The Crystal Monitor
I hoped I was done with flimflam in 1952 when a Coney Island fortuneteller sent my Orthodox mother’s life savings up in smoke. But now I, too, have been gulled. My identity has been stolen.
An elderly widow, somewhat deaf, very myopic and on my own, I may sound like an easy victim: However, all my life I have prided myself on my street-smarts, my wariness and acuity. I am a lifelong New Yorker who rides the subway at all hours, a cynical cheapskate who knows you never get something for nothing, who would never fall for a telephone solicitation.
But yes, I am an 82-year-old writer who is legally blind—which means I can still see things up close and read enlarged print, so my wide-screen computer is my lifeline.
Though I have learned to Google and e-mail and all those other new verbs, and I am an absolute pro at changing the print size, I am morbidly afraid of touching the wrong keys. My grandchildren laugh at my surprise when I hear they can find my e-mails on their computers, but still I send them bad jokes like a real cybergrandma. Pride always goeth before a you-know-what.
Late one night several months ago, when i was very weary, I received an official-looking AOL document. The e-mail was a terse request that I bring all my information up-to-date immediately. Sensing an implied warning of termination, I panicked, which resonated with my constant fear that I will hit the wrong key and cause chaos.
The document seemed official, reasonable and harmless. I should have known better, but I just wanted things to keep running smoothly with my treasured AOL service, so I obediently and carefully completed the questionnaire.
Yes, I gave my birth date. Yes, I gave my address. Yes, I gave my Social Security number. To tell you the truth, I think I knew it was a mistake at the time, but anything official intimidates me, and maybe I am afraid I will blunder and my computer or my computer service will vanish. I was immediately sorry, so I phoned my kids—waking them—to tell them, and after they finished groaning, they confirmed my fears. Take steps, they advised, first thing tomorrow.
Next morning, early, I was at my neighborhood bank where I am well known because I never use the machines. They put alerts on my accounts. I informed customers’ services for my various credit cards. I signed up for a credit report. Then I tried to tell myself I was protected.
Three weeks later, I received a telephone call from Barclays Bank special fraud investigator regarding my new Mississippi account with its first $500 charge. I have never been to Mississippi. The Barclays’ investigator sent me a nice thank-you note for helping her close that account.
So, the system was working, the protections I put in place were operating, but my information is still out there, and there is no way to get it back. I was fooled and there is no one to blame except my street-smart, cynical self.
Then I received three identical letters from Visa congratulating me on my three new accounts and on my move to 4822 E. Sam Houston Parkway, Apt. 205, Houston, Texas.
I was frantic. I notified Visa fraud operations and cancelled my Visa card, and I reported it to my bank. Then, I called both the Social Security Administration and the Federal Trade Commission as well as the credit-check agency. I also visited my local precinct, where the policemen could not have cared less.
These events jolted me back half a century, all the way back to my mother and her fortuneteller.
In the second week of the Korean War, my kid brother, a runaway, was Missing in Action. On Mother’s Day 1951, my weeping, lonely mother wandered into Madam Zoe’s Coney Island tearoom for solace. Her new friend in a colorful head kerchief comforted Mama, assuring her that her son was very much alive. The seer reported actually seeing him—a handsome young Jewish soldier, she said—in her mind’s eye.
Mama returned every Sunday for a year, each time bringing a suggested gift. During one visit, Madam Zoe’s occult powers warned that only if the dirty money in Mama’s bank account was destroyed would her son return.
Bingo! Mama withdrew the family savings—the total of nickels and dimes and quarters hoarded over a lifetime—and then she was invited to witness the ritual burning of her filthy money in the darkened tearoom, with white smoke pouring out of a barrel.
Mama believed Madam Zoe so thoroughly that when the Army actually found my brother’s remains much later and sent them back for burial, she would not sit shiva. An observant Jew, she refused to mourn. He was coming back!
How could she be so gullible? I wept for her then.
Realizing how far from reality she had retreated, I went to the New York police for help. The Confidence Squad was familiar with Zoe’s whole routine. They told me it was a standard con game and the white smoke was from dry ice in the barrel. Meanwhile, Zoe had disappeared, but months later she came back greedy for my brother’s G.I. insurance money. She was arrested, tried and found guilty. She had to make full restitution. Mama never recovered.
I spent several years afterward writing a novel, In a Cold Open Field (Black Heron Press), about this devastating experience. Then I moved on. Only when I became a mother did I begin to understand Mama’s desperate grief and her need to keep hoping. But I never quite understood how she could take that final step—how she could allow herself to be fooled that way.
I wonder if back then Mama sensed what we all were thinking whenever we looked at her. How, how could she be so gullible? Not that it mattered to her. Her heart was broken.
In a way, Mama had a better excuse than I do. Mama and I never got along, but in the end—however many years after her death—when I look in the mirror, I see her in me. I’m Mama’s daughter.
No gorgeous head kerchiefs in darkened tearooms in my brave new world. No barrel of dry ice, which billows clouds of white smoke. Cupidity these days wears a disarming, seductive, official look as it sneaks onto my computer screen nestled right in the safety of my own home.
Sheila Solomon Klass’s latest young-adult novel is Soldier’s Secret: The Story of Deborah Sampson (Henry Holt).