Friday, March 23, 2007

Mona Lisa Smile

Today it’s raining, but overall this week it’s been quite beautiful, especially after the icy snow storm this past weekend that dumped 10 inches of slop onto our streets. And with the new lovely weather comes our bulbs in the front yard, which are now starting to poke their heads out and bloom. In a week or so I will try to get some pictures posted, once they’re more photogenic.

In the neck of the woods around my office the warmer weather has allowed for another blossoming of sorts. The sidewalk con artists are out in force again, after a long cold spell. Tuesday brought two of them. The first is the old tried and true ‘I’m locked out of my apartment’ scam. This guy, complete with crutches no less, was quite pathetic looking, but before he got too much into his long sad story asking me for 40 dollars for the locksmith, I had to gently remind him that he had tried that one on me only last year, and while I was sorry to see him on crutches this time, he plainly had to work out a better system of storing his keys. Upon which he quickly trotted off, carrying his crutches. Oddly enough this is the fourth time someone has tried that scam on me in this town, each time twice by the same person.

The more interesting one, which I ran into not two minutes later, is a long con, not really aimed at the quick buck. The sidewalk artist scam is more popular in Europe, where there is more of a sidewalk artist tradition, but here in New York it occasionally pops up. In Europe, it is aimed more at tourists, where a guys tapes down a painting (classically of the Mona Lisa) to the sidewalk, lovingly adds to it a bit at a time, and hopes to collect some money from gullible tourists, who want to be bohemian and support the arts.

In New York the scam goes after the locals, not the tourists. Instead the focus is to have some local think that he has discovered a major unrecognized talent. If all goes well, the rube will make arrangements to have the ‘artist’ do a mural or some such large project in his home, give the guy a 50% retainer, and oddly enough the artist vanishes. The sidewalk artist will hang out in the same spot for a day or two, hopefully collecting as much as he can, and then he bolts town. Sometimes he can net over 10 grand.

The guy I ran into was painting the buildings across the street from my office, although oddly enough the skyline didn’t look anything at all like what was there. This begs the question – where do these (non-painter) ‘artists’ get their pictures? The answer, of course, is the same as where we get everything else – from China. China graduates 10,000 fine artists from their universities every year. All of those starving artist ‘sofa-sized’ wall paintings for sale at convention centers? From China.

I’ve always been interested in cons, mainly because of their insight into what motivates people. I actually have respect for con artists who use the greed of their target as the motivation. In a certain way they are charging for important life lessons. But these guys that I ran into are just thugs, preying on the willingness of people to want to help others, whether it be a poor schmuck locked out of his apartment, or an artist left behind in a culture that values only money. Hopefully as the weather keeps warming up, the three-card monte players will return to their usual spot across the street, in front of the empty store.