It has not been easy to admit I stole Frida’s jade earrings when she was accompanying Trotsky on the armored train to Mexico City. Let me mention again that the President of the Republic, Lázaro Cárdenas, had entrusted me with the security for that entire moving fort of soldiers, sand bags, Howitzers and communist-leaning dignitaries. The President fired me for it, probably at the insistence of the fat painter husband. And that should be the end of it.
I had been had charged to ferret out the concentric rings of graft and extortion that would surely form around him. Which is precisely what I was doing and would have continued doing, had it not been for the independence of my fingers. I am talking about the common swindles learned from scam artists, then practiced by police. Beginning with the trickery at the bottom. Police selling magic bracelets, the kind with healing properties that last a year then have to be renewed through the purchase of a new one, even though you no longer believe in them. The seller gives you no choice.
Or swindles on a higher level. A man knocks at your door. He has a heavy package addressed to your neighbor. That person is not home, and the package is surely important, judging from its weight. Who will pay the cash on delivery since the owner is not home? The answer is: I, the good Christian. But when my neighbor returns, he denies all knowledge of the package. Together we discover it contains rocks. We have been taken. And you could say, with complete accuracy, that decency was to blame.
Newer technology brings more complexity. The local freezer allows you to continue receiving a dead relative’s pension by cutting off the proper finger and keeping it frozen—making it possible to continue supplying his fingerprint each time the government devises new and different ways of preventing fraud.
A trick I approve of less—because it tempts our venality—is the stack of ink-darkened paper money, in large denominations, that you can turn into clear crisp bills by using a special chemical. You demonstrate the procedure on a few of them. You explain that the original darkening is applied in order to get the money through customs. The victim buys the bills at a steep discount, given, you say, because you have to cross the border again, right now, in order to get more of the smuggled money. Later, when your victim repeats the procedure, the paper currency remains black and worthless. But I ask you, who in their right mind would not demand a random testing from deep within the stack of blackened bills?
As far as I’m concerned, God must have included scam artists and swindlers on his larger Noah’s Arc to keep us on our toes. Perhaps as a counterbalance to New Testament gullibility, so common in my own country—a ship of corruption that leaks oil, money and blood in a thousand different ways.
I prefer to look to the north, to a land with its own fair share of fools. Consider citizen Carlo Ponzi and his highly successful Securities Exchange Company, which offered 50% return in 45 days and 100% in three months. Or Philip Arnold, who planted industrial diamonds mixed with cheap garnets, rubies and sapphires purchased from Indians, and convinced bankers, generals and even the conservative Whig Horace Greeley to make disastrous investments in the worthless land.
Or better yet, George Parker, who sold the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for years, before they were on to him. And then, the Baptist minister Prescott Jernegan, who announced he had a machine that could turn water into gold, planted nuggets in underwater collection buckets and attracted large investments from crafty New Englanders known for their common sense.
Then there’s the Great Florida Swampland Scheme, whereby innocents bought land that is underwater and teeming with long-toothed reptiles. On dryer land, all the federal money swirling around the construction of the U.S.’s transcontinental railway. Financial illuminati set up the Credit Mobilier, a clearinghouse for the many government contracts given. They skimmed a portion of it and invested it in Union Pacific stock. Then they sold shares of that stock to U.S. Congressmen at a discount, who then approved more construction grants and therewith fed the Credit Mobilier. When it all collapsed, investigations led to the highest levels of government, including to Vice President Schuyler Colfax.
Closer to home, at the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, marking the end of Mexican’s costliest War, our country ceded all or parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Texas to the United States. That government said it would honor existing property rights in the new territories. A certain James Addison Reavis, a man of keen imagination, claimed he was the hereditary Baron of Arizona and owned a large holding that spanned parts of Arizona and New Mexico, including Phoenix and rich mining areas around Globe and Silver City.
To back up his claim, he spent years digging up and altering various archived deeds in Spain and Mexico and even married a poor half-Indian in San Bernardino, California whom he had identified as the last heir of the Peralta family and now rightful owner of the counterfeited deeds. With these in hand, he demanded cash from those occupying his land, including from the owners of railroads and mines.
I must admit I am partial to schemes that defraud the rich and not the poor. I suppose you can persuade a man who is both stupid and poor, plus hungry, to buy rats that you swear are quickly proliferating Australians meat rabbits. But that is hardly fair. Poor wage earners also seem like they should be protected from either monetary loss or the humiliation of being tricked. The rich and their financial empires—Standard Oil, for example—seem to deserve being bilked, since they are involved in the same game, simply on a more massive scale.
As for the individual rich, I ascend the scale of tricks to include the Inexcusable. By which I mean the pilot Charles Lindbergh, the anti-Semitic ass who could find his way blindfolded for 33 hours across the Atlantic but could not keep an eye on his sleeping two-year old son. They finally found the German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann and, in April 1936, cooked him in the electric chair for extortion and murder.
The lesson in all this, I say, is to learn to see what is hidden. To be able to see the Brunos coming. To always test the river’s depth with one foot, not two. To understand that the mother of stupidity is always pregnant—most of all in oneself. As manifested by me not being able to keep an eye on my fingers when they were near Frida’s not very expensive jade earrings. Which I gave my wife. Whose love for me, if it still exists, is well hidden. I, the President’s detective, who was too dumb to know that one falsehood spoils a thousand truths. Well, perhaps more than one.
But I need to shake myself out of this spell. None of this ranks with the on-going mass executions of young democratic unionists and Trotskyites in the cold morning courtyards of fascist Spain on the one hand, or by the NKVD, Stalin’s leather jacketed secret police, on the other, who have come to Spain not so much to help the Republicans as to thin their ranks of their anti-fascist leaders who are not sufficiently Stalinist. Or who stay in Russia to execute Stalin’s enemies. First the show trials, then a bullet to the base of the skull, and then even a few more reserved for one or two of Trotsky’s own children.
Now, outside of Goethe’s Weimar, in Germany, witnesses report what they call the Singing Forrest inside the gates of the concentration camp called Buchenwald. What they hear, they swear, are prisoners—mostly Jewish or homosexuals—hung by their feet from scaffolds and left to slowly die. Governments, it seems, have agreed not to call this barbarity corruption. Even when it is its most venomous form: corruption of heart and soul. They are events beyond our control, we say, and we hurl no damning condemnations and gradually learn to profess ignorance.
By comparison, I must have sympathy for the harmless moral failings of my fingers. Stealing is the cleaner crime, especially when it is a few pesos here or there—or the un-extraordinary earrings belonging to a weekend communist idealist who owns another thirty pair just like them and whom I can help along the path to frugality.