Transcript

86:

How to Take Money from Strangers
Transcript

Originally aired 12.12.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/86

Act One. Saint Nick.

Ira Glass

Nick Ward didn't just convince strangers to hand him money on the street. He talked them into going to their bank machines if they didn't have money on them. He talked them into going back to their apartments if they didn't have their cash card with them. Some of the people he talked into giving him money two and three times. And when they left him, a lot of these people hugged him. They said, god bless you. They felt good about themselves. They're been conned and they never felt better. There's an artist for you. That's a gift.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it is This American Life. I'm IRA Glass. Each week on our program of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's program, How to Take Money From Strangers. We bring you three stories today about nerve and entrepreneurial spirit and everything that makes this country great, plus, of course, lying and deception, and everything that makes it a more complicated place to live. We have three case studies today. One on the street, one in the salons of the wealthy, one on the phone.

Act One of our program, Saint Nick, a con man who makes money partly by making people feel like they are good people, living in a good country. Act Two, What Makes Grammy Run. At the other end of the economic spectrum, a legitimate businessman who makes his living by selling, I have to say, a very similar picture of the world, to his customers, who are the very rich. That story from Sarah Vowell. Act Three, Futures Market, the true story of how writer Stephen Glass took money from strangers by selling hope and fear when he got a job as a telephone psychic, a rare look inside that very American business. Stay with us.

Act Two. What Makes Grammy Run?

Ira Glass

Act One, Saint Nick. Well, when This American Life producer Nancy Updike started working on this particular story, she was making phone calls to Philadelphia, where Nick Ward ran his con. And she would be on the phone with friends of hers in Philly and she would mention the story. And they'd say, oh that guy, that guy. He took money from me. This happened over and over and over.

Nick Ward worked the streets so long and so effectively that everyone seemed to have been conned by him or knew somebody who had been conned by him. And a couple days into her research, Nancy suddenly remembered that back when she lived in Philadelphia years ago, she was conned by him. Here's her story.

Nancy Updike

There's an unfortunate twist to this story, which is that some of the key characters are actually dead or lost. One was a bemused judge, who said on one of Nick's Ward's frequent visits to his courtroom, you have a brain that's beautiful. But that brain has been turned to the con. Then there was the little old lady in New Hampshire who got dozens and dozens of phone calls from strangers in Philadelphia who were conned by Nick Ward. And then there's Nick Ward himself, who is nowhere to be found.

OK. Center City, Philadelphia's charmingly small downtown area-- picture a skyline of about four buildings and then around those, 20 square blocks or so of law offices, hotels, and those kind of little boutiques where you have to be buzzed in. This is where a lot of the city's white collar professionals work. And it's also where Nick Ward worked. It's where he conned, and this is a partial list, two assistant district attorneys, three metal salesmen, an architect, a university professor, several doctors, a folk singer, a medical student, a geologist, the Secretary of the Delaware Valley Association of Railroad Passengers, and, in another part of the city, the Chief of the Criminal Division of the US Attorney's Office, best known for dismantling the "Little Nicky" Scarfo mob that had run Philadelphia and southern New Jersey for years.

Bill Marsh

I was walking down Market Street, the main street in Philadelphia, on my way to drop off some things to the Salvation Army, believe it or not. I was the perfect candidate for this.

Nancy Updike

This is Bill Marsh, an art director at the Inquirer. Ward found him in the same ideal state he'd found dozens of others, at a moment where they felt full of the spirit of giving. He caught a lawyer on her way back from a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, another woman leaving church services on Christmas Eve. But Ward also had a gift for spotting people who give all year round. Gary Glenn is an editor for the American College of Physicians.

Gary Glenn

I was out at lunch. And I was walking through the underground concourse at Suburban Station. And my wife and I have volunteered in homeless shelters and generally give the panhandlers a lot.

Nancy Updike

Gary and Bill, two men who were strangers before their respective Nick Ward experiences, will now perform a duet for you about how Nick Ward talked them into giving him a total of $135.

Gary Glenn

He said he was a college kid from Boston studying fashion design. And he'd come down here for an interview at a department store.

Bill Marsh

He was a fashion designer. And he was in Philadelphia to present some of his designs and photography to one of the big department stores here.

Gary Glenn

A gypsy cab driver had taken his garment bag and portfolio. He didn't have his jacket and have an ATM card.

Bill Marsh

A gypsy cab, as he put it, made off with all his stuff, camera equipment, photography, everything. He was left stranded here.

Gary Glenn

He'd called the cops. He'd been to Travelers Aid.

Bill Marsh

Yeah, it was the Travelers Aid office. He wanted directions to the Travelers Aid office. And I don't know how to put this. He played upon all kinds of racial guilt that one might feel.

Ginny Wiegand

He's black and everyone he approached is white.

Gary Glenn

Oh, of course that's bred into it. I mean you look at all the people that Nick picked. They were all white, mostly suburban, middle class. It was the same people who make the United Way donations or give some money to the church clothing drive.

Nancy Updike

Let's add an alto voice to this duet. This is Ginny Wiegand, the reporter who broke the story about Nick Ward in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Ginny Wiegand

When people would kind of walk quickly away from him, he would call out after them, don't shun me just because I'm a black male. And of course, then people would stop in their tracks and just feel terrible. And as soon as they stopped, he had them.

