won't SOMEBODY think of the basketball team?
July 1, 2006 10:37 AM   Subscribe

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I am not selling money for no basketball team. I am just trying to stay off the streets and raise a little cash..." Who is behind this scam?

Like many "New Yorkers", I've heard this script hundreds of times on the Subway. My wife thinks that one kid started it and that others copied him -- and now it's spreading like a virus.

But I say if that was true, the script would evolve and change. It doesn't. It's always the same. Someone is behind ithis. Someone is coaching these kids. I've searched, but I've only found this one blog entry, in which the poster claims to have met the guy behind the scam -- if it is a scam. Does anyone have any more info?

Bonus question: what's the deal with the big, inner-city type guys who walk from car-to-car? Are they just looking for a seat? I doubt it, because even when there seats available, they don't take them. Is something going down? Do they deal drugs on the Subway or something?

Is there a site or resource somewhere that covers Subway scams?
posted by grumblebee to Society & Culture (56 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
"I am just trying to stay off the streets and raise a little cash..." how is that a scam, exactly? It doesn't seem particularly deceitful, dude's just asking for money.

Around here (Chicago) I get hit up on the L platform every couple months by kids raising money for a sports team. Often this is during school hours during the school year. That and handing out "inspirational poems" one is then expected to pay for are the subway scams I've encountered the most; I think most people are pretty aware that there's No Soliciting on the CTA and thus don't give any money nohow. Another tip for public transit scammers: don't smoke on the subway platform, man, it stinks up the place and does not help your veracity as legitimate fundraisers.

As for the "big, inner-city type guys"... white people ride the subway like this, and black people ride the subway like this.
posted by jtron at 10:57 AM on July 1, 2006

Really glad you asked this, I've often wondered myself.

However, the script has changed since I moved here 4 years ago: back then they WERE raising money for their basketball team, every last one of them. sometime a while back the script changed, and I could never figure out why. Perhaps it just became too hard to constantly lie about it and fend off questions from customers, or perhaps there is a legal reason they had to start telling the truth. Hope we find out in this thread!
posted by hermitosis at 11:09 AM on July 1, 2006

jtron -- NYC is not like Chicago. Grumblebee is describing only one of the many attempts to hit riders up for money. And the issue is not confined to subways. Scamming is a way of life for some folks. It may sound callous to call it scamming, but after you've seen these scenes a million times, it gets old. Most folks asking for money aren't overly aggressive, but I've run into a few of those too.

Here's my favorite. I was standing in Penn Station waiting for Amtrak when this dude holding a book walks up to me to tell me his sad sob story. He was a sous chef in Manhattan who hadn't gotten paid and needed some money to get the train to Long Island. I was doubtful, but I always make a certain number of "donations" in the City (mostly to subway musicians) and gave him just a couple of bucks. Damn if I didn't see the same dude running the same scam in Penn Station about 6 months later. And he was still carrying ther same book!

I could give a million other examples -- but I'll spare folks.
posted by bim at 11:17 AM on July 1, 2006

Response by poster: jtron, I think it's a scam because all the kids -- dozens of them -- say the exact same thing. I don't just mean they make the same points; I mean the same script, word-for-word.

Even if it's not a scam, it's organized and rehearsed in some way. The script makes it sound like it's an individual kid, just making up a personal speech to help put money in his pocket. If I was a tourist, that's exactly what I'd think it was. But as a resident, I hear the same speech over and over and over. So I can't help suspecting that something more complex is going on.
posted by grumblebee at 11:18 AM on July 1, 2006

I can beat that one, bim. In 30th Street Station, Philadelphia:

Bum: I'm 75 cents short for bus fare, I'm just trying to get home, yadda yadda.
FoB: Here you go, my good man. [Hands over a buck]
Bum: Thank you, God bless, yadda yadda.

[Forty-five minutes later...]

Bum: I'm 75 cents short for bus fare, I'm just trying to get home, yadda yadda.
FoB: Didn't I just...?
Bum: Sorry, man! [Runs off really fast]
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:22 AM on July 1, 2006

The Seattle variation...late at night, always a well-dressed guy, in the Belltown (restaurant) district:

"Man, I didn't move my car out of this lot, they done towed it, I need $75 to get it out of impound, I only have $47, if you can spot me the $28, I can get my car, which has my wallet in it, I'll come right back here and pay you back with some extra for your trouble..."
posted by vito90 at 11:32 AM on July 1, 2006

While not exactly on point the comments in this article "Columbia Students are Easy Marks" have some great stories of NYC scams and con's.
posted by Captain_Science at 11:37 AM on July 1, 2006

The script changes.

