for a blind person. Chevelle - pardon, Taylor - has the gift of gab out of necessity, for her work, and I let her monopolize the topics of discussion for the time being. I was almost afraid to stop her.
Following one particularly lengthy evaluation of an ice cream store, I commented, "I feel like I just read the entire Ballard Yelp page", to which she chuckled and replied, "I'm on there." She appeared to mean that her con had been reviewed on the website (I was unable to verify this), and then proudly ticked off a list of publicity she had received - several blog posts and local news sites, including the Magnolia Voice, serving a ritzy neighborhood south of where we stood. I grinned, and made no mention of my own writeup; better to discover it for herself some day, I thought. She hadn't made it to the major dailies, nor to either of the city's two alternative weekly papers, as of yet, but with a jig this good, I can't imagine professional journalism will ignore it much longer.
As we doubled back toward the venue, she turned the conversational focus back to one of her favorite topics, her wardrobe. This evening she had her hair up again, with less makeup and more jewelry on (gaudy, faux-gem dangle earrings and a fat, sparkly necklace), and, as she told me, "$200 jeans and a $200 fleece." As she described it, she had bought the two articles of clothing for less than $100 total from a crack addict who steals regularly from retail stores and turns the goods around at extremely cut-rate prices to whomever he can. It sounded as if he were one of her better acquaintances. Taylor told me he had a high-powered magnet to help disable anti-theft devices. This evening she was also carrying an upper-end handbag - Gucci, $2,000 new, I was informed - that she'd noticed in a department store without a security tag. She doesn't usually steal things outright, she said...but this one she just couldn't resist; a store that careless with its high-end merch deserves to be taken advantage of.
The opening band was already in the middle of its set by this time, so we said goodbye, and she headed off to meet her new targets. I wished her 'good luck' wryly and got in line. Two and a half hours passed as I caught the tail end of the opening band and a raucous performance from a legendary New Orleans group, the Rebirth Brass Band. It was nearly 1 AM by the end of the encore, and I shuffled off to the bus stop. Taylor was already waiting there, hoping to catch the same bus. She'd hit her quota for the day, making slightly over $200 in the intervening time, and she suggested we buy something at an adjacent street cart so she could exchange her wad of ones for twenty-dollar bills. She must have been a regular at this stand, since she had a flurry of recommendations for everything they sold, and when the owner commented that he was always happy to get more small bills, I pondered whether he knew the scam, or whether he merely assumed she held a more honorable profession, like bartender, or stripper. She took the twenties, added them to the now-thin fold, and tucked them into her bra for safekeeping.
The bus we were both taking wasn't due for more than twenty minutes, so we decided to walk as we noshed, she on two hot dogs and I on a chicken-basil sausage. Though she hadn't done any hustling in Spokane, business had been very good since her return, and it seemed she still had no trouble with the authorities (there were three police cars parked around the bus stop when I arrived, and she had been standing in their midst nonchalantly.) She related with particular pride the story of a recent fellow who handed her a crisp hundred-dollar bill in response to her story - it was the first she'd ever gotten. Most folks will only give a few dollars or change, but there'd been ten or fifteen instances of fifties being handed over, and she couldn't count all the times she'd had a mark walk up to an ATM and hand her two twenties right out of a bank account.
The recurrence of $40 has to do with the details of the scam, which she recounted for me once again in greater depth. When she's pushing the full con, the story she gives that she just ran out of gas, and while she was looking for a filling station, someone ripped her purse out of her hands and ran off with it. To increase her trustworthiness, she would tell them she can show them her car and they can verify that it is out of gas (no one ever takes her up on this), and that she is thirty-eight dollars short of a tank to get her back to Bellingham (or wherever). This evening, of course, she was sporting her new bag, and so she had to amend the story slightly; tonight she had run out of gas, and when she asked a few guys for a push, they filched her wallet and all her debit cards out of the purse from inside the car.
Since she always mentions an exact dollar amount, the big-hearted among her marks will give her the full sum she claims she needs - in twenties, of course, because who carries around exactly thirty-eight dollars? It takes only five people to completely buy into the story to make her personal quota, and in one case she remembered hooking three in a row in the span of ten minutes ("quickest hundred-twenty bucks I ever made", she related). Some people who recognize they're being played give her money anyway, just because the pitch is so entertaining. She was particularly pleased at having once been told by another professional scam artist that her con was particularly well-executed and seemingly credible. There's no question the story is good - that's quantifiable, in dollars and cents - but winning the esteem of the guild appeared to be one of her finest personal accomplishments.
Our walk was long enough that we reached her transfer point on foot; we tarried a few minutes to finish our conversation, and my eastbound bus arrived before her southbound one. Taylor then wished me a casual goodbye with a warm smile, and I wondered whether our recurring interaction, such as it was, was one of the more honest acquaintanceships she had. In a life built around deception, what does it mean to be oneself? She'd been running this game so long that I doubt many people knew her outside of it. The 'fake story' is as much a part of her as the 'real story' - the fake story is the real story, in some sense, since it now consumes so much of her day and her energies to keep up. There is no outside of it, anymore.
As she walked away and I boarded the bus, I also marveled at how my interest in her backstory meant that I knew more about her than I did about anyone else I'd met in Seattle over the past nine months. I understood her better than people I saw every week or more, my classmates, housemates, and drinking buddies. It was all the more uncanny given that, in our last meeting, she essentially spent two hours repeatedly trying to pry three dollars from my bankroll. A strange way to make friends, I suppose.