He would say when he arrived in Philadelphia, he was lost and ended up near the University of Pennsylvania campus. And some white fraternity brothers were nasty to him and called him racial names, which of course made everyone feel terrible. And he'd say, can you believe that in the city of brotherly love, that they would treat a black man like that and someone like me? And he was very well dressed. He was clean-shaven. He had a nice wool sweater, a leather jacket on. He would offer to give people his watch as proof that he was the real thing.

Nancy Updike

And no one ever took it, so he could offer every time.

Ginny Wiegand

Well, I guess people felt-- it made them feel terrible to-- I'm having these doubts about him. And look, as evidence of his goodwill and good faith, he's offering me this nice watch. And so no, no ever took it.

Gary Glenn

Every single suggestion that I made to him to get help, he said he'd already tried or they're all racist. I didn't want to be one of those people. I certainly didn't want to be thought of as racist because I'm not.

Nancy Updike

And that's what you bought for $35.

Gary Glenn

Feeling good about myself?

Nancy Updike

You get to be the non-racist.

Gary Glenn

Yeah, I suppose.

What he was asking for was the price of a train ticket back to Boston. And I doubt I would have financed that, even if I'd had the money. I gave him everything I had, which was $35.

Bill Marsh

And I said listen, I can give you $20. And he said, listen if I have to tell my story to like five more people to get the money I need, I'll be here all day. I don't want to be in Philadelphia at night with no place to go. And I went, all right, that sounds logical. So I went to an ATM machine, took out $100, and gave it to him.

Gary Glenn

And I honestly believed, not entirely-- I did think that there was a possibility that this was insincere. But I honestly expected to get a check and a call from him.

Nancy Updike

You know of course that Nick did not call. But perhaps you're not fully understanding how thoroughly Nick made his marks believe in him. Let me tell you this story. Several months after Bill was conned, he ran into Nick while Nick was in mid-scam with someone else.

Bill Marsh

I made a fool of myself. I came off looking like the lunatic. I was walking home from work late one night and I saw Nick with a young woman, deep in conversation. Without really thinking, I went up to him with a very badly composed and hysterical outburst, something like, do you know who this guy is? No. As a matter of fact, the first words out of my mouth were, "Do not give this man any money. Do you know who he is? This is Nick Jerome Ward. He's a scam artist. You don't want to give him any money. I'm telling you, whatever he's telling you is not true.

And I went on like that for a couple of minutes. She seemed rather stunned. And he stood there very calmly, and I would say professionally, and said to her, "I don't know what he's talking about. He's not telling the truth. I don't know this guy." And to my surprise and dismay, she seemed to believe him more than she believed me. I was--

Nancy Updike

[LAUGHTER].

Bill Marsh

--the nut bar in that--

Nancy Updike

Here's an interesting question. Is what Nick was doing illegal? Lying is not against the law. Telling someone you want money for a train ticket and then buying yourself dinner is also not against the law. Nick's problem was he told people he was going to pay them back. And he just made that promise to too many people. This is how Matthew Perks, the Assistant District Attorney who supervised Nick's prosecution, saw it.

Matthew Perks

If the cases where each looked at individually, he could probably mount a defense to maybe one or a few that we would be unable to prove that he did not intend to pay the money back.

Nancy Updike

Because that was the only way that it was illegal, is if he said, "I will pay you back."

Matthew Perks

That's correct. We would have to create an inference in the mind of whoever was deciding as judge at that point, that he, beyond a reasonable doubt, didn't intend to pay the money back.

Nancy Updike

For someone whose con was so smooth and so well thought out, Nick made one big mistake, a really strange mistake actually. The phone number he gave Bill, was the same one he gave Gary, which was also the same one he gave everyone. And it turned out to be the actual unlisted phone number of this woman, who was a retired editor of an outdoor magazine, living in New Hampshire, originally from Finland, who was home sick with cancer, and started getting all these weird calls from people in Philadelphia. And after a while, she just started taking down their names and phone numbers and putting them in touch with each other, until finally she had this database of about 150 people.

So Ginny started to write a story about Nick for the Inquirer. And she called this woman up and got all these names, which made it this huge story. It came out in the Sunday paper, got the front page, top of the fold, and everything was put in motion. The police, who had actually known about Nick, but who'd been busy with more serious crimes, got embarrassed and arrested him. Nick ended up in court and eventually went to prison.

But what's interesting is that along the way, there was all this outage from the people he conned, truly outrage. The public defender who worked Nick's case said to me, "Look, I'm been a public defender for 20 years. I have worked with rape victims, victims of terrible violent crimes. And I have never seen the kind of vitriol from any of those victims that I saw from Nick Ward's victims."

Gary said he was shocked by the mood in the courtroom when he was there. All these well-dressed, well-spoken, sort of do-gooder yuppies turned into this jeering mob.

Gary Glenn

When Nick was brought in, a lot of people started taunting him, saying, "Hey Nick, what have you got to say for yourself now? Oh, now he's all quiet. Doesn't have anything to say." And I was looking around at the people who have been scammed by him, and I don't think there was anybody there who couldn't have done without the amount of money that they gave him.

