My friend Courtney visited me in New York a few months after I moved here. I was 21 years old and knew one person in the city. I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of any good spots to take her to. Smart phones had not yet been invented, so I carried a pocket-sized map to navigate, but I was embarrassed about being seen consulting it, which kept me from exploring a lot. I don’t think I’d even ventured into a newsstand to discover that there are magazines about what to do in the city. I loved New York, but was intimidated by it, although I never would have admitted that at the time.
This meant that when Courtney came to town, I did the only thing someone with my limited imagination and knowledge could. I took her to Times Square.
Fran Lebowitz said it best: “If you’re a New Yorker and you run into another New Yorker in Times Square, it’s like running into someone at a gay bar in the 70s – you make up excuses about why you’re there.”
I wasn’t a New Yorker. So off we went.
We passed a large crowd on a sidewalk. I’m not really of the “let’s linger and see what’s up here” variety, but Courtney is, and she asked me to stop.
It was a game of three-card monte. There were two dudes standing at an overturned box. One was shuffling cards. One was standing next to him, looking tough.
Allow me to explain the game for those of you who don’t know. The dealer exposes the face of a card, usually an ace, turns it over, and starts moving it around with two other face-down cards on the box. You’re supposed to keep your eye on the card he showed you, follow it, and when he stops moving the cards, point out which one you think the ace is.
This guy threw a curve ball into the mix. The corner of the ace that he showed us was slightly bent. He acted like he didn’t notice. Everyone in the crowd had their eye on the card, and of course, it was easy to track, because no matter how fast the cards moved, the bent corner remained.
The dealer stopped the cards. He asked if anyone in the audience wanted to bet money on which card the ace was. A woman volunteered, excitedly. She put a twenty-dollar bill on the box and pointed to the bent card. The dealer revealed that the card was, in fact, the ace. He pretended to be upset, pulled a twenty from his pocket, said, “you doubled your money, fair and square,” and handed it to the woman.
She jumped up and down, celebrating her victory perhaps a little too theatrically.
The dealer began again. Courtney, with fire in her eyes, looked at me and said, “I got this!” She waved a twenty over her head. The dealer nodded in her direction. She stepped up to the box, presented her money to him, and triumphantly pointed to the card with a bent corner.
The dealer turned the card over. It was not an ace. He feigned an apology, pocketed her cash, and started another round.
Courtney stood frozen, stunned. I shrugged my shoulders in a “You win some, you lose some” manner and began to walk away.
“No,” she said, “I want to stay. I want to watch.”
It was at that moment I knew this would not end well.
More and more people lost in the exact manner that Courtney had, complete with knowing enthusiasm followed by the shock of defeat.
Once the crowd underwent a turnover, with the losers leaving and new curious onlookers stopping, the original woman who “won” twenty dollars “won” again, as if the tape of life was rewound for an instant replay.
We put it all together. The dealer made an obvious bend in the corner of the ace. The crowd watched the woman win money by pointing that card out. The dealer quickly and secretly unbent the ace, bent the corner of a different card, and scooped up tourists’ twenties with ease.
Courtney was outraged. You would think she had witnessed the execution of an innocent man. As I made yet another attempt to leave, she extended her arm and pointed at the woman.
“You guys! She’s in on it! She’s working with them! It’s a scam! I just lost twenty dollars! Don’t believe the hype!”
Now the imposing man on the sidelines came into focus. He lurched toward us. His linebacker-sized frame towered over our heads. He subtly opened his black leather jacket and revealed a shiny gun in its holster.
That was quite an effective way to end Courtney’s newfound passion to educate the masses. She screamed in a Macaulay Culkin-aftershave-shenanigans type of way and bolted down the sidewalk. I broke into a run as well, while continuing to look behind me to make sure that Suge Knight wasn’t coming after us.
Courtney finally stopped sprinting after three blocks. I caught up to her, expecting to find her in tears, but she was laughing uncontrollably.
“Well,” she panted, “now I have a New York story.”