My dad was a con man. And he taught me everything he knew.
He worked construction under the table for over twenty years, pocketing upwards of $1,000 a month in disability checks. He would cheat his friends out of hundreds of dollars in rigged card games. He would drop a previously broken item beside a stranger on the street and demand compensation. He would insist I distract someone, just long enough for him to pick their pocket or steal an item he desperately wanted.
Some people believe they can spot a con artist because they instinctively get an unsafe feeling; they don’t trust the person for one reason or another. But remember that the term con artist is short for confidence artist. A confidence artist: my dad. Once he asked to borrow a friend’s motorcycle, which he then painted, remodeled, and switched the VIN number on.
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, man, but your bike was lifted from the grocery store parking lot!” my dad told his friend. “Nah, brother, nobody saw nothin’!”
His friend never questioned my dad’s “new” bike that appeared a few weeks later.
I inherited my dad’s charming, persuasive ways. His tools of the trade. I can pick a lock, hotwire a car, stack a deck, curse like a sailor, and hold my own in a fist fight. I can bullshit my way out of almost any situation, from a parking ticket to a bar tab. As a teenager, I was hanging out with my dad in pool halls around Richmond, Virginia, hustling bikers and construction workers for money and food.
Once, when I was fifteen years old, my dad decided he wanted to shoot pool at The Playing Field, a local dive-that’s-not-really-a-dive-but-only-locals-really-know-that. It was mid-June and I needed money for my mother’s upcoming birthday in August. My dad asked me if I wanted to make a little extra cash so we could pick out something nice for mom. His money was wrapped up in cigarettes, liquor, and lottery tickets. “Don’t tell your mom what we’re up to,” my dad said, “Tell her we’re going to the mall and to the movies.”
The hustle would always begin the same way. My dad would set me up, pretend like he was teaching me how to play. I would hold the pool stick awkwardly, giggle a lot, and get overly excited when I sunk a ball in the pocket. We’d always scope the place out, look for a group of guys who might find me – a fifteen year-old blonde – entertaining and cute. After a few rounds, I’d start talking like I was a pro, and then ask one of the lurkers if they’d like to take me on. Inevitably, some drunken biker would think I was an easy mark and make a wager, which I would always raise, because after all, I did just get all of my “stripey balls” into those “pocket thingies.”
My dad spent countless hours during my childhood teaching me how to play pool, how to play chess, how to gamble, how to spot an opponent’s tell, and how to hide my own: twirling the ends of my hair around my fingertips and/or biting my lower lip. As an only child, I grew up around grownups. I was comfortable around grownups. I wanted to be in their world: late nights sitting around the dinner table playing Rummy or Spades, eating chocolate cake way after bedtime, watching R-rated Patrick Swayze movies on VHS, hearing all the juicy grownup gossip and grownup jokes I was too young and too gullible to fully understand.
I don’t remember if The Playing Field allowed underage players in during the day or if my dad had to sneak me in, but as his sidekick, I never had any trouble getting inside a bar. Inside, the air was thick with gray clouds of cigarette smoke and rancid cologne. The room was dimly lit, with low hanging multicolored glass shades that resembled Tiffany lamps. As the sunlight streamed in through the windows and penetrated the lamps, it burst into a million shards of multicolored light that envied the interior of great cathedrals. It was mid-day on Saturday; there were around twenty people inside. Some were shooting pool, some were drinking at the bar, some were dancing on the wooden make-shift dance floor, and some were eating late lunches or early dinners. The music was loud, but I liked it like that; it drowned out a lot of the excessive coughing and chattering from the other players.
I chose the table beside a guy with tussled brown hair, a five o’clock shadow, and tight Levi’s. He told us his name was Mitch. He couldn’t have been more than thirty-five. Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, and Matchbox Twenty had been playing on the jukebox; I put five dollars in to shut them up. I began dancing and singing along to a few of my favorite artists from my childhood – Cyndi Lauper, George Michael, Billy Ocean – while making eyes at Mitch when my dad wasn’t looking.
“Your turn, Pockets,” my dad said, using the nickname he always called me during our hustles. He scratched, then placed the cue ball back on the table. “Go ahead and sink it anyway. It’ll be good practice.” He winked at me.
I saw that he had set me up to knock the eight ball straight in. I called it, right pocket, squealed, giggled, and even did a little shimmy in Mitch’s direction.
