A recent episode of an alt-right podcast to which I am a subscriber turned to a discussion of high-trust societies versus low-trust societies. The upshot of the discussion seemed to be that high-trust societies are not only the natural state of Western man, but essentially an unalloyed good. It is, so they seemed to say, only lesser peoples from cruder societies who fail to build high social trust; their societies are worse because of it, and their people incompatible with our better, more advanced social structures.
Perhaps. And yet, whether I wanted it or not, I found something nagging at me from deep with my consciousness; something that told me that there were flaws with seeing high trust as an absolute good, to be aspired to by all men of acute sensibility and good intent. Not a philosophical argument; no, a memory. One from long past – cold, as all old memories are, but clear…
* * *
New York City, January 1986
It was a blistering cold day under a crystal clear blue sky as I made my way through Washington Square Park, headed southeast towards Broadway. Cold as it was, my thick winter coat – a full-length one that went all the way to my knees, still my favorite of all the winter coats I’ve ever owned – kept me well-protected as I wound my way past the park’s great central fountain, past the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, and out onto West 4th Street. This was the old, rough New York of the pre-Giuliani days – the fountains had been dry for years; the statue’s base was covered in graffiti and Garibaldi himself was caked in birdshit that no one had bothered cleaning off in ages. As I passed Mercer Street, I saw a disheveled black bum, with a crazy look in his eyes and his pants down around his ankles, loudly straining as, in broad daylight on a crowded street, he defecated in the doorway of one of the buildings of New York University. In those days of the old, rough New York, the cops didn’t care, and everybody simply pretended not to notice.
I pretended not to notice, too. What would I have done about it? I was alone, and twelve years old, wandering through the great city. This was something my father not only allowed, but encouraged. We would come into the city, and he would turn me loose for hours upon end, to explore by myself while he did other things. This was before cell phones, so I couldn’t easily contact anyone if I needed to. I was expected to simply be cagey and street smart enough to get by, and so I was; it was supposed to make me independent and self-reliant, and so it did. We had a time and a place to meet, and if that failed an alternate time and place, and if that failed, I knew how to get to my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn on the subway. I had a little money in my pocket, and a little more tucked into my sock. This was “mugger money” – if someone tried to rob me, I could give him what was in my pocket, and the money secreted in my sock would still be enough to get home with. You had to be ready for anything.
Someplace around where Broadway meets East Houston Street (that’s pronounced “How-ston” – if you pronounce it “Hew-ston” everyone will know you’re a tourist) I came upon a small crowd gathered around two sets of buskers. The first, a troupe of breakdancers whirling crazily on a mat made of old cardboard boxes, held no interest for me, and I quickly passed them by. But the second made me stop and look, for it was a genuine sidewalk game of Three-Card Monte.
Three-Card Monte is a simple game of chance in which three cards, one a queen (of any suit, it doesn’t matter which) are placed side by side, face down, on a small table. The dealer then quickly moves the cards around for a few seconds to randomize which one is where. If the player is able to follow the movements of the queen and correctly pick it out after the dealer is done, he wins. If not, he loses. A simple game of luck and skill – if played honestly. Which it never is, especially not on a sidewalk in lower Manhattan.
I gently pushed through the small crowd, close enough to see the table (actually three cardboard boxes stacked on one another), but not close enough to be mistaken for someone who wanted to play. The dealer was a young black man in a Yankees cap; personable, charming, funny, smiling a lot. Behind him were two more such young men, similarly dressed. All wore nice running shoes as well. The player was an older black lady of maybe 70 years, nicely dressed, and doing very well indeed. She had won the first game and lost the second. This next one, she said, was going to be her last for the day.
The dealer turned the cards face-up. He pointed at the queen, to demonstrate to all that she was indeed there. He turned the cards over, and, with lightning quickness, began moving them, chanting as he did:
When he stopped, the old woman extended her arm to point at the center card, but then paused, grimaced intently, looked at the dealer, and pointed to the card on the right. A winner again!
But of course she won – she was a shill. In a typical game, there are five or six shills – apparent onlookers who are in league with the dealer and assigned various jobs to help him out – sprinkled about the crowd. For example, there would be a lookout or two who would alert the dealer if a cop was coming, in which case he would make use of those running shoes, leaving the cop with nothing but a stack of cardboard boxes to inspect. There would be the “winner” – someone as respectable-looking as they could come up with – whose victories would convince the marks in the crowd that the game could be won. And there would be security, here represented by the young men standing behind the dealer, who would intervene in case a mark who lost a game got physical. Such labor was cheap and plentiful in the ghetto, which was where the entire crew lived, though we were a long subway ride away from it. All of them were, of course, on welfare and unemployed, which left their days free for pursuits such as these. Yes, food stamps covered necessities, but a bit of cash was always useful. After all, liquor stores didn’t take food stamps, nor could they be used for cigarettes, lotto tickets, marijuana, prostitutes, or (at least in those days; perhaps it is different now) expensive running shoes.
The old woman had done her job, and receded into invisibility in the crowd.
“Come on now, who’s next?! I can’t go home broke!!” the dealer cheerfully yelled.
Out of the crowd stepped a young white man of perhaps twenty-five years. In an accent that suggested an origin in the less wealthy end of Europe, he said “Alright, I’ll giff it a try”.
The dealer smiled broadly, doubtless already imagining the filled pipe and 40 of malt liquor that he was going to buy that evening with the mark’s hard-earned money.
“Come on up, mah friend, come on up!”
The mark came on up. The procedure was repeated. The queen was presented, the cards placed face-down, and the dealer’s hands began to move.