And there are people there saying, "Yeah, I gave him $25." And they mad as if they'd given him their daughter or something. It was really unbalanced. And I'm not defending Nick at all, but just the vindictiveness of the people in the court that day, I thought was way out of proportion.

Nancy Updike

Why were people so mad? Maybe it was because Nick didn't just talk them out of some cash. He made his marks identify with him. He convinced them that he was a member of their club, the club of people who go to college and have job interviews and careers, and who every once in a while just have some random bad luck. People looked at him and thought, this could be my kid or even this could be me.

Here's Gary.

Gary Glenn

I think every other panhandler you see on the street, oh god, they're a junkie, they're an alcoholic, or whatever. And you kind of give money to them out of a sense of pity and almost condescension. Yes, brother, here's a quarter. But Nick was hitting you as an equal or as someone who was trying to work his way up to be your equal. And yeah, gotta give the guy a chance, gotta give the guy a chance.

Nancy Updike

How do you get money from a stranger? You become a salesman. First you flatter, then you sell. Nick's victims liked the image of themselves. They liked the image of America that Nick was offering them, where of course they would help a young black man who approached them on the street and said he was in trouble. And when the truth of the con came out, when Nick took that image away from them, they were furious.

Gary Glenn

There is a way in which you could think of Nick Ward as an agent or even an angel. He may not know it and he may not be angelic, but he was something that suddenly entered our lives, and we had a chance to take a test-- do the right thing or not do the right thing. A good Samaritan. And I think that at the point at which people forked over the money, they were doing the right thing. Their attitude after that showed that they failed the test.

Nancy Updike

The test Gary says was to figure out which kind of person you want to be, the kind who would give money to a stranger who claims to be in need or the kind who turns their back on that stranger, because they don't want to be conned? Gary says he's not sorry he gave Nick the money, even today. He says at the end of the day if he has to choose, he'd rather be a sucker than a cynic.

There's a passage in Matthew where Jesus tells his followers, "If someone comes before you hungry and you give him meat, or thirsty and you give him drink, or naked and you clothe him, what you do for the least of these, you do for me."

Matthew Perks

Stop it, right now. This guy is not a seducer and he is not Jesus Christ. I mean you've got to be kidding.

Nancy Updike

This is Matthew Perks again, the Assistant DA, who supervised Nick's prosecution. And he was, as you can tell, a little alarmed at the direction of some of my questions. He turned to me when I quoted this Bible verse to him and said, "You're not going to turn this guy into some kind of folk hero, are you?"

Matthew Perks

I'm telling you-- I mean, he's a knucklehead.

Nancy Updike

He says his favorite part of the Nick Ward story is the ending, because that's where he got to con Nick.

Matthew Perks

Towards the end of this block is where I saw him.

Nancy Updike

Describe where we're at?

Matthew Perks

Yeah, it's a little bit-- this is Locust Street, about two blocks from Rittenhouse Square-- a beautiful church on the other side of the street, those brownstone offices, and upscale stores and restaurants.

Nancy Updike

Matthew took me out for a walk, along the route of his encounter with Nick. an encounter that eventually led to Nick being sent to prison for 19 months and then banished from Philadelphia. Nick approached him on New Year's Eve, a little before midnight. Matthew was on his way home. And Nick came up to him and started spinning a story, complete with heart wrenching details.

Matthew Perks

He showed me a little cut above his eye and told me that he'd been robbed and everything was taken from him. And he'd been injured. And he hated Philadelphia and he had to get back to Massachusetts. So I thought I would take a little time and do the people of Philadelphia a favor.

Nancy Updike

And so what happened next?

Matthew Perks

We walked. He asked me for $60 to get home. I told him I didn't have enough money on me, so I told him we could walk to a automatic teller machine.

Nancy Updike

What machine did you go to?

Matthew Perks

I'll show you. It's on the way back.

Nancy Updike

We turned up 17th Street, exactly where Nick and Matthew had walked together, each secretly plotting to con the other. And I asked Matthew to remember exactly what he had been thinking while it was happening.

Matthew Perks

I'm thinking, I can't believe how lucky I am.

Nancy Updike

Are you trying to sort of play the part of the rube?

Matthew Perks

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Nancy Updike

And how were you doing that?

Matthew Perks

I knew exactly what he was looking for. I acted like I felt bad about what happened to him and I was going to try and help him out.

Nancy Updike

You're grinning as you're telling this. You're enjoying remembering this.

Matthew Perks

[LAUGHTER].

Nancy Updike

Matthew's pleasure at that moment was so palpable. He was so inside this memory of having Nick completely in his power. He got to experience what Nick must experienced every day, the joy of a perfect deception, of knowing exactly how to play someone to get what you want. That sense of power that comes from knowing someone better than they can imagine.

Matthew Perks

So this is it, the scene of the crime.

Nancy Updike

This is the MAC machine.

Matthew Perks

That's right. It's a bank lobby actually.

Nancy Updike

It's a bank lobby with MAC machines in it.

Matthew Perks

When we went in there, I withdrew the money and gave it to him. And I made him write down his name and address, which I knew to be fictitious. And I gave him my correct name and address because I wanted that evidence to get confiscated from him, to show the elements of theft by deception, to show that he promised to pay me back and had no intention of doing it.