But really, what constitutes your idea of a scam? People selling things at inflated prices? If that's your definition of a scam, then look at the movie theatres in NYC, that's more of scam. 4 bucks for some m&m's, really!.

posted by milarepa at 11:38 AM on July 1, 2006

bim: no, you're right, nobody ever asks strangers for money in Chicago, especially not under false pretenses :) Anyhow the peanut M&M vendors here congregate around highway onramps and busy intersections. I wonder why it's always peanut M&Ms? Was there market research involved, or maybe someone knocked over a peanut M&M warehouse and has been living off the proceeds since, slowly releasing the hot chocolate through an elaborate national system of street vendors?

grumblebee: "organized [and/or] rehearsed" is a good possibility; another is that, as your wife thinks, this script is something that's diffused like any other meme. My issue with using the word "scam" is that it's not the right word for what you're talking about, denoting fraud for financial gain, whereas the people saying that they're "not selling [raising?] money for no basketball team. I am just trying to stay off the streets and raise a little cash" are in fact being reasonably honest.
posted by jtron at 11:41 AM on July 1, 2006

Bim, Faint of Butt, I've got you both:

INTERIOR Grand Central Terminal, 1997. A middle-aged woman, not quite homeless-looking, approaches a teen girl (me).

Middle-aged woman: Excuse me?
Me: Yes?
Middle-aged woman: You seem like a nice young woman. I just found out my daughter is in the hospital, and I need to get a train to go see her but I'm a dollar short.
Me: Oh my God! I'm so sorry. (hands money over and proceeds to wish woman luck, almost in tears)

ONE WEEK LATER : INTERIOR Grand Central Terminal, 1997. A middle-aged woman, not quite homeless-looking, approaches a teenaged girl.

Middle-aged woman: Excuse me?
Me: Yes?
Middle-aged woman: You seem like a nice young woman. I just found out my daughter is in the hospital, and I need to get a train to go see her but I'm a dollar short.
Me: You bitch!

Umm, back to the subject: I also wonder about the walking-between-cars thing, but I doubt it's got anything to do with drug deals or violence. It's kind of like "the walk." You know, when a young man or woman crosses the street slowly and deliberately in the middle of traffic, giving drivers dirty looks as he/she saunters. Then again, I've never had a conversation with a subway-wanderer, so I could be very wrong.
posted by brina at 11:41 AM on July 1, 2006

what's the deal with the big, inner-city type guys who walk from car-to-car?

Either they're just restless and antsy (they're kids, after all) or else maybe they've done something they think might get them in some kind of trouble -- not necessarily illegal, but something that might get them hassled by cops. So they move on to the next car, and the next.

Or else maybe their eventual destination has an exit that is most easily accessed from one end of the train or the other. Because the kids are big and noisy and move in (what appears to be) a pack, you notice them. If it was just one guy in a business suit moving through the car, you wouldn't give him a second glance.
posted by La Cieca at 11:50 AM on July 1, 2006

jtron -- Been to Manhattan lately? You ain't seen nothing yet, as the saying goes.

...and I love the local stories, FOB, vito and brina. You can't make this stuff up!
posted by bim at 12:05 PM on July 1, 2006

The "big inner-city type guys" walking through the cars sound like gang members claiming their territory to me.
posted by jamjam at 12:08 PM on July 1, 2006

The comments in that link from captain_science offer quite a nice review of scams in NYC. Read it for a good laugh.
posted by bim at 12:12 PM on July 1, 2006

I too have wondered about this. It is absolutely every bit as scripted as 'it was much better than Cats; I will be back to see it again and again.' They even give the speech in the kind of stilted, dispassionate intonation that people often use when they are reciting something that they have made no effort to internalize, personalize, or possibly even fully understand. It is a speech written to be easily understood by middle-class white people with no knowledge of, or ear for, any slang or dialect outside their own.

whereas the people saying that they're "...just trying to stay off the streets and raise a little cash" are in fact being reasonably honest

They're certainly being honest about the raising of cash. The idea that they only expect to end up with 'a little' or that they are in a situation in which this kind of routine is necessary to 'stay off the streets' is what I have trouble believing. "I'm just trying to stay off the streets" is, again, a message carefully crafted to appeal to middle-class white people, who are expected to stereotypically think in terms such as "if I don't give him some money, there will be another kid 'on the streets' and god knows that can't be good."
posted by bingo at 12:13 PM on July 1, 2006

A scam is getting money from you unawares or through trickery, not asking you directly for it. How can asking you for cash be tricking you into giving them money?
posted by vanoakenfold at 12:13 PM on July 1, 2006

It is a scam because it is illegal, and obviously so. Everybody knows that soliciting on the subway is against the law. What law-abiding organization would send its workers out every day to make money doing something that is obviously illegal?

