I was on the train from the apartment to Midway (Chicago Airport). It's not a long ride – 20 minutes or so, and it usually flies by. When I arrived at the platform the large monitors said that the train was due, but I still waited 10 minutes for it to arrive.
When the eight silver cars finally pulled in, I stood the customary six feet away to allow passengers queued in the doorwell to exit. But moments before the door opened, several people filled that gap. When the doors opened, they rushed past the people trying to get off. Rude behavior, but not unusual in the big city.
I chose a seat way at one end of the car. My bluetooth headphones were in and I was listening to a book, so not paying much attention to my surroundings. It was more crowded than usual.
After about 30 seconds, I heard very a loud voice. It actually sounded like a carnival barker calling people up to his stand to see the bearded lady or a goat with two heads.
And in fact, that's what it turned out to be.
A large black man – leather coat, fancy shoes – was talking loudly about how we could make easy money. He pulled out a felt-covered board and produced a red pea-sized ball and three Pepsi bottle lids. Yes, he was pitching the shell game.
"First person who guesses where the ball is gets the money. All you have to do is be first, and show me that you can match the money I have. When you're right, the money's yours."
Predictably, a man jumped forward and said "That one right there!" The man flashed a $100 at the pea dealer and was instantly handed a matching and suspiciously crisp bill. Wow, it's that easy to win!
Another man started hooting and clapping at how much fun this was. The pea dealer shuffled the caps slowly but gracefully.
"Who's going to be first?" A lady from a few seats over jumped up. "It's that one right there!" A crisp $50 appeared from her pocket. The pea dealer lifted the corresponding cap and said, "Yes ma'am, it's your lucky day! And I just happen to have a fifty right here."
The woman sat down but watched on eagerly. Standing up, the dealer asked who was next.
At that moment, we were pulling into a station. I saw the dealer crane his neck nervously. Not seeing any threats, he slid down the car a little and continued while displaying his board.
Two young men who were standing by the door saw the action, and glancing at one another, pulled out their wallets and began counting their money.
"Hmm," I thought. "I should warn them."
But I didn't. By this time it was obvious that the pea dealer was working with friends, and I didn't know who they all were or what they were willing to do to protect their venture. Somewhat ashamed, I decided to look on and keep to myself.
In less than 30 seconds, the two men were fleeced of $80.
They seem confused and embarassed. How could they have missed it? They saw right where the pea went! But of course in the 400 years or so that this scam has been practiced, the donor ALWAYS knows just where the pea went.
The dealer tried to get them to pony up more cash - to overcome the bad luck they'd just experienced – but he had cleaned them out. In search of fresh pickings, he moved down the car towards me. My discomfort grew.
He ignored the older folks closest to him and focussed on a woman in her mid 20's. He began his shuffle. She seemed to be looking on skeptically, but to my surprise she jumped up an shouted "It's right there!" I shook my head at her, but she didn't seem to notice.
"That's right young lady! Now how much money are you showin' so I can match it?"
"Oh, I don't have any money. I just wanted to play for fun."
I chuckled internally and watched the dealer frown and gaze in my direction.
He was shouting his pitch towards my group of seats, hoping to catch my eyes. But I had my headphones in, and stared dumbly about four feet to his right, which allowed me to observe him without making contact.
Another station was upon us, and he gazed at the platform once more. Just as we came to a stop, he pocketed his board and caps and exited the train - closely followed by the "winners" from his first round and another large gentleman who didn't participate. This was the man I was concerned might be there.
I watched them get out of the train and quickly board another train heading in the opposite directly. All four of them crowded the door, pushed past the exitting passengers, and assumed their carefully distributed positions, ready for the next round. My train continued on towards Midway, and I was at ease again.
After a minute or two of silence, the woman across from me started talking.
"Oh, that's such a scam. It's amazing that anyone still does that."
I nodded in agreement and mentioned that I was aware of the game and was careful to not partake. The freshly cashless young men overheard us and look embarrassed.
One of the older gentleman by the door tapped one of the losers on the shoulder and started a conversation.
"Son, you got off easy. Those guys have been pulling that scam for years."
"Well, I lost $40 and so did my friend here. We would have lost more if we had more money. I guess we're pretty stupid."
The older man continued, "You noticed they didn't try it with me? They've seen me here before. They're on the train every day at this time, as am I. You learned a good lesson today, son."
Then the entire car started offering sage advice to the young men, and all were careful to confirm how they'd known it was a scam all along.
"That's a cheap way to learn that lesson!" and "It's a good thing you didn't try to get your money back. They had a friend over here who was waiting for that." and "The money they were showing wasn't even real."
I did not join this fray. Moments before, I'd been ashamed for not standing up to protect someone naive from being taken. And while I still am to some degree, it appears that no one else was willing to take the risk either.
Emotionally, it feels wrong to me that I didn't stand up and do something, but when I do the calculus and consider the risks, I have to conclude that I, as well as everyone else on the train did the right thing. Saving those two guys from losing their money was not worth the risk of physical violence. The bad guys win, and they know this.
But imagine if we used that unison of voice that we had after the gaming party left. Imagine if we had all told the dealer to shut the hell up and find a more honest way to make a living. I'm afraid such behavior is reserved for day dreaming (such as this) and fiction. This same script has played out for generations, and I suspect it will continue for generations to come. And I find it most unsatisfying.