At fifteen, I was a lot of things: a con man’s protégé, a flirt, a tease, the class clown, and a boy-crazy virgin. At fifteen, flirting and teasing was fun, all fun, because this boy-crazy virgin didn’t understand the dangers of flirting and teasing, because, at that point, flirting and teasing never went any further than flirting and teasing. When I think back about my exchange with Mitch, I find myself cautiously grinning at the thought of my naiveté, but I also recoil in horror. I was fifteen years old, flirting with a thirty-five year old man in a pool hall. I never went along happily with our cons; my dad didn’t hold me at gunpoint, but it was a confusing matter. I didn’t really want to con innocent people, but I did want to make my dad happy, proud even. Therefore, on one hand, I didn’t want to do it, but on the other, I wanted to do it well. And let’s be honest here, the attention and flirting was fun.
Mitch grinned, took a sip of his beer, and then asked if he could play winner.
“I don’t know, honey,” I said. “Do you think you can handle all of this?”
My dad smiled, exhaled, and shook his head side-to-side. This told me everything I needed to know: continue.
“I think I can handle it, sugar,” Mitch replied as he started to rack the balls.
“Wanna make it interesting?” I said. “Say, twenty-five dollars?”
I had hustled men like Mitch many times before, so I was feeling pretty confident, though looking back, I realize I shouldn’t have been. I should have been scared shitless. Today, I would be scared shitless.
“How ‘bout we make it real interesting?” Mitch said. “Fifty dollars. You good for it?”
I looked over at my dad who was putting out his cigarette. He started shaking another one loose from the hard pack. “Don’t look at me, Pockets. This is your wager.” He then placed his cigarette between his lips and began to cough as he lit it and inhaled. It was my wager, but my dad always expected to split the winnings fifty-fifty.
“Yeah, I’m good for it,” I lied.
Mitch looked over at my dad who slowly nodded his head up and down as he closed his eyes, verifying the existence of my non-existent fifty dollars.
I agreed to the fifty dollar bet, even though I had spent my last five dollars in the jukebox on Van Halen, Poison, and Guns n’ Roses, and even though I feared my dad would cut and run if push came to shove. Still, I never intended for push come to shove; it never had before. Mitch and I agreed to play a warm-up game, and then the fifty dollar game. He let me break both times. The first time I broke straight, the second time I broke from an angle. I goofed off during the first round, even asking Mitch if I was holding the pool stick correctly. “I’ve got my index finger on the top and my thumb is at the bottom. Is this right?”
He looked me up and down. “Darlin’,” he said, “you’re doin’ just fine.”
During the second game I noticed that when Mitch was lining up a shot he would sway from side-to-side and brace himself occasionally against the edge of the pool table. Drink another one, my man, I thought, as I smiled at him.
Mitch hit two combination shots in a row, only the second one was a foul. It was the end of the second game and all I had to do was sink the eight ball; Mitch had three balls left on the table. As I examined my options, Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” began to play on the jukebox. “Oh, I love this song!” I confessed as I started dancing in place, moving my body side-to-side along to the beat. I sang along with Seger and then I leaned over the table and looked up at Mitch. “Hey, Mitch. Don’t you think it’s interesting that the eight ball is black, like death, and when the eight ball goes into the pocket, the game is over? You know, like death?” I smirked, feeling pretty confident; I looked back down at the table, called the shot, and sank the eight ball in the left corner pocket.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Mitch growled.
“YES!” my dad shouted.
I laughed and looked over at my dad; he winked at me and gave me a quick thumbs up. Was he proud of me or was he just happy that he made an easy twenty-five bucks off of his only child? I realize now that it was most likely the latter, though at the time I thought he was impressed with his little protégé.
“Alright, Mitch,” I said. “Pay up, sweetheart.”
Mitch stared at me without saying a word. He cut his eyes over to my dad and then back at me. He pulled out his wallet, threw a crumpled fifty on the table, and sucked on his teeth.
I grabbed the money and tucked it into my bra, the way my dad had taught me to do. “They won’t go reachin’ in there for it,” my dad would say, “And if they do, knee ‘em and push ‘em to the ground like I showed ya,” he would laugh. “Ain’t nothin’ worse than a grabby man.”
My dad and I stuck around to set up the next hustle. After another pitcher of Budweiser, Mitch decided he wanted to revisit our fifty dollar game.
