O. Henry wrote stories in quite a number of different genres, but always with a very clever ending. One of the genres in which he often wrote is called the caper, and his stories in this genre were my favourites. I do not know where he obtained his material for these stories, whether from inside the Texas prison, where he would have had ample opportunity to meet the unsuccessful practitioners of the trade, or on the streets of New York City, where he might have met some of the profession's more successful members. What is clear is that the stories have a patina of truth, except, perhaps, for the plots, which are a bit too neat, and the characterisations, which are a bit too sympathetic.
I recently went searching through O. Henry's collected works for a quote which is quite applicable to our current milieu. It is in the form of a dialogue between a con man named Jeff and an anonymous narrator, and appeared in the story, 'The Man Higher Up,' which was published in the collection, The Gentle Grafter in 1919:
"There are two kinds of graft," said Jeff, "that ought to beI cannot recommend O. Henry's caper stories too highly, since they have provided me with a modicum of inoculation against people like the fictitious Jeff (and the all too real Max and Jan), whose
wiped out by law. I mean Wall Street speculation, and burglary."
"Nearly everybody will agree with you as to one of them," said
I, with a laugh.
"Well, burglary ought to be wiped out, too," said Jeff.
profession is no new one. He is an incorporated, uncapitalized, unlimited asylum for the reception of the restless and unwise dollars of his fellowmen.
Coming fresh from reading O. Henry on the school bus, I arrived at the age of 15 in the big, wicked city on a field trip.
'You have one hour. Be back at the bus by then, or we'll leave you,' said our faculty chaperone, and with that we were let loose in one of the safer neighbourhoods of the city.
Naturally, all my fellow students packed into a fast food outlet, part of a chain that had a branch in our village. I tried in vain to find someone interested in exploring, so, since I was unwilling to spend my one free hour in the city doing what I could have done back home, I set out alone to round the block.
I had not gone more than a few hundred metres when a young man in the attire of the lumpen proletariat appeared, running. He paused in front of me, panting heavily, and showed me a watch with a pricetag still attached that must have been the equivalent of about £250, back when cottages were for sale for £750, if one didn't mind rusticating.
'See the price,' he gasped, waving the pricetag at me. 'I let you 'ave it for 20 quid,' he continued between pants, but I didn't have £20, so I could not be tempted by his offer, whereupon he reduced his asking price to £10, an amount I did have.
However, after reading O. Henry, I rather thought I detected something along the lines Jeff would have tried: a £1 copy watch with an authentic £250 pricetag, offered at a markup of 900% by an enterprising entrepreneur.
So I declined his best and final offer.
'Stupid <unintelligible>,' he called me, in an accent that suddenly sounded less appropriate to a member of what Mr. Mortimore's Rumpole refers to as the 'villainous classes' who specialise in burglary, and more appropriate to what I believe the British call 'wide boys,' who specialise in the kinds of money making schemes favoured by Mr. Henry's Jeff.
With that, my panting young watch seller wandered off to find a better market for his wares.
The young man with the £250 watch was the first decent scam I personally 'collected,' by which I mean personally experienced the initial come on, rather than just read about.
I've been told that I seem to run into more confidence artists than most, but I'm not sure if that's altogether true, of if it's just that I like to talk about the ones I've met, or both. I suspect both.
None of my schoolmates, hanging out in the fast food joint, managed to meet any young £250 watch sellers, or, if any of them did, none ever mentioned it.
I, on the other hand, went out where the panting £250 watch sellers might be seen in their natural habitat, and have regaled bored listeners with the story ever since.
And since my encounter with the running £250 watch seller happened when I was just 15, that's been a lot of bored listeners.