Nancy Updike

And as you guys were exchanging addresses like this, what were you saying to him?

Matthew Perks

I was egging him on. I told him that I really shouldn't be doing it because I'd have to explain it to my wife so I had to be absolutely sure he was going to pay me back. And of course, I wasn't married at the time.

Nancy Updike

So to catch Nick Ward, you invented a spouse?

Matthew Perks

That's correct.

Nancy Updike

Matthew and I started walking away from the ATM machine. And about a block away, he said this.

Matthew Perks

I still have the three $20s I gave him.

Nancy Updike

What did you just say? You still have the money he took from you?

Matthew Perks

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

What? You have it saved?

Matthew Perks

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

Where?

Matthew Perks

Oh, just sitting in my apartment.

Nancy Updike

Do you have them in a special place?

Matthew Perks

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

Like what? In a box?

Matthew Perks

That's off the record. That's too weird.

Nancy Updike

It's not weird at all. It's the best part.

This is an Assistant DA. He has had so many cases much more important than Nick Ward. So why on earth does he have three $20s sitting on a shelf in his apartment in a paper clip? I'll tell you why. Because it's thrilling to take money from strangers. And that is what Nick Ward gave Matthew the chance to do. Matthew took $60 from Nick Ward. It was his own $60. But he took it and enjoyed it. And he's keeping it.

Nancy Updike

Now wait, where are those $20s?

Matthew Perks

Just on a shelf in my apartment.

Nancy Updike

And where you can see them?

Matthew Perks

[LAUGHTER]. Well, I know they're there. They're not framed or anything. That was too weird.

Nancy Updike

You just kept them.

Matthew Perks

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike, here in Chicago.

Coming up, Sarah Vowell with a legitimate businessman who takes large sums of money people. And they love him for it. And writer Stephen Glass takes large amounts of money from poor people as a telephone psychic. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act 2.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course we choose a theme, invite a variety of different writers and performers and reporters to take a whack at that theme. Today's program, Taking Money From Strangers.

Michael Schulman is an attorney in New York. And part of his practice is defending people who are accused of fraud. And he says that fraud cases are interesting to him because it shows a side of human behavior that is just interesting, it's just inherently interesting. It's people betting on a promise in these cases, people living on a dream.

Michael Schulman

Americans like to play the long shot. So when a salesman comes around and says, this piece of land is going to be worth triple its value in three or four years, I think people know that there's a big risk involved in that and that chances are it's not necessarily going to work out that way. But they want to take the chance.

Ira Glass

All right. You can tell which side of these cases he's on. But, he has a point. This is the plot of a thousand Hollywood films. This is the story that runs our country. This is the nobody who sets off after the least likely thing in the world and gets it. That is this story. And it is a deep part of our culture.

Well, Sarah Vowell has this story about a businessman who is very successful at getting people to dream and taking away money from strangers.

Sarah Vowell

I once had a job as the manager of a San Francisco gallery owned by an infamous New York antiquarian print and map dealer named Graham Arader. I hung gigantic Audubon pelicans and delicate little 18th century prints of lilies and roses on the wall, wrote gushy letters to collectors about 400-year-old maps of North America, and helped the sales staff try and push chromolithographs of the Grand Canyon on to unsuspecting housewives. It was one of those, boy do I need a job, kind of jobs.

Graham Arader was the kind of fascinating boss whom employees gossip about with a mix of adulation and dread. One of those go, go, go guys whose ambition you could admire, while at the same time hoping you weren't the one who answered the phone when he called. Graham Arader, the Grahamarader-- you almost wanted to say his full name every time to make it sound even more like the Terminator.

My favorite story about the Grahamarader, one printed in The New Yorker so presumably it may even be true, says they Graham once desired a map owned by a friend. Graham begged the guy for it. Told the guy that he needed the map. That he loves this map so much he wanted to hang it over his bed. That it would be the first thing he saw when he got up in the morning and the last thing he saw when he went to sleep at night. That he wanted to conceive his children under it, at least that's the version of the story his employees tell each other. The friend was so touched, he sold it to the Grahamarader, who promptly called the friend the very next day, bragging that he'd sold it, and for a tidy profit at that.

Map dealers just aren't like that. As a group, they tend to be polite, bookish, and don't inspire comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger or any other mythic pop figure. Graham is the map dealers' Michael Milken, their Elvis Presley. In financial terms, he put antiquarian maps on the map and he popularized them like no one ever had, through sheer charisma.

Graham Arader

The antiquarian map market before Graham Arader was a fairly sophisticated market. The people that collected had in-depth knowledge and understanding. I guess the effect that I had is I brought map collecting to a lot more people, who perhaps in the beginning were not as sophisticated. And the prices have gone up and I get blamed a lot.

Sarah Vowell

What Graham isn't telling you is that he functions as the messiah of the map biz or its antichrist, depending on your point of view. The entire industry can be divided, BA, before Arader, when many historical maps sold for a few hundred dollars and AA, after Arader, when the same maps began commanding tens of thousands of dollars. His beginnings in the early 1970s sound so American, so go west young man. He was dealing maps out of his dorm room at Yale. And then there's the story about how his mother ruined baby's first big sale.

