Liar, Liar

My almost friend John was duplicitous by nature. If you asked him where he came from, he’d tell you Natick once and Framingham the next time. When confronted with the duplicity, he’d calmly explain that he was born in one but grew up in the other—sincerity dripping from his replies. We liked him otherwise, so we avoided asking questions like which way was north or where the sun went after sundown.

Why did we allow him to hang around? Well, being a crooked grifter, he knew the lines of other crooked grifters. Sitting around watching the evening news with him was an absolute howl. A clip of a politician would come on, and Senator Stilldumb would speak about his new anti-something initiative. John would simultaneously translate what he truly meant and how the senator’s nephew would profit from it. Some beer and chips, and you had an evening’s entertainment.

We lost track of John during the Nixon years; a senator hired him as a speech writer. The evening news has never been the same since.


Car salespeople and members of Congress are tied for the number one spot on the least trusted profession listing. I was amazed because I had clergy and lawyers pegged for the bottom of the ethical barrel picks. But it’s not wrong to discover that my choices don’t align with the polls; after all, the standards for the most blatant chicanery keep evolving. Just think, a century ago, bunco’s and cons had to get out and extort money in person. Now they do it by email and TikTok.
I know an almost friend who proudly confesses to being a professional con artist. When I first met him in the 1960s, he had an insurance racket on Boston Beacon Hill. He had standards. He never defrauded old ladies, widows, or families with young children. Eventually, he moved into more lucrative pastimes, resort area real estate, high-risk investments, and hi-tech. Ultimately John succumbed to the lure of big money and went into politics, first as a Congressional aide and then serving two terms in Congress.
John retired to Florida and lived there peaceably for some years, but last Christmas, the card arrived with a note saying he was thinking of moving back to New England; sharing a state with two inept, incompetent con artists like Trump and Desantis was beginning to irritate him. Not only were they willing to defraud widows, old ladies, and families with children, but one of them was dumb enough to take on Mickey Mouse. After all, this luminary of the Con stated, “In Florida, you don’t fight Sugar, Tourism, or Disney.” “Standards,” he said, “it’s all about standards. It’s sad to see my old profession represented by such idiots. Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware. And Lou, the next big area of growth for cons will be climate change. Bigger than solar, easier than natural food or supplements. Hey, I can get you in on the ground floor!”

At that point, I stopped reading. I am neither a widower, have small children, nor an old lady. And once a con artist, always a con artist.

The Art of the Con

It’s too easy on a sunny afternoon to entertain a bit of whimsical fallacy; It’s so lovely. How could winter ever come again…it’s just a bad dream. Of course, we know this is a delusion, but the burgeoning summer afternoon is so soft and comforting that it’s much easier to live in the dream.
It is much easier to lie there rather than bustle about stacking the winter firewood, canning, freezing, and drying the garden’s bounty.

My almost friend John, the con man, assured me that this little parable was the basis of many of his best cons. People didn’t want to face the consequences of inaction. And would gladly support the dream even when common sense said the whole thing was a con. Then he’d snicker and mention that Mark Twain had pointed out that common sense was not too common.
Eventually, he decided that politics was the ultimate con. The delusion was that politicians were elected to “do the people’s work.” First, he went to Washington as an aide to a congressman; then, he was elected to two terms. He later decided that the safe money would be working as a political consultant. He did well at it for many years before retiring.

John caught up with me over the holidays when things were slow. He mentioned that he wished that social media and Fox News had been around in his time. But he said that there was a tremendous amount of artless idiocy out there. You had to work a bit at making people believe your lies in his time. Now it was as though they’d believe any old BS. He shook his head and told me there is a particular pleasure to be taken from a well-executed con. But now all you had to do was have a bad hair job, be pugnacious, and repeat the lie often enough that people took it as truth.

There was no art in it anymore. No art. Sad.

