Something weird happened the other day. Tina and I were at home, working. I don't remember what editorial project I was chipping away at, but I was on deadline and a little cranky.
So, I wasn't happy when someone knocked on the front door, even though it was Tina who first went to answer it. A woman, a stranger, was on the porch, a little breathless. Something about her delivery, the volume and rapidity of her story, made me come into the foyer to back Tina up.
The woman introduced herself as Victoria Davis and said she was our neighbor around the corner, living with her husband Mark Davis. She gave an address which, if it existed, would have put her in the four-flat next to us, facing out on a street perpendicular to ours. The number didn't sound familiar and she didn't look like anyone I'd seen in that building.
She said her son had had a bad asthma attack that afternoon and was resting at home, but that she needed to fill his prescription for a fast-acting inhaler. She was short $10.09 for the prescription. She held up an inhaler cap (presumably from the one her son had just finished) and asked if any of our kids used that kind and, if so, maybe we could loan her theirs. She also held up her hand, showing us the edge of a folded greenback of some sort: "I've got $20, but I'm short $10.09." She reached for the thigh pocket on her cargo pants and said, "I'm not making this up. I can show you my ID ..." but didn't produce an actual card.
"Hmm," I said to the back of Tina's head, but I let her roll with it. Tina asked which pharmacy the prescription was at.
"Oh, you know, that one down there," Victoria said, gesturing vaguely to the west. She obviously wasn't from the neighborhood. Everyone on Brady Street knows that there are three pharmacies on the east end of our street and none to the west. Right. I had to step in.
"Why don't you tell us which pharmacy it is, and we'll call and make the payment so you can get it filled?" I suggested. Victoria didn't like this idea, because, um, actually she still had the prescription in her pocket so the pharmacist wouldn't know what we were talking about.
Victoria took a different tack: "If you can just give me $10, I will bring it back tonight when my husband comes back. If you're not here, I'll come around tomorrow."
Tina looked at me questioningly. She's definitely the more tender-hearted one in this relationship, which I love but gets expensive. "Oh, just give her the money," I said. Victoria thanked Tina with a hug (yes, a hug) and went away.
Afterwards, I told Tina -- who didn't want to believe it -- that of course we're not getting that $10 back. I laid out all of the dance moves we just saw. I mean, this woman could've written the textbook in the soft con:
1. Find your mark. I'm sure she chose our house because we had little children's toys on the porch, an adorable space station play set with cute aliens who apparently were members of an extraterrestrial race of Suckers.
2. Don't seem desperate, but create a sense of urgency. The bill in her hand -- whether it was a $20 or not -- said, "I've got means. I'm not some dissolute bag lady off the street, but I still need your help." Giving us the option of "loaning" her an inhaler instead of trusting her with cash was a sign of really professional-level work.
3. Offer a story with a strong outline but vague details. We all know how expensive the co-pays can be on needed medications, but where was that pharmacy again? On the other hand, the precise dollar figure she gave was a stroke of brilliance: unconfirmable but very credible. The fumbling for the nonexistent ID was also a nice touch in this regard; almost no one will be impolite enough to demand ID.
4. Move quickly and play on emotions. An asthma attack is a beautiful premise to con parents with. It's a terrifying and sudden event. Victoria wasn't going to allow us a lot of time to think about it, but of course we would want to help her help her child.
5. When the jig's up, get out fast. When Victoria realized that we knew that she was lying, she shifted to a more direct approach. We essentially paid her to go away.
6. Innoculate yourself against prosecution. The hug was a surprising finish, I have to say, but it works. A veteran salesperson told me once that if you touch someone during a pitch, they have a harder time telling you, "No." The same effect happens on the campaign trail: if you've shaken hands with a candidate, you're less likely to believe the nasty lies her opponent tells about her.
Being Victoria's mark was like watching an Olympic diver do his thing, graceful, practiced and sure. I think it was one of those street performances worth paying for, but I'm glad that before she left, she knew that we knew exactly what she was selling.
Jennifer Morales is an elected member of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, the first person of Latino descent to hold that position. She was first elected in 2001 and was unopposed for re-election in 2005. In 2004, she ran for a seat in the Wisconsin state senate, earning 43% of the vote against a 12-year incumbent.
Previously, she served as the editorial assistant at the educational journal Rethinking Schools; as assistant director of two education policy research centers at UW-Milwaukee; and as the development director for 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
She became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college, earning a B.A. in Modern Languages and Literatures from Beloit College in 1991.
In addition to her work on the school board, she is a freelance editorial consultant and a mother.