Graham Arader

What happened was, I'd been working the whole summer buying maps of Penobscot Bay for Thomas Watson, who was then the Chairman and Chief Operating Officer of IBM. And he had never met me. I had met him by phone. And I went ahead and found all these fabulous maps that showed Penobscot Bay. So at the end of the summer, I'd amassed this really incredible collection. And I was living with my parents at the time. I was 23 years old. And when Mr. Watson called, my mother not knowing who he was or why he was calling, my mother said, "I'm sorry, you'll have to use the children's phone." Mr. Watson hung up and didn't talk to me again for two years.

Sarah Vowell

In the years since, Graham Arader has acquired not just one, but many, many of his own telephone lines at the galleries he owns across the country. He's a successful salesman, the most successful salesman in his market for two reasons, kindness and optimism. Let's start with kindness. In some ways, the getting money ways, Graham Arader is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. Now some people, people who actually know him, are going to laugh at that. Graham doesn't have a nice guy rep with his competitors. This is the man who at auction, has successfully intimidated the unthinkable wealthy Getty Museum into backing down on bids. That's scary. I mean the Grahamarader's rich, but he's not that rich.

Granted he's only nice to you if he wants something out of you. But Graham Arader wants something from a lot of people, all the time. His secret for getting money from strangers boils down to this, strangers don't give you money, friends do. Relationships, he used to tell us in sales seminars, selling comes from relationships.

Graham Arader

He bought the most perfect Bodmer Dog Dancer, with perfect original color and full margins.

Sarah Vowell

This is Graham in a cab on the way to Sothebys, with one of his best clients, a guy who looks to be oh, about 50 years old.

Graham Arader

You've got a daughter, right?

Man

Two.

Graham Arader

You've got two daughters?

Man

Yeah.

Graham Arader

What is it? You've got two sons?

Man

Yeah. I've got three sons. I've got a 28--

Graham Arader

Slow down.

Man

23. I've got 28. He's up in Columbia--

Graham Arader

How old are you? God, you look like you're 35, god damn it. How old are you?

Man

48.

Graham Arader

You have a son that's how old?

Man

28.

Graham Arader

Yeah, I guess that makes sense.

Man

Uh-huh.

Sarah Vowell

Graham carries around a small but well-used toolbox of superlatives which he hammers into everything, words like fabulous, and greatest, and finest, and his favorite, best--

Graham Arader

Sheesh, it's a great dream.

Sarah Vowell

I spent a day following Graham around. And a full two hours of it involved standing around the Madison Avenue house he's renovating, listening to rave reviews.

Graham Arader

And he is one of the great, great furniture men of all time, the great finishers. This was all white a month ago. And Roger's men took all the paint off. And now this genius named Laszlo Sallay has made this magnificent staircase for me.

Sarah Vowell

Why do I feel like you're selling me a banister?

Graham Arader

Well, is it beautiful? Is it?

Sarah Vowell

[LAUGHTER]. Yeah.

Graham Arader

Would you like to slide down it?

Sarah Vowell

[LAUGHTER]. Yeah.

Graham Arader

How about it Sarah? How about a little slide?

Sarah Vowell

I think he formed the hyperbole habit by saying things like John James Audubon is simply to finest bird painter who ever lived, or maybe he always talks like that. Somehow, I can picture a five-year-old Graham telling his mother, "Mom, these are absolutely the greatest oatmeal scotchies ever baked in North America."

Which brings me to Graham Arader's optimism. The man is perhaps the most talented looker on the bright side I have ever met. Let's start with his inventory. The thing I haven't mentioned is that the antiquarian map market is really a, shall we say, evolution, of the antiquarian book market. This is because Graham gets his maps by going to book auctions and buying atlases that are hundreds of years old and then ripping them apart. He sells them as a single images in elaborate frames.

Librarians, of course, hate his guts. But he sees this action not just as a no-brainer business-wise, buy in bulk, sell in pieces, but as a democratizing practice. Only a few people can afford to own a great French atlas, while many more can afford one oddball chart of Antarctica yanked out of it. I can see Graham's point on this. These things, however, all were mass produced. Though of course there is something unsettling about ripping up a 400-year-old anything.

To me, the atlas versus map debate isn't nearly as unsettling as the story these maps tell. Graham Arader sells history. He's a passionate historian. And whatever the librarians think of him, he knows as much about the history of cartography as any academic on the planet. It's what he does with all the info in his head that's always astonished me. Graham's inventory includes the 16th through 19th centuries. Think about those dates. Think about the story being told in European and American maps of that area, Dutch maps of South Africa, Spanish maps of California. It's not just one story, but two. A great adventure of nation building and the promise of a new world, but also quite frankly one of theft and warfare and genocide. I don't think I need to tell you which of those narratives Graham Arader spins before his clients.

Watching him sell something is exciting. It's fun. It is patriotically inspiring. He was showing me a map of America, saying this map tells the story of manifest destiny. And I'm thinking, yeah, manifest destiny. Wow, what a country. God bless America. And then I'm like, oh yeah, manifest destiny. Or he was showing a client a 16th century book, an actual whole book this time, with a cover and everything, filled with beautiful engravings depicting the natives of the colonies.