Almost imperceptibly, one of the security men gave a nod in the direction of the breakdancers. I couldn’t see what move they pulled, but it was enough to get a loud cheer from the crowd that surrounded them. For a split second, everyone looked away – the mark, the crowd around our table, the shills – everyone except the dealer. And me, as I knew what was coming next. As quick as lightning, one of the cards on the table went up the dealer’s loose, long sleeves, and another card, drawn from the sleeve, replaced it. It happened so fast that, even knowing it was coming, I almost didn’t see it happen. The mark, distracted for a split second, didn’t see it at all.
Now it didn’t matter which card he picked. The lady wasn’t anywhere on the table. He chose. He lost.
It was as the dealer magnanimously offered to let the mark win his money back that I finally spotted the remaining members of the crew of shills. A thin young man who had been standing to the side of the crowd came up behind one of the onlookers, a companion of the mark who was playing the game. There was an ever-so-light brushing up of one against the other, and in a flash, the onlooker’s wallet went from the back pocket of his pants into the front pocket of the thin young man’s jacket. This was the final bit of revenue enhancement for the crew, and probably just as lucrative as the game itself. On a good day, they might lift half a dozen wallets, or maybe even more.
But not mine. There was more than one reason I liked that heavy, knee-length coat.
The thin young man casually but quickly made his way towards the old woman who had won the first game I had seen, and who was still in the crowd. The stolen wallet dropped into the large tote bag she was carrying. This part was key – get the wallet off the pickpocket as quickly as possible; that way, if the victim noticed that his wallet was missing and confronted the person who had just bumped into him (or worse, managed to summon a passing cop), the thief wouldn’t have anything incriminating on him.
Two more games were played – both with distractions appearing at the appropriate times, and both lost by the mark. A couple more wallets were lifted. The crew was having a good day.
If my father meant for me to learn from experiences, I can say without doubt that, at least that day, he succeeded. As I observed the Three-Card Monte crew, it occurred to me that everything there was a fraud, a cheat, and a theft, and that everyone there was complicit. Even the marks, with their desire to make a quick something for nothing, were not blameless. And, in my silence as I watched them get cheated and robbed, neither even was I. There was much to be learned from that.
A loud whistle came from somewhere just beyond the crowd. I turned to look, and almost before I could snap my head back towards the game, the dealer and his security men were gone. It was a signal from one of the lookouts; as the crowd quickly broke up I could see two of New York’s Finest slowly lumbering their way north up Broadway. If they had spotted the game, they were in no rush to get to it, but one way or another they would be where we were very soon. The show was over, and, like everyone else, I turned to go.
I hadn’t made it more than twenty or thirty feet before I heard a loud voice behind me, in an accent that suggested an origin in the less wealthy end of Europe, shout: “Vhere de fuck is my vallet?!”
* * *
And what is it, dear reader, that you might believe is all on the up-and-up?
Do you believe that your government represents your interests; that it works tirelessly to address your concerns and solve the problems in your life?
Do you believe that judges of the Supreme Court really decide matters on what the Constitution says about them, regardless of any personally-held ideology?
Do you believe that the common man is independent-minded, full of republican virtue, and can organize in order to exercise the wisdom of crowds?
Do you believe that the news media are impartial watchdogs who bring you the objective truth, free from distortion or biases?
Do you believe that Hollywood has no political agenda, and exists only to produce art and entertainment that bring happiness to the masses?
Do you believe that if you saw it on TV, or read it in the newspaper, it must be true?
Do you believe that the schools and universities really have as their primary mission the sacred trust of educating your children in order to make them into productive and responsible citizens of a free republic?
Do you believe that going to college makes you smart; that it necessarily makes someone who has gone through it an authority worth listening to on anything?
Do you believe that scientists are all followers of pure rationality with no hidden interests – financial, emotional, or ideological?
Do you believe that the people in charge of things at the highest level of economic activity – in Washington, on Wall Street, at banks and investment houses – are really wise and farsighted stewards of your money rather than easily-spooked, trend-following grifters going for the short buck at all costs?
Do you believe that everyone – all individuals, and all groups of people – are really equal?
Do you believe that our ancestors were all fools and that we, outside of the single area of being able to produce wondrous machines, are smarter or wiser than they?
* * *
So what have I learned from my experiences?
I’ve learned that trust either flows in both directions, or it isn’t trust – it’s just being a mark.
I’ve learned that trust should be like the money on the dealer’s table – hard to earn and easy to lose.
I’ve learned that nobody is an easier mark than someone who thinks they’re going to get something for nothing.
I’ve learned that only fools play rigged games, or play them at all without knowing for sure whether or not they are rigged.
I’ve learned that appearances are not only deceiving, but they are often meant to deceive; designed intentionally to deceive.
I’ve learned to see things for what they really are rather than what I wish them to be; to judge them by what they actually deliver rather than what they promise.
I’ve learned to assume that everything is a fake, a phony, and a fraud, and that everyone is a cheat, a shill, or a snake-oil salesman until I know for sure otherwise.
* * *
So with apologies to the hosts of that podcast, I cannot agree with the belief that a high-trust society is really so good or desirable a thing. It is too easily left at the mercies of unscrupulous people who for whatever reason (personal enrichment, ideology, envy, or perhaps just plain evil) will take advantage of that high trust and use it as a weapon. Some may see a high level of societal trust as the sign of a people who are noble or honorable, but within my cynic’s heart, I can only see it as the sign of a people who are a bunch of marks, soon to find themselves shouting: “Vhere de fuck is my vallet?!”
So do yourself a favor and heed my advice, dear reader – take care, know what’s what, and don’t allow yourself to think like a mark even if everyone around you does.