debbie millman

Friday, May 08, 2009

Pigeon Dropping

I love almost everything about New York City. I love the intensity of the pace, the diversity of the people, the street signs, even the noise. When I first moved here, I was in my twenties. I’d spend endless hours sitting in the windows of cafes on Hudson Street, listening to blues at Dan’s on Second Avenue and trying to pick up boys at 2am on the rooftop of Danceteria. I always went home by myself, but as I walked across 8th street to my apartment in Chelsea, I strutted and sashayed and imagined I was street smart and savvy and somebody.

As an entry-level paste-up artist, I compared myself to the sophisticated silhouettes around me and wished for more of what I thought everyone else had: glamorous shoes, an apartment that wasn’t a tenement, a date on Saturday nights. I tried to make some extra money by freelancing, and a friend helped me get an interview for a book project. The day of the interview I wore my favorite outfit—a grey corduroy suit with a gaucho skirt and a puffy sleeved, button down jacket. I had matching grey, faux leather pumps that I wore so often, the rubber tips on the heels had been ground down to the metal studs. This caused shoes to make an annoying clicking noise when I walked and often caused me to slide at inopportune moments.

The interview was an unremarkable one, and I walked home discouraged in the cold January afternoon. I clutched my portfolio in one hand, my handbag in another and tried to balance myself on the icy sidewalk. But at the corner of 8th street and University Place, smack in the middle of Greenwich Village, I slipped and fell. My portfolio went flying; the contents slid across the icy street, followed by one grey shoe, my handbag and the last little bit of bravado that remained after my interview.

What I remember next was this: an elderly man helped me up while a young woman gathered my things. The man confirmed I was okay, then kept walking. After he was out of earshot, the woman griped about how rude he was. When I looked perplexed she elaborated; apparently she assumed he had bumped into me. As I tried to clarify, a second woman approached, also questioning if I was okay. I replied, again, that I was. Then she inquired if she could ask us for some advice. I was still unsure of my bearings and I was starting to get cranky, but I said yes. She motioned for us to come closer and slowly pulled a tattered wallet out of her coat pocket. Her eyes were wide and she whispered:"Look what I found."

She carefully opened it up, and the three of us stared at a wallet stuffed with bills. It was more money than I had ever seen in my life. I questioned whether or not there was any ID. She shook her head no. The first woman thought we should give it to the police. I nodded in agreement. But the second woman wasn’t sure, and suddenly offered to share it with us. The first woman’s eyes popped open, and her mouth made a soft whooshing sound. “You really want to share it?” Yes, she nodded. Yes, she did.

We decided it was too risky to remain outside with a wallet stuffed with cash, and ducked into a nearby coffee shop. We introduced ourselves: the woman who helped me up was Tina; the woman with the wallet was Mary. The two women started talking about how to divide the money and considered what the risks might be. Mary questioned whether or not the bills could be marked, and wondered if we would get arrested if we deposited the money into the bank. Then Tina told us she had an uncle named Jim who was a lawyer; perhaps he would know what to do. We agreed this was a good idea and she went to a payphone to call him. Left alone with Mary, I began to imagine how much was in the wallet and all the wonderful things I could buy with it. Tina came back excited and explained that Uncle Jim believed that the cash was likely drug money and the bills were probably marked. But he wanted to help us: he would exchange the money for us! In return, he asked us to contribute some of our own money so he wouldn’t be the only one taking a risk. I wasn’t sure about this and shook my head no. I couldn’t do that.

But Tina and Mary were willing. They looked at me hopefully and then I wavered; I didn’t want to let them down. Together, we walked to a nearby ATM and Tina and Mary withdrew $500. I only had $400 in the bank, and I took it out. Mary asked to count it and placed it in a teller envelope. But I wanted to hold on to it, so she gave it back and I put it safely in my pocket.

We walked to Uncle Jim’s office and decided to take the elevator up one at a time in case anyone was watching us. Tina went first and gave Jim the wallet and her envelope of money. 10 minutes later, she came down smiling, clutching a new envelope close to her chest. I went up next; when I got to the floor I was sweating. I asked the receptionist for Jim and she looked up, squinted and asked, “WHO?” I repeated Jim, Tina’s Uncle Jim. She shook her head, apologized, and told me there was no one there by that name.

I took the elevator back downstairs, but Tina and Mary were gone. I ran into a nearby deli to see if they were there but they weren’t. I fingered the envelope in my pocket: it was still there. I didn’t understand. What had happened? Why did they leave?

It was nearly dark and I decided to take a taxi home. I sat in the warm car reviewing what had happened. Maybe they were trying to scam me. I sighed and congratulated myself on not letting Mary hold on to my money. When we arrived at my apartment, I opened the teller envelope to pay the cab fare. I reached in for a bill and as I handed it to the driver, I saw the bill was newspaper! I frantically pulled out the contents of the envelope and realized ALL the bills were newspaper! Mary switched the envelopes! I was tricked. I was conned!

I never told anyone what happened. In the decades since, I discovered I was duped by what is called the Pigeon Drop, one of the oldest scams in the book. I look back on it now in embarrassment and humiliation and realize I wasn’t really conned by Tina and Mary. I duped myself. I see how much I was driven by hubris and arrogance, how much I wanted more than I had, and how I was motivated by my desire and my greed.

2 Comments:

Blogger jessicaaahhh said...

I'm really glad you shared this, and I'm humbled by your transparency. There are things I'd never want to share with people or never want to even remember because of how humiliating those times were. But I'm challenging myself to revisit humiliation, because it is often my best teacher. Because I am my own worst enemy, and as soon as I recognize where I need growth, then I can honestly move forward in life. Thanks so much, Debbie.

5/12/2009 05:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Debbie,

Is not the stock-in-trade of your craft at Sterling Brands, fundamentally, a Pigeon Drop?... A con is a con (no matter how badly the mark wants to be a mark)nor matter how sophisticated the game?


Daryl
darylmcgann@yahoo.com

5/15/2009 07:50:00 PM  

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Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on DesignObserver.com. In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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