Plus, these kids are all underage. Child labor, anybody?
posted by Afroblanco at 12:22 PM on July 1, 2006

Response by poster: A scam is getting money from you unawares or through trickery.

Or, more broudly, "a fraudulent business scheme." So if I ask you directly for money for my college education and then spend it on a hooker, I'm scamming you.

These kids are perpetrating a small scam at the very least. They are attempting to come across as if they are delivering a personal message. I remember the first time I heard it. Even though it was recited, I figured the kid had made it up himself and memorized it. Then I heard it again from another kid, and then another and another...

TV commercials use this same kind of scam, of course. Sam Waterston SEEMS to be giving his own opinion about Prudential, but of course it's really not his opinion. But most adults are savvy enough to know that, so -- effectively -- it's not a scam. But with a kid on the Subway, one's expectations may be different.

Having said that, I wish I hadn't used the word "scam." I'm not trying to judge these kids (just speculating). Perhaps, rather than a scam, it's a social program. Maybe some kind person or organization is helping these kids stay off the streets by giving them an "occupation" and a script to help them communicate what they're doing. (Though if this is true, they should mention the affiliation: "I'm a member of the Stay of the Streets program...).

Whatever. Scam or not, no chief interest is the ORIGIN of this script.
posted by grumblebee at 12:27 PM on July 1, 2006

I don't think it's a unified scam of any sort... anymore than the urban poets who come through the trains reciting their work, and then try to get people to by their self published "book".

I have to say, the 1 train is the absolute worse for all of these types of panhandler/busker/beggers. My favorite is the couple (who operate together or solo) who have this little song they sing, sometimes using a drum, key board or flute.

"We don't steal and we don't rob,
But we wish like hell we had your job
Your job, your job, your job, your job

It ain't no joke
For real we broke
We broke, we broke, real broke, real broke"
posted by kimdog at 12:30 PM on July 1, 2006

Response by poster: One fascinating aspect of all this is that contrary to what I said, the script HAS changed -- once. As hermitosis reminded me, the kids USED to say that they WERE collecting money for a basketball team. Now they say they're not. According to the blog post, the basketballer and non-basketballers are two rival groups. If so, the nons won. I haven't heard anyone claim they were collecting for a basketball team in years.

Which makes sense. The "I'm not collecting for no basketball team" sends a meta-message of "those kids who say that ARE collecting for a basketball team are lying." And so a Darwinian process may have killed off the ballers.
posted by grumblebee at 12:32 PM on July 1, 2006

Response by poster: I don't think it's a unified scam of any sort...

So how does it work? How do new kids learn the script? It's a fairly long monologue -- I've only quoted part of it here. Does one kid do it, and a friend of his rides along and listens until he learns the script?
posted by grumblebee at 12:35 PM on July 1, 2006

But it really isn't that long of a monologue... there isn't that much more than what you originally quoted. They usually say something about how they are working for themselves, and ask if anyone would be interesting in buying their candy for $1... and then they list their candies. Kids have no problem memorizing things like song lyrics, so something like this wouldn't be much more difficult, especially when there is monetary incentive.

I have actually seen kids working in pairs, with one making the speech and the other following with the candy. Maybe thats how they get started.
posted by kimdog at 12:50 PM on July 1, 2006

Maybe they got it from the New York Press?


One Starburst, please. "Hello ladies and gentleman, can I please have your attention. My name is Jamal. And no, I'm not here trying to raise money to buy new basketball uniforms for my school team. I'm just a kid tryin' to earn a few extra dollas. I got M&M peanut candies and Starbursts fruit chews for one dolla. Take the street out of the kid and the kid out of the street. Thanks. And God bless."

Seriously, though, grumblebee would seem to have a point about the script.

And this is for bim:

SCENE 1: Penn Station, 7 AM on a weekend, waiting with a friend for the train to the beach

Handsome but disheveled guy with very swollen ankles comes over, distraught, and launches into a complicated story about being a law student from Australia, losing passport in midtown hostel, unable to reach family members for funds to get to DC to replace passport (!!) -- could we help him get train fare? He'd pay us back after getting his affairs in order. His name was Richard Robinson; he'd be in touch asap.

Self, bleary: "Wow, that sounds terrible... I wish I had a way to help you but I only have $30 and a credit card on me [this was true] ... I guess I could buy you a train ticket..."