Graham Arader

So this is the beginning. This book was actually-- this volume--

Man

Uh-huh.

Graham Arader

--was from the voyage that John White took in 1585. And it was published in Frankfurt in 1590. And it really is the first image that Europeans had of the Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws.

Sarah Vowell

Lovely, but, I'm thinking that is cool. Well, first image of the Cherokees, beautiful. But the other voice in my head keeps saying, Trail of Tears, Trail of Tears, Trail of Tears.

Graham Arader

Jacques Lemoine escaped. That's how they had smoked alligator and lizard and deer. And here's how they caught the deer. Look at that. That's cool.

Sarah Vowell

There's something so aesthetically pleasing about trading one engraving, an old map, for another, American money. What could be more perfect than someone paying for that book with all the Cherokees with a big fat roll of $20 bills? Exchanging the graven images of Andrew Jackson, Mr. Trail of Tears himself, for the story of the tribe he sought to destroy.

Unlike Graham Arader, I was never good at selling. I'd be showing a client an early map of South Carolina and he'd be looking for his hometown or talking about color. And I'd be saying out loud, no, no, delightful. But I'd be thinking, slave state. Graham Arader's America is a prettier picture than mine. It's an easier picture to sell. And he believes in it. That is why he is the best, the finest, the most fabulous, successful antiquarian map dealer in the history of the world.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell's the author of the book, Radio On.

Act 3.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Future's Market. Well, you've probably seen those late night ads for various telephone psychic services. Well, writer Stephen Glass, who is normally an associate editor at The New Republic magazine, decided to sign up and get a job with one of those services. Their ads seemed to be targeted at African Americans. Black stars like Dionne Warwick appear in the ads. And Stephen says that over 70% of his callers were black. 85% complained they had money problems.

He wrote an account of his experience for an upcoming issue of Harper's Magazine. For his article, he actually tried to find an estimate of how much money phone psychics take from strangers. The best estimate he found guessed that the business takes in about $2 billion a year. It's expected to grow to $10 or $15 billion in the next three years.

Stephen says that getting the job as a phone psychic was a lot like applying to college actually. He said there was an essay question that he had to answer, where he had to give details of his past psychic experiences, which basically he made up. And then he had the interview section, which basically involved a psychic reading where he told an official of the company her future, which he kind of muddled through with generalities and educated guesses. Then, once he have the job, he had to figure out to do it.

Stephen Glass

And not knowing much about psychics, I first called a lot of psychic's lines myself to see how they would handle me.

Ira Glass

Yeah. What did you find out?

Stephen Glass

That they don't know what they're doing. They turn over cards. And one woman who I talked to, claimed that she could predict hair days. And so if I would tell her any date in the future, she could tell me if I would have good hair or bad hair.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHTER].

Stephen Glass

That was her specialty.

Ira Glass

That's a gift.

Stephen Glass

Definitely.

Ira Glass

That is a practical gift.

Before we go any further, let me just ask you, do you believe you have any kind of psychic power at all?

Stephen Glass

Oh, absolutely, 100% not. I mean I can't remember what I ate for breakfast this morning, let alone be able to predict anything in the future. I am the worst. There's no way.

I think what I learned from being a psychic is that being a psychic is the triumph of journalism. I would take careful notes on what everybody said to me. And then when they'd call me back, I would just repeat back to them things they had said to me earlier. And they'd be amazed, because they couldn't remember actually telling me they had three children or the names of their children. And I would just pretend like I divined all this information. And say, I think you have three kids. And they go, oh my gosh, how do you know that?

This is how my set-up was. I would sit at my desk most the time, although I could do this anywhere. But I'd generally sit at my desk. I'd have my computer set up on the internet, so I'd have something to do. I'd had a phone line set up, dedicated just for this, and a TV in view, with a remote control. And I could do all these things at once. And as I guess we'll talk about, I basically became the psychic of the month-- the best psychic and the best rookie psychic in the network I was in. And the way I did it was just by not being a psychic.

And my phone would ring. And I'd pick it up and they would start-- they would be quiet. And I would ask them their birthday and where they were born, because that sounded like psychic-ey. I didn't know what to ask actually. And then they would just talk to me, and talk and talk and talk. And so if they were crying, I would say they're very, very sad. And if they were laughing, I would say they're very happy. And that was the difference between me and the other psychics.

The other psychics have cards and things that they'd turn over. So they have these complex formulas to predict if you're happy or sad. And that doesn't usually work. Instead, I would just listen and say, you're happy or sad based on how you sound.

Ira Glass

You're saying in one way that the thing that made you a good psychic was the fact that you didn't think you were psychic at all, that actually thinking you were psychic would have been a hindrance.

Stephen Glass

Oh yeah, yeah. Being a psychic is a handicap in this field, no doubt.

Ira Glass

One of the things that you say in your article is that you developed a whole system for what you do on the calls. And one of the things you would do is that with everybody who would call, you learned to say, you're going through a sensitive time.

