Long before the term “con man” was popularised in mid-19th-century Manhattan, deception was an essential part of the urban condition. Indeed, the ability to exploit the greed of regular citizens by enticing them into games, deals and markets has been a key characteristic of a range of professional urban tricksters, from Elizabethan coney-catchers to 21st-century estate agents and advertising executives.
However, the popular conceit is to present the con man as part of an urban underworld of picaresque grotesques, inhabiting, along with card sharps, cutpurses, pimps, bawds, prostitutes and beggars, a lightly cloaked alcove or niche in an otherwise pristine society. Writers such as Henry Mayhew, David Maurer and, of course, Damon Runyon have stressed the essential “otherness” of this subculture by highlighting the exclusivity of the protagonists’ language and culture, along with accounts of a dissolute lifestyle that simultaneously titillated and repelled.
In The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, sociologists Terry Williams and Trevor Milton take the reader into a world of bootleg goods, playing the numbers, squatting rent-free, scamming tourists, selling knock-offs, dealing drugs and running Ponzi schemes. And this ain’t Guys and Dolls. Their book marks a notable shift away from the academic orthodoxy that locates professional criminals within a highly specialised zone of larceny that is powered by an almost samurai-like code of ethics. Instead, we discover a world of predatory intent inhabited by all-purpose, violence-averse, multi-talented rip-off artists from across a wide range of societal backgrounds, in which teamwork and cooperation are pragmatic, contingent and profit-driven.
Central to this book is the wonderfully named Alibi Jones, who performs the classic role of gatekeeper for the authors. Articulate and self-aware, Alibi scams, shoplifts, steals and deals his way across this fine ethnographic study, introducing the authors to co-offenders and the multiple opportunities for larceny that run through the Big Apple’s very core. Yet Williams and Milton are not the stereotypical naive academic adventurers, tentatively leaving the cloistered academy before reporting back on an exotic but essentially alien and transgressive universe. They are long-term residents of New York with family, friends and history embedded in the city. Long ethnographic careers operating in the nooks and crannies of this remarkable city, and their well-honed sensibility to the informal tone and timbre of the streets, have resulted in an extraordinarily fruitful ethnographic bounty. Unlike the many researchers who make claims upon the authenticating licence of the term “ethnography” after spending no more than a few months skirting around the edges of a culture and conducting a few dry interviews, Williams and Milton are the real deal. As they carefully weave theory into their compelling narrative, their deep immersion in the life of the city offers a contemporary picture of scams and hustles that require an extraordinary portfolio of skills and attributes.
One shoplifting scam they detail involved a sleight of hand so delicate that, despite his close proximity to the action, Terry Williams was unable to fully account for its success. Yet the authors also acknowledge the somewhat less understated qualities of some of their protagonists. The expansive derrière of one of the shoplifting gang, we learn, was highly prized as a potential obstruction to any pursuing store detective.
Some of the scams feature street theatre involving a complex set of interactions that result in the victim unknowingly handing over their cash and valuables to the con artist, and have precedents that would be recognisable to Shakespeare or Marlowe. Academics seldom get to observe crimes actually being committed, but Alibi allowed Williams and Milton to witness the playing-out of dramas that victimised good Samaritans seeking to help strangers. But just in case they “had a little larceny in them”, victims were also enticed by the possibility of being complicit in the rip-off. Throughout the book, and regardless of the con, complicity is the key.
Other cons and hustles have evolved with the times, and the authors show a particular sensitivity to the fine lines that are constantly criss-crossed by the vendors and purchasers of counterfeit goods. When Milton asked a jewellery salesman how he was able to sell high-end watches at a 90 per cent discount, the response was, “because it’s knock-off”, and he handed Milton his business card. This is a marketplace full of knowing consumers out for a bargain, with shoppers everywhere priding themselves in seeing beyond the facades of glitz and velvety spiels that accompany every contemporary commodity, from carbonated drinks to higher education. That is, until they guess wrong. And guess wrong they do.
Hustling can be hard work, and the authors are particularly adept at explaining how the legitimate and illegitimate economies bleed into each other, relying upon the qualities of sweat and enterprise that are valorised in popular culture: “The lyrics to the classic 1977 song ‘New York, New York’ assert, ‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.’ The operative word is ‘if’. And, as Alibi Jones often says, ‘If a frog had a muddy appetite and a square ass he’d shit bricks.’”
Many of the entrepreneurial hustles are operated by people who have been rendered irrelevant in a neoliberal job market that has destroyed traditional working-class employment. For these individuals, the hustle offers a way of life that is recognisably more akin to the hardscrabble mythology of the American dream: Lee, selling bottled water at traffic lights for $1 a pop while fighting off the competition, was able to subsidise his dream of becoming a dance teacher.