Him: "No, no, I couldn't ask you to do that... just any cash you might have..."

Self: "I'm so sorry, I just don't have enough on me to spare."

(Exeunt girls. All the way to Montauk I worried about the poor fellow. Wise friend pointed out that after we returned I could probably contact the consulate and find out what happened to him and whether he still needed help.)

SCENE 2: A few days later

I call the Australian consulate to inquire about the welfare of Richard Robinson. The operator says, "Richard Robinson?? One moment please."

I'm transferred to a woman who picks up the phone and says, "Richard Robinson? ...I'm glad you called. Are you a young woman between the ages of 22 and 28?"

I was.

"We've had lots of calls about him. He's not Australian at all; he's from Argentina, and he's a con man. You were very wise to check out his story."

I decided not to tell her I had been calling to find out how I could send him some money.

SCENE 3: A couple of years later, one spring evening

I am walking along Central Park South with a former professor of mine. Coming toward us along the sidewalk I see a young, handsome and disheveled fellow walking between two young women, chatting with them and making them laugh.

He looks oddly familiar. I stare at him as he passes, wondering.

The girls are charmed by him, hanging on his words.

I ponder and ponder.

Finally, when they are about 100 feet behind us, I remember. "Richard Robinson!"

I wheel around. "Richard Robinson!" I say loudly. "Richard Robinson!"

He and the girls recede into the distance. He ignores me, if indeed he even heard me at all. I watch them walk away.

Finally I think to myself, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." I turn around again and keep walking.


posted by GrammarMoses at 1:02 PM on July 1, 2006 [2 favorites]

Ask the next kid you see. Offer him a couple bucks if he explains.
posted by cribcage at 1:19 PM on July 1, 2006

I don't know about in New York, but there are organizations that train kids to sell candy in similar ways. I'd guess the same thing is going on.

Here's Some Info
posted by willnot at 1:22 PM on July 1, 2006

...Or they could be working for Homeland Security, but then...I do repeat myself...
posted by jamjam at 1:27 PM on July 1, 2006

P.S. American Public Radio's Marketplace program looked into the subway candy phenomenon last fall.
posted by GrammarMoses at 1:34 PM on July 1, 2006

Well, out here in little old provincial Portland the kids are still selling peanut M&M's for their sports teams. I don't see them all that much, but it's always for a sports team, usually basketball, and always peanut M&M's.

The more common approach around here involves "the gas can." In this one the scammer, usually a disheveled (I guess I should just be honest here - by disheveled I mean 'tweaker') middle-aged male walks around with a gas can. The story is usually something like "My wife and kids are sick and I ain't got insurance and my car is out of gas and I lost my wallet and my job and I have *insert debilitating disease here* and I just need to get back to Beaverton/Gresham/Troutdale and could you spare some gas money?"
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:52 PM on July 1, 2006

Someone "tipped" me off years ago that the flower sellers in Detroit were Moonies who were dropped off with the bundle of roses (one location: 8 Mile/I-75 at the freeway entrance) and picked up at the end of the day.


I'm more inclined to believe that this is a concentrated effort. It's like Grit magazine, except with candy and limited to subway cars. Exactly the same.
posted by user92371 at 2:00 PM on July 1, 2006

Richard Robinson from Australia? I'll remember that in case I run into him, Moses. Penn Station is very popular!

Of course I did give the woman telling me she and her daughter were sick/hungry and could I just spare a dollar or two. I probably was a sucker, but it was the end of the day and I think I hit her up with a $10 or $20. She jumped up and down, took the money, kissed me on the cheek and took off!
posted by bim at 2:02 PM on July 1, 2006

first of all grumblebee, the script does indeed change. i 've never heard it verbatim as you say, and i rode the subways for 6 years past. of course, it variates among the 'not selling candy for no basketball team, not for no club, but so i have money in my pockets to keep me off the streets,' but something closely aligned. but you assert that it is always completely word-for-word, and that's just not the case.

these kids come onto the 2/3 from brooklyn --> manhattan at least 1 out of every 4 rides...and i've seen all ages selling from 12-20. and yes, it's always black kids (middle school & high school-aged kids, both male and female).

but really what i always believed is that it is something completely innocuous....something that spreads word-of-mouth. and i dont think it is some child labor thing where these kids are being supplied with the candy by anyone but themselves...there aren't pimps and dealers suppling and guarding candy for these kids...nor does anyone collect profit but the kids selling.

thse kids go to costco or some wholeseller, by their starbursts and m&ms there, and then resell them on the subway for a small margin of proit.

