July 14, 2012
I was a neophyte reporter in Perth Amboy when I first heard the term “flim flam.” I came across it on a police report during my daily visit to headquarters, and I was to see it many times during the two and a half years I covered the city. This term can be used to mean more than one thing, but in the parlance of Perth Amboy police in the mid ’60s, it meant a scam that was run on the sidewalk outside a bank. In those days, before there were banks every thousand feet, Perth Amboy was a banking center and therefore a favorite haunt of a certain kind of con artist.
In Perth Amboy, flim flam meant that an older person who had just emerged from one of the banks on Smith Street would be approached by an amiable stranger who appeared to be both excited and confused. The stranger had found a bank envelope stuffed with cash and with no identification. While the stranger explained this to the unwitting target, a third party would “observe” the scene and approach the pair to ask what was up. Eventually, the ring leader would offer to split the money with the dupe — something that wouldn’t make sense if the easy mark wasn’t drunk with the smell of found money. There was a catch: the sucker would have to put up a significant among of money to show “good faith.” Usually, the victim would go back into the bank and withdraw that money, agree to meet the pair later to split up the dough, and you know the rest.
This gag followed the same pattern every time. The first few times I read flim flam reports, I asked anyone who would listen how a person could fall for such a scheme. Cops who knew more about human nature than I did told me it was about greed, but it was also about trust. That’s the “con” in “con man” — a guy gets away with a stunt like that because he wins the confidence of his prey.
That phenomenon — the ability to con — is the subject of Amy Reading’s sassy, informative, and sometimes provocative book, The Mark Inside. In this book, Reading, who holds a Yale doctorate in American Studies, traces the origins and development of the con game in America, finding its roots in the humbug of showmen such as Phineas T. Barnum and following its evolution into the modern age — an age, she writes, in which the con is no longer the sole province of showmen and criminals but a vital tool in the commerce of everyday life.
Radical changes in American life, Reading deduces, led to this vastly increased reliance on the con. These changes included systems of rapid transportation — notably the railroad, the rise of cities, and finally the emergence of a “managerial class,” very different from the classes that once lived and traded only with what their own hands had produced, a class whose lingua franca was trust, the ability to get others to like them. Some critics have argued that Reading exaggerates the pervasive influence of this development, but the anecdotal evidence of the daily news — and even our own behavior, if we’re honest about it — seems to support her. What is our first concern in any transaction if not that the other party likes and trusts us, whether or not the trust is well placed?
As Reading is describing this aspect of American history, she is also telling the story of J. Frank Norfleet, a successful Texas rancher who in 1919 went to Dallas to conduct a legitimate transaction designed to improve his land holdings. When he arrived in the city, he almost immediately became the target of a gang of swindlers overseen by Joseph Furey, a gang that prowled cities like Dallas on the lookout for people exactly like Norfleet.
Through an ostensibly chance encounter not unlike those on the streets of Perth Amboy, the gang drew Norfleet into a web that eventually involved phony securities investments and wound up costing him what today would be well over a million dollars. The Furey gang had this swindle down to an art form; every person involved knew his part well. What they didn’t count on was the personality of Frank Norfleet. Unlike con-game victims who usually slunk way in shame and fear, Norfleet put his personal affairs aside and went after the six characters who had done him wrong. He spent a fortune, took big chances, chased down leads from state to state, coped with corrupt cops and politicians, and benefited from dumb luck. Eventually, he succeeded utterly, and all six of the gangsters were prosecuted.
When Norfleet traced the last of the six to Denver, he became the target of yet another con game, this one engineered by an organization run by Lou Blonger, who for 25 years was the crime kingpin in the city. Blonger himself ended up being toppled, thanks to the amateur detective, J. Frank Norfleet.
Norfleet, by Reading’s account, quickly warmed to his role as a relentless and fearless sleuth, and he loved to tell the story, even if he exaggerated at times. Reading’s own detective work sorts through fiction and fact, and the fact turns out to be compelling and even astounding on its own terms. After Norfleet had disposed of his quarry, he wrote an autobiography, appeared on vaudeville stages, delivered lectures, and started to produce a silent movie about himself. He became, Reading writes, a con man in his own right, selling J. Frank Norfleet to whoever would buy.
June 16, 2012
A phone rang in the newsroom at around 8:30 am, and the caller had a problem. He was a shift worker who got off a half hour before and had been in the nearby tavern long enough to get into, first, an argument and, second, a wager.
This was happening in Perth Amboy, long before the advent of the Internet or, for that matter, desk-top computers. The reporter taking the call was surrounded by mechanical Royal typewriters. But none of this context was of interest to the caller. He needed an answer, and he needed it soon. The question: “Is a giraffe’s tail as long as its neck?” There was money riding on the answer and, one suspected, paper money.
The reporter didn’t promise to resolve the question, but he did promise to call back one way or the other.
The reporter riffled through the meager reference materials in the newsroom but did not find the answer. With an air of futility, he called the nearby Staten Island Zoo, and located a person who provided information that may or may not have settled the wager. The giraffe’s neck is about six feet long. Its tail is about three feet long, but the tuft of hair at the end could double the length. The reporter called the pay phone at the tavern, repeated the data and hung up, praying that there were no weapons on the premises.
I recalled this incident the other day when I heard on National Public Radio that a listener had complained about a report on All Things Considered about a round of layoffs at a group of newspapers in the South. The listener wanted to know why the NPR news staff thought the layoffs of journalists was any more tragic than the layoff of anyone else. I didn’t hear the broadcast the listener was referring to, so I don’t know if the NPR staff exhibited some disproportionate sympathy for people of their kind, but the exchange reminded me of something I don’t hear much about in the reporting and commentary on the decline of newspapers in the United States.
The giraffe incident was a lighthearted example of the role local newspapers have played in their communities, a role that usually dealt with far more serious issues than animal anatomy.
The local newspaper was the last resort for many folks who were trying to settle wagers, finish their homework, or save their homes, their families, or their lives. There is no way to calculate the number of questions that were answered or problems that were solved by personnel at the newspapers that employed me for more than 40 years. Occasionally these matters resulted in stories; sometimes they were very big stories. But in countless instances, the news staff acted as exactly what it was, a surrogate for the public, and might spend hours or days or weeks wrestling with an issue that never generated a word in print. “You are the voice of those who have no voice,” one of my publishers once told me, and we all took that seriously.
The news staff, cumulatively, had skills, knowledge, and contacts that many people did not have. And in the days when newspapers had significant circulation and influence on public opinion, the voice of a journalist on the other end of the phone was, for many, especially those in public authority, vox Dei.
But for those who called, whether readers or not, we constituted the only place to turn.
A friend once told me about a young woman, an immigrant, who was working in New York City as a translator. Her grandmother had come from the Old Country to visit her, and never went back. The grandmother’s visa had long since expired when she started to show signs of dementia. Because of the grandmother’s immigration status, the granddaughter was afraid to seek help but at the same time was afraid to leave her grandmother alone during the day. What, my friend wanted to know, did I intend to do about it? These folks had no connection to the newspaper; they lived in another part of the state. I called whom I needed to call and soon had a promise that the elderly woman’s immigration status would be normalized so that she could get the care she needed.
That’s one example. The women and men I worked with for four decades could contribute dozens, scores, of stories of that kind. I don’t know what will replace that resource, that safety valve —that friend who won’t turn away—in the life of a community.