There is a Men’s restroom right across the Service Canada office in Guy-Favrau complex in downtown Montreal. I happened to visit it one morning. As I was washing my hands, a shabbily dressed man besides me tried to get my attention. He asked if I speak English. As usual my first instinct was to ignore the man who looked like a homeless bum. But if this guy was asking for help just because he couldn’t speak french, I didn’t see any harm talking to him. We just stepped out of the restroom after drying our hands under the hot air blower. Suddenly he started speaking in very good English. That’s not usual on the streets of Montreal.
He said, “I arrived last night by a bus from Halifax, Nova Scotia. My bus arrived at Berry UQAM and I was supposed to go to Boston on a connecting bus as soon as I arrived. But the bus got cancelled and they misplaced my luggage. So my bags haven’t arrived yet. I’m going to Boston to do a procedure on the tumor in my stomache.” This is where it got confusing to me. He opened his jacket, pulled up his sweatshirt and showed a big tumor sticking out of his stomache. It was big. The size of his head maybe. I tried my best to not show my disgust. He covered it up and continued telling his story.
“I need to get my medications. The pharmacist here told me that my Insurance provider in Halifax will not work here. Since I didn’t expect getting stranded in Montreal, I didn’t bring much money with me. I had $120 with me. The pharmacist asked for $148.”
All this time, he was showing me a paper, which had something written on it in blue pen. I could make out words like ‘Berry UQAM’, timings, the sum total of some dollar figures, etc. Everything else was in very illegible handwriting.
“I’m running $28 short.”
… At this point, I found myself confused. Since the beginning I assumed this is a homeless man trying to get some money from me. But I wasn’t prepared for such an elaborate story, certainly not one substantiated so well. Turning down a homeless man is pretty easy, but ignoring a stranded sick traveler can definitely make you feel guilty.
I tried to rationalize the situation. To begin with, I cannot say whether this man is lying or saying the truth. The probability that a given unknown person would lie or tell the truth will be 50%. Then in my mind I drew a table. On the left all the things that indicated he was lying and on the right all the things that could prove he wasn’t. I was filling this table as he was presenting me his story. The actual tumor (or what he showed me of it), was a big entry in the right column. Eventually I decided that even if there is a possibility that he is telling the truth and I walk away; I’ll always feel guilty for being a skeptic and valuing $28 more than the helplessness of a sick person. After seeing the situation in this way, I knew what to do. I wasn’t as worried about being fooled for $28 as I was about being irrational. Also, I wanted to know the truth.
So I took out my wallet and gave him $30. He asked for my phone number to return the money, which of course I didn’t give. And then I started looking for his reaction to get a hint of the truth.
He said, “Thank you. It’s good to know there are people.. blah blah” I cut him short and made my exit.
To me it appeared textbook response. If you are asking strangers for money to treat the pain from an illness, because you are stranded in a foreign city, then you are in a very stressful situation. And then you find a person who just solves that problem by giving you all the money you need. …and you don’t show any emotion. You give a boilerplate response. It was at this moment that I thought I had enough data to prove to myself that he was lying.
Later, I tried to put myself in his shoes as a conman and tried to imagine how such situation could be set up.
It is easy to gain sympathy as a stranded Anglophone in Montreal who can’t speak or understand french. Showing someone a big tumour in your stomach, increases your credibility a lot and gains you lot of sympathy instantly. Moreover, anyone would want to avoid looking at an abnormal growth in someone’s body, so most people won’t tend to overanalyse it, if at all. Putting everything he was saying on a piece of paper, somehow made it more credible. I overlooked the fact that all of it was written by hand and in illegible handwriting. He could have scribbled all of it on his own. Furthermore, the price he was asking was just right. Not too small, to raise the doubt that he was just a petty beggar. Not too large, to outweigh my conscience.
Yes, most likely I was conned. … I would never know.