The California Roll

1.

on the snuke

T he first person I ever scammed was my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and could never remember from one minute to the next whether she’d just given me ice cream or not. I’d polish off a bowl, drop it in the sink, walk out, walk back in, ask for another, and get it. Boom. They say you can get sick of ice cream if you eat too much. I found that was not the case.

They also say you can’t cheat an honest man, but I say you can. The honest ones never see it coming.

In first grade, I cooked up the Golden Recess, which was a Ponzi scheme, though I didn’t know to call it that then. I got my classmates to pool their allowances for me to invest in something. Action figures? Baseball card futures? I really don’t remember. By the time the pyramid collapsed, I’d netted twenty bucks—huge money for first grade—and I didn’t even do time because, though of course I got caught, no one believed a little kid could have such larceny in his soul.

Honest people. Like I said, they never see it coming.

And snukes—scams or the people who perform them—may have a bad name, but it’s not always the case that someone gets burned. In fact, when you think about it, the best cons are the ones that leave people feeling like they got something for their money. And you know what? Sometimes they even do.

Consider the Doolally shorthair.

I’m like nine, ten, something like that, and I find this stray dog. He was a real mess, with matted, gunked-up fur and scarry evidence of many fights. I knew if I took him to the pound, they’d kack him for sure, and I couldn’t stand to see a dog go down. So what I did, I shaved him and sold him to unsuspecting yuppies as an exotic purebred: the extremely rare and fairly expensive Doolally shorthair terrier. I charged a ton because, again, with honest people, they definitely think the more you pay, the more it’s worth. Of course, it wouldn’t do to have his hair grow out on them—who ever heard of a longhaired shorthair?—so before I sold him, I trained him to pigeon home. Which, at the first opportunity, he does. I shave him again and take him back again, and oh, the happy couple, they can’t believe I found their precious pooch! I explain how the Doolally is so valuable and rare that they all get GPS microchipped at birth, and these yuppies are so grateful, they give me a reward, which I protest taking but take just the same.

So the dog bolts again, and I return him again, this time spinning a yarn about how the chip only has a limited number of resets, whatever the hell that means, and had to be replaced—at cost, of course. This they totally buy, and why not? I mean, just look at me, such a choirboy. Beatle bangs, cherry cheeks, scout’s-honor smile. That’s always been a strength of my game: I look so straight, you’d never believe I’d try to sell you your wallet out of your own back pocket.

Anyway, the dog jets again, and I trot him back again and get paid again. I’m definitely thinking, good times.

But it can’t last forever, right? Even the dullest dull normal will eventually catch on, so after the Doolally’s last scamper, I show up with another mutt, some additional stray I rescued. I suggest that the Doolally is a little more peripatetic—at that age I was all about the SAT words—wandery, yeah, than they can