Slicker than a snake on ice.

By - Aug 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Bill Wandschneider

I think the first American flag was perfect. You know, the one with a snake on it. And the reason, to me, is that we seem to love the con artist. Our CEOs are often in the news for doing something delightfully sleazy. We live in a country rich in unsavory history. Snake oil salesmen, carpetbaggers, swamp land scams, gold mine speculation and stock market manipulation. I think con artists are at least as entertaining as anything on TV.

They used to be called flim flam men. I spent the fourth of July with a band of them. They didn’t really break any laws, they just sold a bunch of junk. Things like silly string, blow up Sponge Bobs, beads and other trinkets of no real monetary value. And in observing their success, I’d say it seems we love to celebrate our freedom by giving money to con men.

The greatest show on earth.

I ran into them while walking past a park on the third of July. I decided to see if they’d hire me. I asked the guy who seemed to be in charge if they were taking anyone on. He said “yes.” I asked if they were carnival people. “No,” he replied, “we have all of our teeth and we aren’t running from the law.” Then he asked if I had a social security number and some ID. When I told him I did, he hired me on the spot. That’s when the show started for me. It was fascinating. The more I learned about these guys and their lifestyle, the more interesting things got.

They have a culture of their own, including their own vernacular. It’s part Cajun, part Ebonics, part broken English and a smattering of Spanish patois. Their norms are a bit wild, but perhaps more of a mirror on the “straight” world than we’d like to acknowledge. Stealing from each other is acceptable and expected. Their worth or status amongst their peers is rooted in their ability to skillfully lie to, con and manipulate unsuspecting consumers. In other words, the best hustler has the most status. They almost never wear shirts. They flirt with every woman they see. They’re drunk almost all of the time. Nights in jail and fist fighting are just part of their routine. Not having a permanent residence doesn’t seem to bother them at all. They’re about as scrappy as could be, and seem to have an unshakable confidence.

The operator and the Quickness.

A hustler’s job exists in two parts: decorating the booth with items to sell, and actually selling the items. The first is called “flashing your booth.” Flashing is hard to do. It’s a real skill. The second part of the job is the selling. That’s where these people are amazing. They mix with ease equal parts psychology, pressure and indifference. In a different world, where only skills mattered, operators would make powerful floor traders. I watched one of them in action.

A woman asked him if he had some red, white and blue beads. He didn’t, so he showed her some red white and sliver ones. He just looked her in the eyes and said “These are just as good.” She bought them. It was like she didn’t have a choice. He seemed to have complete control of her will. He looked at me after she left and said “see that… red white and blue through the Quickness.”

Later, a young man of about twenty years told the operator he liked a hat on the booth that was printed with cannabis sativa leaves, but added “I don’t know, though.”

Without missing a beat, the operator shot back. “If you’re scared, say you’re scared!”

The young man retorted “I’m not scared!” And bought the hat. I can’t help but think: for most people, that line would never work. For the operator, it almost always does.

Jung could explain it.

To me, there’s beauty in the lifestyle of flim flam men and women. The autonomy and latitude they prize probably couldn’t be found in any other venue. Once a year maybe, on Independence Day, at the State Fair, or at the side of an abandoned parking lot, we allow ourselves to be conned out of some money by the hustler. It must be something Carl Jung could explain. I can’t help but think that the founding fathers instinctively understood it in their first choice of flags.

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