Homeless in Vancouver: Know anyone who wants to buy a smartphone?

That question—Know anyone who wants to buy a smartphone?—was being repeated around the Fairview McDonald’s I was in yesterday evening.

It was after 9:30 p.m. There weren’t many customers, but someone was hitting on each one of them in turn.

When it came to me, I turned to the fellow asking me the disingenuous question and answered “no.” I didn’t add—not even it was the last phone for sale on Earth and he was only selling it for a dollar—I didn’t say that part out loud. No colour or heat in my voice; just “no”, with minimal eye contact. I wasn’t giving the fellow anything to hang a spiel on.

The next customer who heard the clear question—everyone could hear it—replied: “What?”

That’s the question on the lips of the fish as it bites down on the hook.

What follows was predictable in how it went and how it went wrong.

Trying to make a buck by hook or by crook

Our sucker fish asked what it was, what it did, and how much? All the while acting like he just woke up in a cabbage patch somewhere; downright coquettish. Playing hard to get.

I don’t know if there really is still a sucker born every minute like David Hannum ruefully declared in the 1870s when he was out-cheated by P. T. Barnum. But I believe there’s someone in every crowd who’s willing to believe they can get something for almost nothing.

People with larceny in their heart are naturally easier people to con—they want to believe too good can be true; they’re willing to help you to con them.

Take our sucker fish for example, he was—it wasn’t hard to hear—being offered an unlocked Samsung smartphone by a Central Casting version of a Downtown Eastside druggie for something like $20—the price of a little piece of hard rock candy.

To start with, the sucker had to con himself into believing he was involved in a legitimate transaction, which is the same as saying he was willing to turn a blind eye to the likely possibility that he was being offered stolen merchandise; he had to be as crooked as the deal he was being offered.

But being more willing and receptive isn’t the same as being sold.

Near as I could tell, the prospect played hard to get, quibbled over the price, handed over a bill, and before you could say, “Wow, this phone sure feels hot!”, complained vehemently about the quality of the merchandise.

“You sold me a phone that doesn’t work!”

I looked in their direction in time to see the guy hand the phone back and snatch back the bill he’d handed over. A few other words were exchanged, but soon enough the sucker left—off the hook.

Either the would-be customer was a genuine mark—and an aggrieved one at that—who left the restaurant and called the police or he was a “bait” mark. Either way, it was only a few minutes before two plain-clothed Vancouver police officers showed up. They knew exactly who they were looking for. After a few more minutes, a uniformed officer showed up.

The ensuing conversation revolved around whether the fellow trying to sell the phone had proof of ownership. No? He got it downtown at the Hastings Street market? Didn’t he know that all that stuff was probably all stolen?

A Samsung worth $200—minimum—and he got it for less than half that and was trying to sell for even less than he paid? My my. No wonder we poor get poorer.

Needless to say the police hung onto that phone and another he happened to have. They didn’t arrest him. They had mentioned the possibility of arresting him for possession of stolen merchandise but they didn’t. The two officers—mostly just one—who spoke to the phony salesman, were very polite and matter-of-fact.

One officer gave the fellow an investigation number and an opportunity to get his phones back if he could provide any proof of ownership, such as a receipt.

The fellow, by this time, was acting very much the wronged party. He was all “f” this and “f” that, and muttering, just loud enough, how they’d stolen his “f-ing” property.

Genuine or not in his case, it still illustrated a reality facing all poor and/or homeless people, including myself, who live in the mainstream society of property rights and receipts and “proof of ownership”, but who also take part in the gray economy of binning and Dumpster diving; of bartering and giving and sharing.

Several of my laptops have come out of the garbage. My current mountain bike was a throwaway; my current bicycle trailer also. Many of my clothes came out of bags left beside Dumpsters. Nothing I’ve just mentioned came with receipts. The police would be within their legal rights to strip me of all those possessions and I could do nothing but… mutter under my breath, just loud enough, how they’d stolen my “f-ing” property. 

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