“I want my money!” Mitch screamed, as he abruptly backed me against the wall. I could smell the stench of beer and menthols as he leaned down towards my face. “All of it, you conniving little gypsy!”
“Mitch! C’mon. Seriously?” I wasn’t sure what to do with a word like gypsy. “You lost fair and square…”
“You hustled me and you know it, you little bitch!”
I leaned to my right. “Dad, a little help over here?”
“You got yourself into this, little girl,” my dad replied, as he dropped twenty bucks down on the table to cover his tab, “You can get yourself out.” He lit a cigarette and walked outside.
“Your daddy ain’t got nothin’ to do with this.” Mitch slammed his open palm against the wall beside my head. “Now give me my fucking money!”
I wanted to say prove it; prove that I hustled you and I’ll give you back your fifty dollars, but instead I stuck with my original story: “Mitch! Seriously! I’ve never played a single game of pool before today.”
This was the first time anyone had called me on my hustling; my dad and I were in a different part of town and he didn’t have the pull that he did in our usual radius. In our usual radius, guys would let shit like this fly because after all, I was just a kid and my dad’s little girl. Mitch didn’t get that memo; Mitch held no allegiance to my dad or his little girl. My cons went smoothly when we were in our usual radius because everyone knew my dad: the ones who believed his wild, exaggerated tales; the ones who knew he was always full of shit; and the ones who had heard wild, exaggerated tales about the man, the myth, the legend: his victims-in-wait. All of those observers always observed drunk; an advantage for the sober fifteen year old who was quick on her feet and full of sass and lip. If dad told me that day why we were playing somewhere new, the dialogue we exchanged is lost to the ether of time. Maybe he didn’t tell me and I just went along with it because that’s what I did: monkey see, monkey do. Follow the leader. But I have to wonder why he would risk the chance of our con going awry? Was it the thrill? The fact that I was the only one really in play? Had he exhausted all of his options in the old haunts closer to home? Or did he just need or want a new playing field?
With my back literally against the wall, I didn’t want to admit it, but I was starting to panic. Mitch was at least 5’ 10” and a good 170 pounds. I was 5’ 2” and around 120 pounds.
“Mitch, I appreciate your tenacity,” I said. “But, seriously, I didn’t hustle you, man.”
“You held your pool stick three different ways, you knew to chalk your stick, you broke two different ways, and you sunk every shot you called. Don’t tell me you didn’t fucking hustle me!”
I stared into Mitch’s beautiful bloodshot eyes. My eyes were open so wide, I had to fight to keep them from closing. Everyone knows that the person who maintains his or her gaze shows dominance and the person who looks away first signals their submission.
I was not submitting.
While I was still staring at Mitch, I heard the rusty bell chime in the doorway. I heard the engine of my dad’s 1978 Sportster rev outside. I wondered if he was going to come back inside to save me. I wondered if he was making me live the words he just spoke moments before: “You got yourself into this little girl, you can get yourself out.” Did he really have faith in my ability to talk my way out of this situation or was he saving his own ass, mine be damned?
I didn’t realize it until that moment, pinned between a poster covered wall and a ruggedly handsome drunk, but I was one of my dad’s victims. He gained my confidence just long enough to get his hands on my money, my morals, my innocence. I was so busy mimicking his tricks, that I missed the fact that he had in turn tricked me: by gaining my confidence, he was able to exploit characteristics of my psyche such as (dis)honesty, vanity, naiveté, and greed.
Mitch slammed his open palm against the wall again. I looked around the room and realized no one was within ear shot; the music was too loud. Eye to eye with my opponent, suddenly aware of the true danger I was in and the consequences of a game well played, I realized my dad wasn’t coming back inside. Mitch reached towards my chest. I pretended to sneeze and as he backed up, I kneed him, just like my dad had taught me to do. I pushed him back with all my weight, and ran outside as if the bar was engulfed in flames.
I remember the contrast of the air conditioned pool hall that I ran out of and the moist humid air I tried so desperately to breathe in outside. I was trembling. Was I still in danger? I looked out into the parking lot; steam was rising from the asphalt. I swiped my bangs back; I was covered in sweat. I heard my dad’s engine rev again. He was already in motion.
Was my dad speeding towards me or away from me?
I continued to try to catch my breath as I ran towards him, still trembling. He slowed down just long enough for me to jump on the back of his Harley and wrap my arms around his waist.