i dont understand why everyone assumes that there is like some maliicious ring-leader?supplier controlling these kids, or that there is some huge, distrustful scam going on here...and i hate to think that it is a race issue, but that is what i am leaning towards.
posted by naxosaxur at 2:17 PM on July 1, 2006

Bonus question: what's the deal with the big, inner-city type guys who walk from car-to-car? Are they just looking for a seat? I doubt it, because even when there seats available, they don't take them. Is something going down? Do they deal drugs on the Subway or something?

ummm, these guys dont have cars...and therefore when you live in the fringes of the city, you end up spending *a lot* of time commuting on the subway into manhattan from bronx, brooklyn, harlem, etc...as do most of your friends and colleagues and family.

ever think that they are looking for their friends/colleagues/spouses to alleviate the 30+ minutes of boredom on the train?
posted by naxosaxur at 2:27 PM on July 1, 2006

So uhh, I did sell candy for my sports team when I was a kid. Do they not do that anymore or something?
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:30 PM on July 1, 2006

Ask the next kid you see. Offer him a couple bucks if he explains.

Someone did ask a candy-selling kid
. I do wonder how many hours had to go in to make the $480 that week. $1 for a packet of candy? That's a nice profit margin if the packets were purchased in bulk. But hey, you can't call something "overpriced" if enough consumers are willing to pay that amount for the product.
posted by neda at 2:32 PM on July 1, 2006

Naxosaxur, are you saying that pre-teens and teenagers, likely poor kids from bad neighborhoods, actually sign up for a Costco membership so they can run a legitimate business on the subway? And this is with no involvement from any adult or older teen helping them out?

I have a hard time believing that. No matter what race the kids are.

I think this phenomenon has a lot to do with "scam fatigue" -- I think a common response to most cons nowadays is something like, "Sure, he's just trying to (help his basketball team/get home to Beaverton/see his daughter in the hospital) -- I bet he's just trying to get money for (drugs/alcohol)!" This way, the kid can claim honesty and it makes him less "scammy", as has been discussed at great length here. The goal is for the marks to say, "Oh, he's not like those other thugs using a basketball team as a front for getting us to buy him booze! This kid really does want off the streets! Why, I bet this will go towards his college fund!" (Or, you know, something like that.) It's just something different, or at least it was, until people like grumblebee noticed everybody's doing it. Eventually another pitch will come to replace it.

(Also -- Am I the only one who immediately though of Orlando Jones in Office Space when I read this question?)
posted by SuperNova at 2:46 PM on July 1, 2006

furiousxgeorge, did you wander the subway platforms every day to sell your candy?
posted by desuetude at 4:13 PM on July 1, 2006

Naxosaxur, are you saying that pre-teens and teenagers, likely poor kids from bad neighborhoods, actually sign up for a Costco membership so they can run a legitimate business on the subway? And this is with no involvement from any adult or older teen helping them out?

no i'm not, and no i didn't. the only metaphore i could construct for a wholeseller is costco, which *everyone* can imagine how it functions. have you ever been to the outer bouroughs of nyc? they are crawling with wholesale outlets, legit and quasi which i know you don't need to be a member, or pay to join.

regardless, my whole point being that there is not likely a sinister overlord of candy suppling these kids with bootleg candy from the back of a truck and then collecting their profit. i feel a very negative tone in this thread, and the proposed askme question b/c these kids are urban and minorities, and it's lame.
posted by naxosaxur at 4:16 PM on July 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

What I want to know is why these kids (and it's definitely some sort of loose org. behind this) ONLY have Peanut M&M's, and never regular? Is there some sort of huge surplus of Peanut M&M's? Are they somehow cheaper than regular M&M's? I have never come across a kid selling regular M&M's, and I've probably heard the "I'm not selling candy for uniforms" speech over a hundred times.
posted by bronxteacher at 4:24 PM on July 1, 2006

Agree with naxosaxur.

It's not like there's some evil, older Fagan character manupulating hoardes of young children so he can con us out of our hard-earned cash with this contrived story of baseball teams, uniforms, towed-cars, empty gas tanks, flowers, poems or matchsticks.

Like any good meme, if it works, you'll see it crop up over and over again.

And honestly, if you n00bs really fall for the "I just need to catch a bus/buy a liver for my sick child/etc." stories, you're a sorry lot. If you really, truly believe the yarn someone's telling you, don't ever give them cash.

For example:
"Please, I'm hungry, I haven't eaten in days. Can you spare some change so I can get something to eat?"

No, but I'll give you half my sub. I haven't touched it. It's still wrapped in paper. ("Oh, uh, no thanks...")