Stephen Glass

Yeah, that was the best thing I learned to do because everybody's going through a sensitive time. That's such a vague sentence. It could be sensitive year. It could be a sensitive hour. It could be a sensitive day, week. And sensitive, that could be good. That could be bad. And people would say, yes, yes. You're so perceptive.

Ira Glass

I read that actually. And I thought, god, I'm going through a sensitive time.

Stephen Glass

Exactly. I am today, too.

In pointing though at how phone psychics are, phone psychics are not evaluated in any way on the accuracy of their readings or even on how happy their consumers are or their clients. They're completely evaluated on how long they keep people on the phone. Because the person who calls me pays $4 a minute to talk to me. I get about $0.35 of that. And if I keep you online more than x minutes-- they don't tell you exactly what x is, but somewhere probably around 15 on average-- you get a bonus at every pay period of like 10% or 15% of your salary. It's a huge bonus.

Ira Glass

So you'd just hold them on the line?

Stephen Glass

Hold them on line as long as possible. I'd do all these kind of sermons. I kept tallies of like happy calls or sad calls and how I'd keep them on the phone. One of my most successful sermons was a woman who called me who said that she was born in Connecticut and we talked about everything under the sun. And there was nothing else I could talk about. I mean I kept pretending to lead her on to more and more information.

And so eventually I whispered to her and I said, are you alone? And she goes, yes. And I said I have something secret to tell you, a whole new way of psychic. Something I'm totally experimenting with. Will you join on? And she said, yes. And I said to her, are you sure you're alone? I keep saying that over and over again. And she said she was. And I asked her if she had a magazine or a newspaper or a phone book near her? And she said she had a white pages. And I said that I was the master of voicesology. And she goes, voicesology, what's that?

And I said, have you heard of graphology-- the ability to learn about personality quirks from studying handwriting? And she said, yes. I said well, I can do the same thing with your voice. I need you to read something plain. And so she read me the white pages. And I would say based on the way you say the number eight, this is going to happen to you. Or based on the way you say Mary, this will happen to you. And I liked to read from the phone book because it used up a lot of time and brought me money.

Ira Glass

And did she like that?

Stephen Glass

She loved it. She loved it. She called back and back. She told everybody.

Ira Glass

You say in your article that an astonishing number will call you and say that they have money problems.

Stephen Glass

That's almost the biggest concern, romance and money problems. I didn't get any hair days. Money problems are probably one of the biggest problems. And so when you're listening to this-- I mean I had one guy who was saving all of his money up to buy a VCR. And he didn't have enough money to cloth his kids. So he hated how they smelled. And he called me to complain about how his kids smelled because he couldn't get them clean clothes. And he's wasting his money on calling me. It's hard when people are telling you that they have huge money problems, not to tell them you could solve those problems by not calling phone psychics.

Ira Glass

Because he's paying $4 a minute. And you're trying to keep him on for about 20 minutes.

Stephen Glass

Right. Yeah. So that's about $80 that he's going to be paying. If he'd use that $80 towards almost anything else, he'd be better off. Plus most phone psychics end their calls telling them that they need to get constant readings to understand how their life is going.

Ira Glass

Wow. This same guy, he wanted you to give him advice about the lottery.

Stephen Glass

Yeah, he did. That's actually really, really common to want advice about the lottery. I refused. I had a general rule which is that I told everybody who asked me about the lottery, that they were born under a very, very dark cloud, which meant they would not win the lottery for seven to eight years at minimum. And they should never play.

I sort of became really depressed doing this, as you can probably hear from my voice. Lots of people who call are very, very poor. They're often minorities. And they rarely can afford, based on what they're telling you, their $4 a minute. So my basic goal was to be the family value psychic. I was sort of Dr. Laura before there was Dr. Laura.

Ira Glass

So what does that mean, that you were the family value psychic?

Stephen Glass

Oh, I would tell everybody they had to go to church more and more and more and talk to their priest or talk to their rabbi. I would tell everybody that they had to stop drinking, stop using drugs. I told everybody they had to keep in their marriage, unless they were being physically abused, which is common. And then I would tell them to get out. I told everybody not to play the lottery. I basically was the Christian right of a psychic.

Ira Glass

The fact that you ended up giving people such very conservative and Christian advice, I mean do you think of yourself as that conservative of a person?

Stephen Glass

Oh, absolutely not, absolutely not. I'm not religious. I guess I felt like that was the only thing I could do to redeem myself.

Ira Glass

How odd that you'd reach for that, in that moment, looking around for what could I possibly say that would be adequate to this task that has been set before me.

Stephen Glass

Yeah, it was. Saying it's set before me of course is nice. I mean I obviously volunteered to do this. And got paid to do it.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Stephen Glass

Yeah. No, I felt like that was the only possible way that what I could be doing could be considered OK. Because they put so much weight on what you said. They would do exactly what you said.

I saw that with a man-- an old man in his 60s, who called me. He worked at a Kansas-based corporation. And he wanted to know if was going to be laid off? So I said to him, I'm sorry, but psychic line is a very, very weak. And I can't predict things like that. And he goes, but I need to know. I need to know. And I go, I'm sorry. It's just that it's falling very quick. He goes, well can't you do better? I said, no sir. Can't you do better? If you were to do some exercises, you could get the psychic juices running. He goes, I'm 62 old, or however old he was. I said, that's fine. Do six jumping jacks. And so he'd put down the phone and he'd do six jumping jacks. He'd come on and I'd give him some little smidgen of information, like well, your boss is upset with you. He goes, well I need to know more. I'd say, do five push-ups. And he'd go off and do five push-ups. I mean you could control people to do anything you basically want.