Mercury Retrograde

” and Mercury is retrograde this month. For you, this implies prolific opportunities. An excellent month to reinvest your portfolio, but you must be careful in matters of the heart – I’m sorry. But there is an elevated chance for sorrow. The stars are not clear on this…Is it Joseph? Yes, there are great opportunities and significant risks involved with…Joeseph…yes, that’s who I think it is.
Don’t miss the opportunity to thrive this month in the areas where we can see the promising avenue of hope; profit through investment and improved health. Remember, your attribute is the Spring Lamb. So much opportunity if all is carefully evaluated.”

I listened as John crooned in that soothing and comforting voice he uses on his Marks, I mean customers. He considered each meeting a counseling opportunity to guide his sheep towards the fleecing; I mean towards enlightenment. These sessions were always free. In two weeks, there would be another one for which the sheep made a “goodwill” payment. After that, he made his money further down the line when the trust was high enough that his line of investment opportunities became attractive to the willing and the trusting. Because the willing and the gullible paid so well, John was living well. A lovely apartment on the good side of Beacon Hill, tailored suits, a nice car, and a girlfriend who expected fine dining.
He maintained that his fees were low enough that nobody had felt their hide too exposed from the gentle fleecing. “The key, Wes, is not to be greedy. Most of my advice is commonsense for most people, and the best I can garner from self-help books. My investments are all sound and safe – what my investment guy tells me to buy. It’s easy.”

This lucrative con lasted until John’s “investment guy” decamped with all the funds and left John holding the bag.

Even a con artist can be conned.


The story goes this way; P.T.Barnum’s exhibit was so successful that people crowded in and didn’t leave. Unfortunately, this left many folks stuck at the ingress, the entrance, waiting to see the exhibition. The answer was a prominent and colorful sign with an arrow pointing to a curtained doorway. It read in bold letters – This way to the EGRESS!

Even the dullest customers were eager to see the famous EGRESS and promptly passed through the door, only to find themselves on the New York City alleyway behind Barnum’s exhibit. Old P.T did well with this being it allowed more paying customers to pile in. Which perhaps led Barnum to coin the most famous line he is credited with about a sucker being born every moment.

Barnum was undoubtedly the main hero of our not-quite friend John the conman. He’d talk glowingly about Ponzi as the financial prophet of future cons. Still, Barnum not only succeeded as a conman but ended up as a pillar of the community -a member of the Connecticut State Legislature, Mayor of a city, and benefactor of humankind. John took this as proof that not all that starts wifty winds up bad. ” not all ill winds blow nobody good. Some wind up doing well.” And that, after all, was what our con artist associate aimed for ” doing well while doing good.” somehow, he never caught the irony inherent in that bit of wit.

After many petty cons schemes, including classics like the pigeon drop, selling fake gold bars, and the like. He started looking for something at least quasi-legal ( meaning unregulated) and lucrative. Over supper one night, he declared that nutritional supplements were just the thing.
There was weak government oversight, almost no one checking on claims, and millions believed that the next nutritional supplement would add that glow of youth everyone sought. The key was to find something cheap, chemically inert, and capable of being put into a standard gelatin capsule.

So that evening, we all sat around, taking this as a joke, and made wild suggestion after wild suggestion. All were shot down for reasons practical or chemical. Until I belched, and then said, “that’s it – air. You don’t even have to fill the capsule, just package them and advertise them as say” at that point, I belched again, ” Volcanic air. it has special healing characteristics!”
Everyone sat up, looked at me, and said, ” too stupid.” Everyone except John. John smiled and insisted it was sheer genius, cheap, safe, and potentially lucrative.

The next day he went to a printer and had boxes made up for “Geniune Air of Vesuvius. The micro-elemental aid in balancing your body’s biochemistry.”