"Please, my car ran out of gas, my wallet was stolen, I just want to go back home."

OK, where's your car? I'll call AAA and we can get some gas in it. ("Oh, uh... no thanks...")

Etc., ad. infinitum.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:42 PM on July 1, 2006

i dont understand why everyone assumes that there is like some malicious ring-leader?supplier controlling these kids

Well, its not on the subway, but around the downtown express stops, where I have several times seen preteen children walking down the street selling candy with doleful eyes.

If you look closely, mom, or some other woman, is surreptitiously following behind 3/4 of a block away keeping an eye on them.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:53 PM on July 1, 2006

The funny thing is that I bought a bag of the peanut m&ms on the subway once. What can I say? I was hungry and needed a snack.

But on the wrapper... "This candy sold for institutional fund raising purposes. Resale not intended."

So they ain't Costco/wholesale candies, that's for sure.
posted by huskerdont at 4:57 PM on July 1, 2006

Bonus question: what's the deal with the big, inner-city type guys who walk from car-to-car?

Looking through the thinly veiled stereotype, as a New Yorker, I've noticed all sorts of people irregardless of size or color walking through subway cars. That said, I've always wondered what compels someone at 2 am on an empty train to walk from one car to another.
posted by Juggermatt at 5:03 PM on July 1, 2006


No, I didn't.

As far as I can tell the kids are crackheads reading a script. Weird how you never see girls doing this, maybe more profitable ways for crackhead girls to make money, eh?

My point was, it must suck to have to actually sell candy for a sports team nowadays, everyone will just think you're a crackhead.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:05 PM on July 1, 2006

And on our other topic, requesting lost rain fare, I'll go ahead and relate one of the most cynical things I've ever witnessed.

On the LIRR, parked in Penn Station, the guy gives the whole detailed story. His son is waiting for him at a train stop in Westbury and has no way to get home. (So he needs train fare and cab fare.) He was just mugged. (He did have a bit of blood dripping from a small would on his forehead.) The two middle aged ladies ask him: "this isn't just some scam is it?"

"No, I swear," he says. Finally they give him a twenty, and this asshole strides right out of the car and up the exit stairs. If he had simply thanked them and walked to the next car and slipped out he would have left them all warm and fuzzy.

I've always wondered what compels someone at 2 am on an empty train to walk from one car to another.

Its called "prewalking" and is the sign of a professional commuter. Knowing where the exit is on your next stop and getting there, either on the platform, or is the train comes first, can save a considerable amount of time depending on the configuration of the stations. It can be four full blocks.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:07 PM on July 1, 2006

The guys walking through various cars (which is now forbidden on the NYC subway, thought people still do it) are looking for empty cars to tag and trash. The latest thing is acid-etching into the windows, virtually impossible to clean up.

Bank on it.

The kids selling candy ("just trying to stay off the streets and raise a little cash," to report the precise phrasing I usually hear) are clearly working for someone. Many of them look young enough that they ought to be in school when they are doing this. Anyone who would actually *eat* their candy is insane.

Also, the cheapo fake Duracell batteries *never work.*

But my pet peeve are the singers/performers -- the vast majority of whom are awful but still insist on destroying any hope of a car full of tired, cranky commuters enjoying a little peace and quiet. Even if they are good, they annoy me. If the cops would actually bust these people regularly, life underground would be a lot nicer.

And the worst of the worst? Women, usually, who use a child as a prop for their scams ("I need medicine for the baby," etc.) The best strategy is to offer to help them hook up with appropriate social service agencies. They disappear quick.

Most of these people have perfect radar for likely victims of liberal middle-class guilt. They tune the approach according to gender, age, etc. But the point is the same: for a dollar or more, you can stop that voice in your head that says "but what if the baby really is sick? And maybe this will keep a kid off the streets if I buy these expired M and Ms."

Think about it. A kid selling candy on the subway is not "trying to stay off the streets." He's on the streets. Selling candy.
posted by spitbull at 5:12 PM on July 1, 2006

ahem, my pet peeve IS the singers/performers . . .
posted by spitbull at 5:12 PM on July 1, 2006

Prewalking, (and between car traveling) is "used and done often."

Let's not allow this thread make us more jaded than we have every right to be.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:25 PM on July 1, 2006

furiousxgeorge, agreed, though I don't think that the kids are necesarily crackheads, just down and out enough that they can be manipulated.

