Ken Leighton 5 p.m., Jan. 24
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Liberty Station Grifters
They showed up one day, right before the holidays. Two young kids decked out in Christmas garb, but shabby. They weren't really kids, they were at that in-between age of 17 and 20, she looking the part of the 17 year old. They set up a table outside Trader Joe’s, on the parking lot curbside, so that people leaving and crossing the street would have to walk right into them.
They had an interesting pitch. On their table were pre-wrapped gifts. You could either buy a gift, or in lieu of purchasing the gift, just make a donation. This was posed in such a way as to make the person actually thinking of "buying" the gift rather than just making a donation seem like a greedy pig for taking something that could generate more income. This was because the gifts were wrapped in red, white and blue paper, making them appear to be patriotic. They also had for purchase an assortment of tarnished flag pins, for the bargain price of one dollar.
For the shoppers this was not, in their eyes, anything other than fund-raising for some sort of Veterans' program. They passed through maybe once every two weeks, tossed a few bucks, and went on with their shopping. As the weeks progressed, this portal to my office, something I passed through everyday, became something decidedly different.
After the winter holidays were over, they set up a new table, this time in front of Vons. When they had their shop in front of Trader Joe’s, I had little contact with them, just a kind of curiosity about what these two were up to. Now, their table was directly at the crosswalk I used daily to access my building, and contact was inevitable.
The table had changed. In place of the patriotic tchotchkes and pre-wrapped gifts, there were pamphlets about flea-control products and cards for an animal emergency facility in East County. Also, a jar for donations to help pay for the surgery of a cat. And a new money-making prop, a four day-old kitten.
So, I stop and get the back story. The boy-man is a charming type, he taking on the role of the guy in charge, while the girl was more of a supporting player, shy and although I am not sure if it was an act or not, somewhat dumb, not in the sense of stupid, but just not in the least bit sophisticated and also somewhat eager to please. They show me photos of the mother cat, she now at the afore-mentioned animal facility, having undergone surgery. Expensive surgery, which they are unable to pay for. The kitten was the only survivor of a litter that had died inside the mother, her being unable for some reason to deliver them. The pictures showed her stitches. The baby kitten could not nurse due to the pain medication so they were bottle feeding it. The mother’s survival was still up in the air.
They seemed really earnest, and the girl would hold the kitten and feed it while the boy would do most of the talking, her sometimes looking up and pulling back the curtain of hair shielding her face, and she would smile at me. We chatted about cats and they told me the mother cat belonged to them. Something triggered in my head, this is not right, but I gave them five dollars and wished them luck.
Days go by. I can look out the window of our office everyday and watch the flow of people and their interaction with the two and the kitten. People are opening wallets left and right, tens and twenties flowing into the jar, and I watch the boy tell the story, while the people nod their heads and wear the pained expressions of someone being told a really sad story. I am becoming fascinated by these two, wondering what their story was, where were they from, where did they live? We all were. We watched them everyday, speculating and making up stories about them, envisioning a kind of romantic but harsh life of two young people trying to make a go of it in a seedy manner.
One day, our assistant was looking out the window, and she notices something. “Oh, my god, I think she is pregnant.” We all get up from our seats and gather at the window. Normally garbed in a large sweatshirt she had taken it off for an unseasonably warm afternoon. Sure enough, it was confirmed. One of my co-workers murmured “I gave them twenty dollars yesterday”. Another, “I gave them five”.
We had noticed sometimes the presence of an older woman in a mini-van come by and check on the two. She would confer with them, their three heads bowed together in some sort of conspiracy. Some days the van would be parked out there for hours, her whereabouts unknown. Other days, she would stay only for a few minutes. One day, she was there with them when I made my daily crossing. I chatted with her, my curiosity about this woman becoming a little obsessive. She alluded to the fact that she was one of their mothers, but I saw no resemblance. She confirmed that the mother cat was theirs, and said they worked for the animal facility as volunteers. Later that day, the boy and girl came into my office, saying the woman told them they needed to properly thank the nice lady that spoke to them everyday and seemed a bit of a champion for their cause. My co-workers are weirded-out by this, as was I. Until then, they had never gone to the office. They took one of my cards on their way out.
By now, Vons is getting upset by this whole thing, as the formally generous and concerned people who doled out donations are not seeing them leave and are complaining to management. I suppose they wanted to see some progress, in the form of them leaving. I asked the boy how the mother cat was doing. “She’s doing much better”. This relieved me, because I wanted to believe that somehow this would all make sense.
We see from the window animal control talking to them, the boy convincing the woman that the kitten is well taken care of, as he confirmed this all with me later when upon leaving I asked him what they wanted. But people are getting mean now, telling them they need to take the kitten to a shelter. Generosity was turning to torches and pitchforks. I tell them I will take the kitten but I realize now there was no way they were parting with what was a very profitable enterprise.
Then, there was a new enterprise. The earthquake in Haiti had struck, bringing terrible devastation to the people. And a new table went up. It had a donation jar for the victims of the quake, with some posters and a fake Red Cross-type sign. The white van woman had helped them set it up as we watched from the windows. And some people gave them money. We saw a police car in the parking lot, then two. That afternoon, I saw the Vons manager talking to them and then they were gone. I waited for days for them to come back. I needed to know about them, they did not say good-bye. Who was the lady in the van?
Weeks went by, and the memory of the two did not fade, but took on a dreamy quality, as I hoped the two would somehow be legitimate and knowing better. I had taken a card for the animal hospital when they were pimping the kitten, not for any particular reason, and had placed it my desk drawer. I took the card out of my drawer and called the number. I told them about the two volunteers that had been raising money for a cat’s surgery. They confirmed that a cat had been dropped off and had to have emergency surgery due to complications from it giving birth to its litter. None of the kittens survived, that they knew of. And she said they had no volunteers affiliated with them raising donations for the cat.
One day, they show up at the office with an animal carrier. The said they wanted to show me how well the kitten was doing. I asked about the mother, and they said they could not get her out of the animal hospital unless they paid an adoption fee of $60.00, and would I pay it? I told them that I thought they had said she was their cat. The boy is getting mad at me for challenging his story, and he said his wife was pregnant and they could not afford to get the cat out. I asked him where he lived. He said Point Loma with a question mark at the end. I knew he was bullsht and I knew she was really pregnant and I have never felt such an icky feeling as I did right then about what was morally right and wrong and I asked them to please leave and leave the kitten. I knew I was being grifted, but a part of me still wanted to help the girl, because I could tell she was going along with this, less a party to than a victim of. As they left with the cat, the boy said “fck this sht” and I never saw them again.