A scammer and a 49er walk into a casino…

21 August 2014 § Leave a comment

“I won the Nigerian lottery,” Tony said, deadpan. “Four million dollars.”

Tony, Heather and I stood ten paces from the door of Muckleshoot Casino, the most profitable casino in the country, according to the concierge. Tony met us for an Elvis Presley impersonator concert at the Galaxy Lounge. The last night of a seven-day run, the musicians flowed through the setlist like an oiled assembly line: tight rhythm, perfect solos, big smiles. During the encore, an inebriated woman stumbled on stage for a spot-lit moment with the wigged singer, and “Elvis” kissed her cheek as security ushered her offstage.

“All I have to do is send them $150,” he said. “I’ll pick the guy up at the airport in Seattle, and he’ll give me the cash. After expenses, of course.”

The fluorescent lights of the parking garage created a sort of halo around Tony’s stocky silhouette. I couldn’t see a smile forming, reassurance that he was joking. So I waited for the punchline. Heather looked us both over, sensed the gap in humor.

Tony lives in a tiny home on his sister Susie’s gated vineyard in rural-esque Washington. Armed only with a Chrysler 200 convertible, a monthly Social Security check, and his past, Tony navigates his 60’s with a Garmin GPS that doesn’t always show him the right way to the doctor’s office in Tacoma. Tony needs a defibrillator to replace his pacemaker, because there’s a higher chance that his heart will stop cold turkey than go arrhythmic.

As the gatecode-keeper, Susie determines who Tony should have as visitors. I’m allowed, but no one else, it seems, like the family of a young man he mentored. You see, Jeff stayed with Tony years ago, and stole a gun from Susie’s house. She pressed charges. Jeff went away.

Jeff was shot and killed by police in Wenatchee not long ago. The infant and the girl Jeff left behind are not allowed to visit Tony, per Susie. What if they steal something?

“It may be that I only have to pay $50,” he added. “They’ll keep a higher percentage, but I’ll still make three million dollars.”

“Sean,” Heather said to my agape jaw, “he’s serious.”

Tony was quiet.

Standing speechless in the chasm between the casino and the parking garage, I wanted to tell them about an episode of This American Life I listened to in 2008.

Ira Glass interviewed an American who operated an online forum dedicated to taking revenge on the Nigerian lottery scammers: when a forum user received a common spam email which read something like, Your great-great uncle, Arthur Hatterfield IV, left you an inheritance of 3,400,000. We would like to pay this sum to you as soon as possible: all you need to do is give us all of your personal information and $50.

The forum users would conspire replies, encourage the “trustee” to develop a relationship with the scammer: yes, I would like to receive the money. Please meet me in Somalia.

In one case, a Nigerian scammer took a series of buses across sub-Saharan Africa, in hopes of receiving US$50 – a huge sum. He emailed the trustee, a middle-class twenty-something in suburban U.S. America, and said that his bus was overtaken by guerrilla militants at the border, and he was stripped and tortured, broke in a country where he didn’t speak the language, and could the American please send some of the $50 to help him?

It was hilarious fodder for the online conspirators – nothing is true on the internet, after all – until the intrigued forum administrator followed up on the tale. He made some calls, and somehow got through to the scammer’s employer in Ibadan, Nigeria: yes, the man had gone off to Somalia, he must make money; yes, he called us about his bus, but he is on his own. We cannot help him.

The forum administrator told the story to Ira Glass, and I stored it in my memory, and think about it whenever some such email shows up in my inbox. No doubt Tony read a similar message, then looked up from the computer, out the window at the mansion and the vineyard – Susie’s little kingdom – and thought, well, fifty bucks isn’t much.

“Maybe the Nigerians will pay,” Tony said. It was getting darker outside the casino, and the fluorescent halo seemed brighter now.

I had just caught up to the fact that he wasn’t joking, or telling us some joke he played in his spare time.

“Tony, there’s no money!” I blurted, just as the pieces of hope slid together in my mind. The tiny home, the controlling sister, the missed doctor’s appointment; Tony needed to win the lottery.

If a man has nothing, I remembered from a scene in Flight of the Phoenix, as two men stood amongst the wreckage of their airplane in the Sahara Desert, give him hope.

I can’t help but think that by saying there’s no money, and by writing this, I am taking hope away from a man who needs it more than he needs four million dollars. Tony’s got more than his past and a GPS: he has a lifelong dream of seeing the San Francisco 49ers play in Candlestick Park, and I’d love nothing more than to sit with him in on November 2nd, as they play the Seattle Seahawks, albeit in the new stadium, as a gesture of apology, and love. That would be my lottery winnings.

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