I can spot the actual schoolkids selling candy a mile away though, as they are out and about with other schoolkids, are wearing uniforms/dress code (mandatory in Philly), and are not particularly interested into talking to complete strangers.
posted by desuetude at 5:40 PM on July 1, 2006

Slightly off-topic, but speaking of public-transit scams, CTA Tattler has a short cell-phone video of the shell game, which I see on the El with some regularly. It's depressing to think that what is probably one of the best-known scams of all time, one which (according to Wikipedia) dates to at least the 17th century, still fools enough people to be profitable.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 6:04 PM on July 1, 2006

It sounds to me as if they just saw someone else making a buck and copied them exactly.

On another note, I often enter the subway in the morning and speak the following in the homeless/basketball team/quiet crazy guy voice without any intonation:

Hello ladies and gentleman. I am not homeless. I am not a drug addict. I am not jobless. I am just trying to get the attention I crave. Thank you very much. God bless.
posted by Captaintripps at 6:30 PM on July 1, 2006

Response by poster: i hate to think that it is a race issue, but that is what i am leaning towards.


i feel a very negative tone in ... the proposed askme question b/c these kids are urban and minorities, and it's lame.

Well, I'm not racist, anti-urban or anti-minority (I'm a member of a minority myself), and I fail to see what made you think my question had an ulterior motive -- other than the desire for knowledge. I ride the subway four times a day, I see things that I don't understand, and I want answers. Seems like a pretty natural thing to me.

I apologies for using the word "scam" in my question. I was just being flip. I don't KNOW that it's a scam. Yes, I do suspect that it MIGHT be one. Even if it is, that wouldn't make me hate the kids. If it's a con, it's a pretty small one -- no one is deeply harmed by it.

ever think that they are looking for their friends/colleagues/spouses to alleviate the 30+ minutes of boredom on the train?

That's reasonable. No I hadn't thought of it. I have a 30+ commute (it used to be an hour+), and I never do that. And it would never occur to me to do that. But not everyone is like me. So thanks for pointing out a possibility that hadn't occurred to me.

Perhaps it was my use of the term "inner city type guys" that offended you. I don't know what to say, other than these are the type of guys I notice walking through the train. Maybe an equal number of all types do this and I'm just blind to it. I can only report what I see. And I never notice businessmen in three-piece suits doing it. (I rarely notice women of any type doing it.)

By the way, by "inner city types guys," I didn't mean "black guys" (though if I had, so what?) I meant young, working-class males who obviously lived in the city and seemed streetsmart. Is it wrong to talk about people like this, even if you're saying nice or neutral things about them?

Maybe you thought I was berating them. If so, please indicate WHAT in my question gave you that idea. I don't think they are bad, stupid or classless for walking through the cars. I don't think walking through the cars is wrong. I don't even think dealing drugs is wrong (if that happens to be what they're doing). It just feels like there's some kind of secret going on, and I want to know what it is.

Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. That's what AskMe is all about. And that's what I want. And that's ALL I want.
posted by grumblebee at 6:55 PM on July 1, 2006

A few years ago, there was something in one of the Chicago guidebooks about this scam (candy for sports team--most likely it "fell off a truck") and I wondered why there was no mention of it in the New York ones.

I give money to City Harvest, the Fresh Air Fund and the New York Times Neediest Cases--which funds seven different programs in the city. I do NOT give money to addicts who refuse to use those resources.

No school or legitimate charity solicits on public transportation.
posted by brujita at 10:39 PM on July 1, 2006

skallas for the win on who these kids are. Every detail about this thread suggests to me that these guys are wannabes in gangs and this is just another fundraising operation.

We need an urban sociologist with a specialization in gangs here :(
posted by onalark at 7:25 AM on July 5, 2006

Since others have shared their experiences - I was in Chicago's Union Station and saw someone I grew up with looking very disheveled - walking all slouchy and wearing a dirty t-shirt and paint-stained pants. He walks up and launches into his little spiel - "I just lost my job and I am trying to get home to visit my grandparents. I just need $5 to get a ticket to go to Elgin." So I say, "Hey, Rob, it's me, Megan." He looks shocked; apologizes for trying to scam me, and then stands up straight and tells me how wonderful his life is and how he owns a condo in Lincoln Park and has a beautiful pregnant girlfriend. I was running late for my own train so I didn't have time to ask him if this scamming was his only job. It made me think though. I now very rarely actually give people money; I prefer to walk them to the ticket window or to McDonald's and buy them their ticket/meal.
posted by MeetMegan at 6:25 PM on July 5, 2006

I grew up in a poor neighborhood, but my parents did quite well for themselves, so I've had the privilege of growing up on both sides of the tracks, so to speak. It's always fascinating and a little bit disheartening to see how little people tend to know and understand about those outside of their own socioeconomic backgrounds. Hopefully I can help shed a little light on the matter.

