by JIM KNIPFEL
May 6, 2018
The Unlikely Con Man
Michael, one of the original security guards hired when the Guggenheim re-opened in 1991, was a small, slim, articulate and funny fey gay black kid in his twenties. The other guards, a motley bunch of struggling young artists, ex Marines and confused Slovenians, either loved him or hated him. He was outspoken, extroverted, well-read, had a wicked sense of humor, and was fearless with his sharp insults, likely because he knew some of the jarheads working there would be hesitant to punch a skinny little kid with glasses, no matter how gay he may have been. He could also be extremely charming.
Once we started talking, Michael explained to me he’d been raised in Harlem by a single mother who worked as a maid. His mom was insistent her son be able to get along in white culture, so she saved her money not only to send him to private (and mostly white) schools, she even sent him to a speech therapist to scrub away any remaining vestiges of a noticeable black accent. In that, she succeeded brilliantly. If you only heard his voice, which was precise and a touch nasal, there was no way of guessing he was a black kid from Harlem.
As he liked to tell it, he was also proudly decadent, a shameless hedonist, full of stories about his drug use, his drunken escapades, and his wild sexual adventures and misadventures. He’d even, he said, cut two holes in the inside pants pockets of his official Armani-designed uniform so he could masturbate while on post without anyone noticing.
As with any number of other gay black men I’ve known, Michael took a certain delight in shocking people, and was quite openly smitten with Nazi imagery.
He was, as I recall, working on his Masters in critical theory at Columbia. I could be wrong about that, but I remember him telling me he was working on his Masters in something at Columbia, and also remember talking with him while we were on post about assorted figures in the French critical theory scene, and he clearly knew what he was talking about. He was also a big fan of the Beats, the Marquis de Sade, and John Waters, so we got along well, though that meant having to hear a bit too much about the latest (usually European) pretty boy he was in love with.
A few months after we all started working there, Michael announced he was looking for a new apartment, and ended up moving in with another guard. Christina was a smart Asian girl whose mother had made a fortune with a chain of fish markets around the city. This explains how Christina, who made under twenty thousand dollars a year as a security guard at the Guggenheim, was able to live in a comfortable three-bedroom apartment on Central Park West. She had plenty of room, and had been looking for a roommate herself, so Michael moved in. Along with a few other Guggenheimers, my then-wife and I went over there once for a New Year’s Eve party. It was a fairly drunken affair with a lot of fresh seafood on hand. Michael and Christina seemed to get along well, though he repeatedly excused himself to either call his latest infatuation (who lived in Italy), or do more blow. He sometimes showed up for work looking pretty sweaty and ragged, with another tale about the previous night’s excess, but I gotta say coke never made him quite as annoying as it did most people.
One summer afternoon long after I’d split from the Guggenheim (not sure if he was still there or not), Michael stopped by my apartment. My then-wife had moved out a few months earlier, so it remains a little shocking to me I’d actually allow someone to come by. After Laura left I almost never had people over. But he’d called and asked if he could stop by, I’d always found him interesting and entertaining, so I agreed. Even more baffling now, there was someone else in the apartment that afternoon, too, though I can’t remember who it was. I don’t even know if she was with him or with me. Guess it doesn’t matter. This was during one of those stretches in the early nineties when things stayed pretty fuzzy for a long time. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with the two of them and a couple of bottles of wine. Michael got drunk and left a cigarette burning on the edge of the table, a good six inches from the ashtray. Once he noticed he apologized profusely, and though I assured him it was no big deal, the scorch mark remains on the table to this day.
We were talking about his thesis, and it struck me I had a number of books in my library that might be of some use or interest to him. So I combed through the shelves and gathered together a small stack of six or seven volumes, which I then handed to him. He also found a few other titles he wanted to borrow, so I pulled those down, too. The only specific title in the stack I recall at this point was The Body in Pain, a fundamental overview of political torture practices around the world pulled together by the UN or Amnesty International or some such organization. I think there was also some classic S&M literature, maybe those two early Trocchi porn novels, but I’m not sure. The important thing is that at the time I knew exactly what I was giving him.
Anyway, he thanked me sincerely, packed up the books and, if a shade unsteadily, headed on his way.
A few months later I started to get a little antsy. I always get a little antsy when I loan things to people, no matter how well I know them. Too often I’d lent out books, movies and albums with the understanding I’d be getting them back at some point, only to never see them again. I could only relax when I knew all my books were back in their assigned place on the shelves. It was just a damned Masters thesis after all—how long could it take? I wrote mine in a fucking week.
So I called Michael to ask after the books, and he explained, quite convincingly, that he was still working on the thesis and so still needed the books. He hadn’t even had a chance to get to some of them, busy as he’d been.
Well, okay then. What could I say? He admitted he had the books, he knew I wanted them back, and so he’d return them after the thesis was finished.
A few months after that when I called again to tell him fuck it, I wanted my damn books back already, I learned he’d simply packed up and moved out of Christina’s place. He hadn’t said a word, and no one saw him go. Middle of the night, he spirited away, apparently taking my books with him. In doing so, he also left Christina stuck with an eight thousand dollar phone bill for all those three-hour calls he’d been making to his boyfriend in Italy. So she was out a ton of money, and I was apparently out one stack of valuable books. The little bastard.
At this point we jump ahead two or three years. I was working at the Press when suddenly lamp posts all over the East Village were plastered with new flyers.
“DO NOT TRUST THIS MAN,” they read. Beneath that stern and simple warning was a very clear picture of Michael. And beneath the picture was a paragraph detailing the assorted pseudonyms he was known to have used, the assorted stories he’d told about himself, and how he’d conned any number of people out of money, rent, and valuable possessions. Christina and I weren’t the only ones—he’d apparently been preying on the unwary and gullible all over Manhattan and Brooklyn for years.
It turned out everything he’d told me, or anyone, had been a lie. Harlem my ass. Single mother struggling to get by as a maid my ass. Speech therapy and dreams of fitting into white culture my ass. He’d come from a wealthy and stable academic family on the Upper West Side, which is about as close as he ever got to Columbia. And now his last roommates were trying to track him down to get half a year’s rent out of him.
How could a paranoid like me fall for his line? Christ, he might as well have told me he was just trying to earn bus fare to get back to Georgia to see his kids.
Had to hand it to him, he talked a good game. Although he only got a stack of books out of me, he’d still suckered me but good.
After I wrote a small piece about the flyer for the Press, the conned roommates in question called me at the paper to let me know they still had my books, that he’d left those behind when he snuck away this latest time.
Jesus, the little son of a bitch didn’t even take the books with him? Just left them at some strangers house? That’s gratitude for you. That little fucker!
“So if you’d like them back,” the woman on the phone said, “we’d be happy to bring them over or send them to you.”
It was tempting, of course. A couple of those books were out of print and tracking them down again would be mighty tough in those pre-Internet days. In the end, though, I told her to keep them, that I didn’t need them back. In retrospect I think it was just my way of teaching myself a lesson about trusting people.
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