Offering to buy several cases of beer, John once again gathered his “brain trust” to dream up the copy for the brochure. Somewhere into the third case, we had hammered out several paragraphs on how modern urban life deprived the body’s chemical balance of essential microelements essential to longevity, sexual prowess, and mental acuity. The air of Vesuvius was gathered at the source in Italy and other volcanic locations. Volcanic air had been long acknowledged as the source of these vital microelements needed by the body. Now you could gain the health secrets of the ancients without risk in a tiny daily pill.

So that was the beginning. John did well while doing no actual harm. He contributed a share of his profits to charitable causes in his hometown and ran for office.

Every year a check rolls in. My share of the royalties for “Genuine Air of Vesuvius.” I should feel guilty about profiting from selling hot air, or even decry my own lack of ethics , but after all, it’s only fake hot air.


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.

John’s Art Of The Con

In my early adult years, I moved around, plying the trade of a Pious Itinerant. To wit, I was a folksinger. I first performed in coffeehouses in New York’s Greenwich Village, but moved on to Boston, New Hampshire, Philadelphia, D.C., Maine, and importantly for this story, Baltimore.
Baltimore was an essential stop in my periodic ramblings not because the coffeehouse scene was so good for me, but because some of my best friends lived there. Bob and Chris had a house open to all wanderers. Life at their home in the ’60s was exciting. There were political radicals of all stripes, folkies like me, artists, and lots of people who just wandered in. Chris was the emotional den mother of this band of unlikely cohabitors. Almost anything could happen during a night of round-robin folksinging, political discussion, and sometimes body ( and bawdy) art.
An occasional visitor was John, no known last name, no known previous residence. John was a self-declared “artiste of the con.” He claimed to be so good that he had run a successful rent scam on several of the disreputable fortune-telling parlors downtown. He convinced them, in his tale, to pay their rent to him after convincing them that he had purchased the properties. He’d go to city records to get some official-looking public documents for their specific addresses and convince the fortuneteller to fork over their rents. The con was a onetime only scam, but lucrative. It was also dangerous; some of those folks played rough when they discovered they’d been conned. I believe that was what led to John’s sudden departure from Baltimore.
Before John split town, he decided during one night of alcoholic fug to impart to me what he humbly called “John’s Art of the Con.”

1.) A good con artist enrolls the fish in the scam. The fish becomes a collaborator. If and when the swindle collapses, the fish is too embarrassed to turn in the artiste.

2.) Be honest in all the little things; this lowers the level of suspicion when you tell a whopper. A corollary to this is that a half-truth is much more effective than a whole lie.

3.) Be generous. Gifts to charity help establish your bone fides as a pillar of the community and place you above suspicion.

4.) Don’t be greedy. Most scams artists get caught because they don’t know when to stop.

5.) Don’t involve family or close friends; you need them for protective cover when things go south.

There were others, but considering the amount of beer consumed that evening I am surprised that I remember these.
The one rule that truly stuck with me was number one because it was later confirmed by people who had worked in the intelligence field.
Conversations with a colleague working in criminal justice and a friend in corrections suggested that few career criminals have the discipline needed to apply the rules coherently or consistently. This explains why so many “smart” criminals are in prison, as my C.O. friend points out.

That’s where it pretty much rested until the mid-’90s. I was traveling into the Mid-Atlantic for an in-water boat show. After setting up the afternoon before the show started, I retreated to my hotel room for a shower and a nap before dinner. I rarely watch T.V., but when I travel, I’ll turn on the hotel set to see if I’m missing anything. That afternoon I was surprised. The spokesperson for a Congressman was making an announcement about the Congressman’s upcoming reelection bid. It had been thirty years, but there was something about the guy that seemed familiar. The hair was thinner, there were jowls and about twenty excess pounds around the waist. But, the diction, the facial expressions, the choice of words, and the hand gestures were all John.
John was one of the smart ones. He had latched onto a long-running scam with a low conviction rate.
It was really our fault. We had thought John was a petty scam artist. In fact, he had higher aspirations.

%d bloggers like this: