Our not-quite friend, John, was a professional con man. How did he qualify to be a not quite friend? Well, I’m not sure that any of us knew. He showed up at a party, joined us for drinks at the Harvard Garden’s, and offered free and sound advice on being scammed. Notably, he never attempted to scam us. He was entertaining to have around but difficult to trust for apparent reasons. He was always eager to have an audience, and it would have been boorish of us to decline free beer. So he always stayed a not-quite friend.
He regaled us with tales of his success. However, he always maintained that a good con depended on the willing participation of the pigeon. Greed and vanity, he held separated more people from their money than any stick-up in a dark alley. Over the years, he had separated people from money selling cheap carpet as rare illegally imported Persian – that he needed to move quickly. He had also sold suspiciously expensive insurance at steep discounts because it was “Bank Week,” and he needed to clear his debenture book.
He maintained that the wealthy were the easiest to con and the most remunerative to take. Their tender egos were easily beguiled, and their suspicions hushed.
His most recent con was a rejuvenating cream he was peddling at “exclusive” events at local beauty salons. John maintained that beauty was the original hustle and dated back to Egypt and Rome. His sales brochure claimed his recipe was derived from the beauty potions of Cleopatra. The recipe had been passed on to the famous beauties of the Renaissance. Through a friend at Harvard’s Widener Library, they had decoded an ancient text that was the sole remaining recipe of the famous formula. The hook was that they were test marketing it in Boston before going into nationwide distribution.
Several of us remarked that women would do anything to look beautiful. John laughed at this and replied that many of his best customers were men. The pressure to maintain a youthful appearance knew no sexual boundary. The males just kept quiet about their cosmetics. More than one forty-year-old executive had been introduced to John through his wife. He just packaged the product differently and used a different scent – “more manly.”

We lost track of John for a few months, but he was fresh in from London and professionally dressed by a “bespoke” tailor when he next showed up. He mentioned that he had sold his formula to a Swiss cosmetics maker and was temporarily in retirement while seeking new adventures. Our translation was that he was running through the money, and when he was broke, he’d be hustling again.

You can still buy John’s secret of the ages cosmetics in various forms; it was only a cream base with some “proprietary” additions. But, unfortunately, it’s costly and available only in limited small quantities. Unique formulations are available for the active male as skin restoratives.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “There is an optical illusion about every person we meet.” This may not be precisely what he was alluding to, but it sure seems to fit.

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