I’m speed-walking down the sidewalk off Sukhumvit Road like one of those elderly mall-walkers. Like the mall-walkers, there’s an irony to my speedy step. I’m on vacation. I have no particular place to be, and no particular time by which I need to be there. Unlike the mall-walkers, my path is perilous. I have to weave around street-food vendors deepfrying springrolls or grilling satays (and fight my stomach’s urgings), evade the grasping taunts of idle tuk-tuk drivers, and wave off T-shirt vendors selling shirts featuring elephants, thaiboxers, and Singha beer.
I don’t know why I’m moving so quickly. It feels natural. It’s the pace of the city. To walk slow would be to swim against the current. If you want the truth, I walk fast because in the back of my mind, in the deep recesses of irrationality, I feel that if I slow down the city will collapse into me, forming a black-hole. It will start with a few tuk-tuk drivers, a beggar, a prostitute, and a few street vendors converging on me. They will create a gravity, attracting more vendors, beggars, drivers, and hookers. If I don’t walk fast, I fear that I will be crushed in the center of a dense mass of humanity.
Leaning against the marble wall of a bank façade, a master of timing, an Indian man blinks, touches his forehead, and grimaces–as if my approach causes him some sort of psychic pain. I brace myself for the scam. He steps away from the wall into my path, gently extending an arm.
He says, “Sometimes, you think too much.” He’s trying to convince me that he has insight into my soul by making a statement that, while perfectly correct, contains no information content whatsoever. He’s smooth in behavior and handsome of feature. I bet he makes a mint in his chosen profession.
An instantaneous battle rages inside of me. On the one hand, I’m an introvert– or perhaps a sociopath– something like that. Whatever my affliction, interacting with strangers is draining. On the other hand, I’m curious about everything. I know the man is a scam artist. It’s not that I was never on the turnip truck, but I fell off a couple of decades ago, and while it took me several bounces to come to a stop, I eventually became quasi-worldly. While I know he’s a scam artist, I don’t know what kind. I so desperately want to know that I stop.
After a greeting, he says, “I can tell your future. There are two women in your life, I can tell you how it will work out.” His speech is clear, and well-spoken, like he was born in Mumbai, but moved to Cincinnati when he was 15. He is, in all respects, a smooth operator.
However, he’s wrong already. As I said, I’m not exactly a people person. It takes all my mental energy to even be monogamous, as opposed to nul-agamous. The idea that I’m maintaining two relationships would be a bit laughable to anyone who could really “see into my mind.” Whenever I hear about one of these guys who has two separate families, I always think, “How many hours a day did the good Lord grant you?” Because I can’t fathom living that way and not being in an utter state of exhaustion every minute of every day. I’d be a wreck.
However, I give him points for playing the odds. I’m a middle-aged man with a gray goatee walking down the street in Bangkok. I’m probably the only one fitting that description who hasn’t fallen desperately (and pathetically) in love with an “eighteen year old” bar girl who the man secretly thinks is 16, but who, in reality, is 29.
Incredulity must show in my face, because he changes tack. “Let me show you proof of my abilities.”
He extracts a flip-style pocket-notepad from the inner pocket of a tweed sport-coat that is grossly out-of-place in steamy Bangkok, but which lends credibility. He scribbles down something on a page so that I cannot see. He then tears off the strip of paper containing his writing. He wads the paper up.
“I want you to think of the English-language name of a flower. Have you got it?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I reply.
“Now think of a number between six and nine. Have you got it? Now think of them together.”
In my mind I see, Tulip 7.
He hands me the wadded up scrap. I unravel it. It reads, “Tulip 7.”
He then opens his day-planner and asks me to put in any amount that I feel is fair and he will tell me about my future.
What he doesn’t know is that I’m the exact wrong person to pitch his act to. As a skeptic, I make Descartes look like gullible. (After all, Descartes developed a “proof for the existence of God”–granted everyone deserves a nadir of thought, and that was clearly Descartes’.) The most fundamental thing that studying Economics and Political Science taught me was that humans are completely incapable of making meaningful predictions. I’d seen this guy’s act before from a guy named Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, but instead of getting a few baht on the streets, the political scientist got millions of American tax dollars for convincing the CIA that he could tell the future.
As I walk away, he says, “You have an ailment. I can tell you about it.”
I think, Good one, that’s a true test of my powers of skepticism, and I continue to walk, thinking out how the mentalist scammer did his trick… and wondering if I have cancer.