Ira Glass

At one point, one woman asked you to cast a spell on Jennifer Jason Leigh?

Stephen Glass

Oh, yeah, yeah. One of my regulars. And she told me she hated Jennifer Jason Leigh. I never particularly liked her either, but I didn't think much of it. Don't forget this is the same woman who told me that the CIA was following her. And so she asked me to cast a joint spell on both the CIA and Jennifer Jason Leigh. She was convinced that somehow they were in cahoots together to get her. And so I did.

I told her to say oogley, oogley, bop. Make JJ Leigh end up not on top. And so I get this woman, who's quite old, saying over and over again, oogley, oogley, bop. Make JJ Leigh end up not on top. Oogley, oogley, bop. Make JJ Leigh end up not on top. And then I walked her through a recipe for a potion of milk and orange juice and a splash of soy sauce and saliva.

And it took about 21 minutes in all. And at 21 minutes, she spending over $80. And then she promised to wash her hair with the potion before she went to sleep. And I know she did, because the next day she called me and said she thought she had made a mistake because she hadn't included the saliva. And so I made her do it again.

Ira Glass

How did you feel about having this much control over somebody else?

Stephen Glass

I actually really, really hated it. I really hated it. It was just sickening in some sense.

Ira Glass

Well, there's something a little like sadistic about it, almost to hear you say it.

Stephen Glass

Yeah, there is. I hated what I was doing. They get something out of it. But the reason I ended up leaving was because they really don't get what they think they're getting. It's sort of therapy. That's how psychic networks justify it, that's it the freedom to contract and the freedom to have therapy and the freedom to do what you want with your money. But it's all based on deception. And the problem is the other side doesn't really know they're being deceived.

Ira Glass

Is it your impression that most of the people who you were working with and the people you were in contact with in the psychic network, actually believed they were psychics and actually believed that they could help people as psychics?

Stephen Glass

The psychics I dealt with, all believe they're psychics, without exception. Occasionally I'd approach them and try to like cozy up to them and say, c'mon, we all know we're in on the scam. And they took that very, very, very poorly. They all really believed they were psychics.

Ira Glass

Do you think that there's a different kind of moral judgment that would be rendered in this whole experience if you believed you were in fact psychic?

Stephen Glass

Yeah. I think if you're not psychic, you can do this better. But if you are psychic, you can live with yourself doing this. But I guess what makes this really complicated and difficult is this is a strange situation where people on the other end of the line are paying a lot of money for something that the people think they're getting, which they really aren't-- but the people giving it to them, also think they're giving it. So everybody involved in the transaction thinks this is true.

Ira Glass

At one point towards the end of your time as a psychic, you got a call from a woman who told you this horrific story about how she had been beaten by her father when she was a kid. And now she was involved with this man and he was sleeping with somebody else, in the other room as you were on the line with her.

Stephen Glass

Right. I could hear that he liked sex rough. And I could hear the screams and yells in the background. And I thought it was her child.

Ira Glass

You thought it was a child making noise, yeah.

Stephen Glass

Right. And it was her husband having sex with sort of the local floozy. Yeah. She told me the story. She had grown up in a mid-western state. And when the professional football team in that state lost or missed a touchdown, she would get beat, often with like a bike chain. And it was a very, very, very hard phone call for me. That was a really hard phone call.

Ira Glass

There's a moment you describe where she's crying and you're crying. And you're just silent for a minute or two, not sure what to say at all.

Stephen Glass

Yeah, there was. I can still hear her in my head. She was sitting there, weeping. And there's the screams in the background from her husband and this other woman. And I'm also crying.

At the same time, beside me on my desk is my stopwatch, which is going off and calculating how much money she is paying for this. And this is money this woman didn't have. And I was a contributing problem in her life. Shw needed me in some sense. But needing me, I was making it much worse. That was sort of the end for me.

Ira Glass

That was the end for you?

Stephen Glass

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Because you're just like there's nothing that you could do for her.

Stephen Glass

I just hated myself for doing this actually.

Ira Glass

Did you feel like you were just stealing money from strangers?

Stephen Glass

I was stealing money from strangers. There's no way to put it nicely. I mean look, in some ways it's a great story. But in the end, I was just robbing people, people who could least afford it.

Ira Glass

Stephen Glass is an associate editor at The New Republic magazine. His article about working in the phone psychic business will be in the February issue of Harper's Magazine.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Hey, listen. Our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder, senior editor Paul Tough, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margie Rochlin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Alex Blumberg and Rachel Howard. To buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380, 312-832-3380. Still time for Christmas. Still time for that special Christmas present. Our email address, radio@well.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who reminds you--

Nancy Updike

What you do for the least of these, you do for me.

Ira Glass

That's right. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Matthew Perks

Stop it, right now. This guy is not Jesus Christ.

(HOST) ANNOUNCER) PRI,

Public Radio International.