Subway candy selling is not a scam. Yes it's illegal, but there's no reason to believe there is intent to defraud or hurt anyone. People who live on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder come up with ways to make money that the rest of us find unconventional. More often than not, these methods are illegal, despite not really hurting anyone, aside from the nuisance factor. It's not a Black thing, or an urban thing. It's a poor people thing. I've been all over the world, and everywhere I've been, I've seen kids selling stuff. Kids in Mexico sell chiclets, in SE Asia, there were kids selling flowers on the street at 3 am. When you're poor, your personal financial responsibility comes at a pretty early age.

If you go into any impoverished and/or immigrant neighborhood, there is always a grey market for goods. I live in a Polish neighborhhod, and there's a guy who sells steaks out of the trunk of his car, and nobody finds it the least bit strange. Adults sell things to other adults in their neighborhood, and kids usually go out and sell stuff to tourists or people in somewhat nicer areas. Think about it. Nobody is going to buy a steak from a 12 year old, and nobody is going to buy candy from a grown man. It's not a scam, its a hustle. Hustling has been a fact of life for as long as people have been poor.

( I understood your usage of the word scam grumblebee...just sayin')

And the basketball team script thing isn't any different than starting a Digg clone. If something works, people will copy it.

For those who throw around the terms crackhead and gang member a little too loosely, you could probably benefit from broadening your horizons a bit. Crackheads are vile creatures, and once you have to deal with a real one, you'll learn to spot them pretty quick. They're a suprisingly predictable and single minded segment of the population. Chances are if you're not in the immediate vicinity of someone selling crack, you won't have to deal with crackheads. Junkies tend to wander, and can be suprisingly confrontational, but they are easily subdued, and should they come into posession of a box of peanut M&M's would rather eat them than sell them. It's the tweakers you should really be worried about, but I'm getting way off topic...

Sure, given their environment, some of the candy selling kids will end up in gangs or drugs or whatnot. But if a kid is selling candy on the subway, chances are he's trying to avoid that life. I grew up in a gang infested neighborhood, and the majority of us kids were as terrified of gangbangers as anyone. Who do you think they practice their gang skills on? The gang kids are the ones who will sit on the corner all day not doing anything, and steal the money from the kids who are out trying to actually earn a few bucks.

I've lived in NYC for a year, and I've been known to baffle out of town guests with my knowledge of exactly where to get on the train to coincide with transfers, and optimal station exiting. The subway car thing is likely a combination of "prewalking" and typical teenage restless behavior.

Good question...hope I was of some help. I don't mean to be too much of an apologist. I'm not naive, and honestly the candy selling kids bug the hell out of me. I just think it's important to have a little socioeconomic and cultural sensitivity. If for no other reason than self preservation. Learning to spot the bad guys regardless of skin color or social class is a good skill to have. Some people let their guard down because there aren't any stereotypically bad types around, and end up hassled or hurt anyway. A lot of people miss out on a lot of life because they're too scared to leave their comfort zone.
posted by billyfleetwood at 11:27 PM on July 5, 2006 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, billyfleetwood. Good post.

Most of the comments here have been enlightening, even when they drifted a bit off-topic. But just to keep the eye on the prize of a sec, let me be clear that I was really only interested in this particular group of kids (if it is a group) -- not candy-sellers, hucksters, scammers, poor people, etc. at large.

I'm stunned by how many people here -- without evidence -- say stuff like, "It's not a scam" or "It's a scam." How do you KNOW? Sure, not all such schemes are scams. Many MOST aren't. But I'm only interested in THIS one. And frankly, I'm not particularly interested in whether or not it IS a scam -- I'm interested in how it works.

Dropping the S word (God, I wish I'd never used it), the pitch is either organized or it's not. Is there a team leader, sending these kids out, coaching them, etc. Or is it being passed on in a meme-ish way? Either you KNOW the answer to this or you DON'T. There are plenty of transactions in the world that are overtly planned; and there are plenty that evolve or are improvised. Guessing about the nature of this particular one doesn't get us anywhere.

I want to know how this script is TRANSMITTED. If it's via memes, that's fine. I'd still like to know how it works. I'd like to hear an interview with a kid who says, "I was riding the Subway, and I heard this kid make a speech... and I thought, I could do that. And so I started doing it, and then my little brother copied me, and then..."

Or I'd like to hear, "There's this guy named Bill who buys candy for the kids and rehearses them..."
posted by grumblebee at 6:44 AM on July 6, 2006

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