Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Shady Characters 1

A comment asked about how I met Ron, and if I meet more than my fair share of shady characters. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what share is fair. All of us get letters from Nigeria (I don't bother to post those), offers of cheap software, watches, medications, and other temptations. I try to report incidents that, I hope, are a little unusual. All are strictly factual.

While this is about my peregrinations around Dubai, and some of the characters I've met, I don't really associate shady characters with Dubai or this part of the world.

I grew up in a small village, and, my last year in school, I signed up for the senior trip to the nearest large city. This was, of course, in another country and another era.

The bus let us off about 7:00 p.m., and it was already dark. We were told to be back before 10:00 p.m. or we'd be left in the city. In about five minutes, I had gotten separated from the other school children and found myself, for the first time, alone in a large city, though not, in the opinion of the school authorities, a dangerous one. I remember wondering what I could do at 7:00 p.m., and was very pleasantly surprised to find that all the stores stayed open until 9:00 p.m. In my village, back then, every store closed at 5:30 p.m. sharp. I started to explore, being careful I could make my way back to my bus before 10:00 p.m.

A young man came running around a corner. He was breathing hard, as if he was nearing the end of a marathon. He came up to me, stopped, and showed me a watch. He held up the price tag: US$499. Allowing for inflation, today that watch would be worth at least several thousand dollars, possibly more than $10,000.

'How much you give me for dis watch?'

'I already have a watch, thanks.'

'I sell it fo' one hundred dolla.'

'No thanks.'

'Fifty dolla. You see da price tag. Dis a five hundred dolla watch.'

'Sorry, no.'

He disappeared down an alley.

When I told the story, everyone thought I was stupid to pass up such an opportunity, that I was either too virtuous (as there was no chance the watch would ever be returned to its rightful owner) or too cowardly (the police would never have searched someone who looked like me and discovered the watch, they were looking for the young man who'd tried to sell it to me). Even my father, who felt he should praise my honesty, couldn't bring himself to do so with any fervour.

In fact, the story started several days before my school bus trip. An affluent-looking man, one who looked like he had a collection of five hundred dollar watches to match each suit in his wardrobe, had walked into one of the most exclusive jewelry stores in the city. The staff naturally fawned on him, showing all their best watches. But, like many affluent men thinking of buying an expensive watch, none of them quite captured his fancy, and he left without making a purchase. Then one of the staff got suspicious. They checked, but all their watches were present and accounted for. Perhaps, as the man had handled and closely examined each watch, he had managed to do a switch, for the staff had heard of thieves who were experts at sleight of hand. But, when they checked, all their watches were the expensive ones they were supposed to be. There was just one slight inconvenience, in looking at the watches, a few price tags had been misplaced, but the staff weren't worried about price tags, they were just happy they hadn't lost a watch (which would probably have meant their jobs as well).

The second member of the team looks like his normal occupation is breaking into small businesses after hours and taking the change left in the till. He looks like a very petty thief for whom stealing a $500 watch was way out of his league. With the police in close pursuit, he knows, if caught, he'll get 10 years hard time. Maybe he robbed the store with a gun, and is facing 20 years. Is that the gun in his pocket? It looks like it might be. If a cop appears, the young man will have to toss the watch down a storm sewer and hope it drifts out to sea. He is terrified. But, of course, if he can get $50 for the watch, that's better than tossing it down the sewer.

The customer realizes that there is no time to examine the merchandise, that the police might appear any minute and make their arrest, that this opportunity comes about once in a lifetime. A watch too expensive for him to even be allowed to look at is here at a price he can afford. He buys it, takes it home, shows it off. Of course, all jewelry stores have been alerted to be on the lookout for the stolen watch, so he can never take it to be appraised, but why would he need an appraisal? He has the actual price tag. He is happy, and all his friends are impressed with his luck and quick thinking.

This is very much a win-win situation. The buyer is certain he has gotten a $500 watch for $50, and the seller is equally certain he has just sold a $5 watch for $50. Except for not having a retail license, the seller has committed no crime. And everyone is happy.

This happened to me more than 20 years ago, but, over the years, I've kept meeting people like the young man with the watch.

For a fictional account of an operator like the young man who approached me with the watch, read Terry Pratchett's Going Postal. As Pratchett writes, people really want to belive they have suddenly come into an opportunity to buy a $500 watch for $50.

But some of us have a hard time believing, and miss out on such opportunities. I just re-tell them in case someone else might benefit.


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