Some hustlers had knowledge that enabled them to blatantly manipulate the legitimate world: Lorena, for example, who avoided paying rent to 18 different landlords over a period of 25 years. As even the cops operated a whole range of cons and hustles, many of the New Yorkers they were meant to serve and protect took advantage of an ever-mutating underground economy. And with an estimated 1 million drug users living in New York City, the drug trade remains a particularly ripe terrain for hustlers, who have become lionised by those sections of the population doomed to menial labour and economic subservience. Consequently, observe the authors, “for some, the drug dealer holds the same appeal as the Wall Street broker: the person who makes money by any means necessary”. And it is on Wall Street where Alibi Jones morphs into Bernie Madoff.
Cleverly, and with great economy, Williams and Milton explain the workings of financial cons such as Ponzi schemes, and connect them to the central ethos that underpins both street cons and the plethora of barely legitimate hustles of the global financial system upon which we are all in some way reliant. Hypocrisy, need and greed are key societal props, “from crack houses to police stations, from ghettos to Wall Street”.
This terrific ethnography explains that cons and hustles are no longer the preserve of roguish proletarians in loud suits and painted ties. Everybody wants a bargain, and creative capitalism makes mugs of us all.
Dick Hobbs is professor of sociology, University of Western Sydney, and author of Lush Life: Constructing Organized Crime in the UK (2013).
The Con Men: Hustling in New York City
By Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton
Columbia University Press, 288pp, £19.95 and £18.50
ISBN 9780231170826 and 1540490 (e-book)
Published 10 November 2015
“I was born and raised in a little sleepy town in Mississippi, not far from New Orleans. I loved to hear old people and family members tell stories. As a matter of fact old people in town would give me a nickel and a story for running errands for them.
“My mother was an avid novel reader and wanted us kids to see the big wide world and ‘be somebody’. My father was a plumber, electrician and local tradesman, and both of my parents taught me the meaning of work.”
As a child, Williams “liked poetry and reading stories, and told stories based on the adventures I and my brothers got involved in. I wanted to be a botanist when I grew up and you could say I was something of a junior entrepreneur, finding frogs and selling them to the biology teacher. My parents, grandparents, uncles and other family members all played a role in rearing me to be inquisitive, study hard, be the best I could be.”
As an undergraduate at the City University of New York, Williams recalls, he “certainly was dreamy, always imagining faraway worlds; I was determined to do good, not just for myself but for people around me. I got a scholarship to conduct research in Africa and that was the second time I began to see the world my mother had talked about and I wanted to learn more.”
Asked if ethnographers, like con artists, rely on charm to induce potential research subjects to do what they want, Williams muses, “I guess it involves a bit of persuading, too, on my part. I tell people I won’t cause them any harm if they allow me to tell their (illegal) story. I already know that human beings have an inherent desire to tell their own stories. People believe me when I say I will not betray their trust.”
What gives him hope? “To be hopeful is to constantly undergo a re-thinking of what that means in light of what you are facing in your everyday struggles. What gives me hope is to believe in a hope-able future.”
Williams’ co-author, Trevor Milton, is assistant professor in the department of social sciences at Queensborough-City University of New York. He lives in Queens with his wife, Natalia, and their children Zhyom and Zhyara.
Although he was born in Boston, his parents moved the family to Plymouth, “a small beach town, when I was 7. I lived in a solidly working class neighborhood, which obviously contributed to my work ethic, and that – along with the frank language of Massachusetts generally – allows me to speak to anyone on their level.”
An A student until he reached his adolescent years, Milton recalls that as a teenager, he “cared more about chasing girls and getting in trouble with my friends. I was the only one of my high school friends who went on to college, largely because of my father’s tenacious desire to learn about how the world works and my mother’s insistence that I attend.”
“Definitely dreamy” in his undergraduate years, he changed majors six times. “I always had a gut sense about what I wanted to do, but I didn’t discover sociology until after I graduated. I actually finished my undergrad degree at Richmond, the American International University in London, where I had a concentration in journalism.”
Among Milton’s research interests is teenage life. Asked if he finds he knows more or less about adolescents as he gets further way from being one, he replies: “Teenagers are a different creature. A different species, almost. I made a fair share of fantastically foolish mistakes as a teen, so I will always understand how that mind works.”
How does he, as an ethnographer, persuade people to tell him about their lives? “At their core, most people want to share their stories – especially the most indigent or clandestine. Ethnography doesn’t require much persuasion beyond convincing people that you are there as a professional storyteller, and not to defame them.”
What gives him hope?
“My students,” Milton replies. “Some of them care, and would be in the classroom even if they didn’t earn any credit for it.”