I sat in the bookstore café with my friend, M. We were in the middle of our weekly meeting when a young man and a very young, very adorable little boy approached our table. The man told us his son was selling cookies for a school fundraising event. Would we buy a packet?
The café where we meet sells a variety of cookies, cakes, and other goodies. But M. didn’t hesitate at the chance to help out with a good cause. He’s a good soul. M. asked how much the fundraiser cookies cost.
I did hesitate. That kid was ridiculously precious. Did that man think his self-conscious, unpresuming schtick could fool me? My Dad was forever pulling the ‘dumb hillbilly’ routine so I had difficulty not seeing this man’s behavior as anything but pretense. It was clear to me that he was unscrupulously using that child to prey on an unsuspecting stranger’s weakness for over-the-top cuteness. Plus, the previous week, a young woman with an unbelievably adorable little girl made the same circuit with the same cookies. I would not have been surprised to learn they rented those kids!
The young man reported that it was $5 per bag, two bags for $10, three bags for $14, four bags for $16, and five bags for $20.
M. said he’d take four bags but only had a $20 bill. Could the young man make change?
The man pulled a crumpled ball of money from his pocket. He teased the bills out and examined them with some hesitation (clearly rehearsed incompetence). “No.”
“When you get change, come back and I’ll be happy to buy some cookies from you.”
M. and I returned to our meeting. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man and little boy walk to the other end of the café and stand there. He wasn’t interacting with anyone. He had his head bent down studying something in his hands but I couldn’t see what he was doing from my vantage point. Probably playing a game on his phone or texting his female partner-in-crime about the latest schmuck they were getting ready to get rich off of.
After several minutes, he headed back to our table. He had the change.
The young man pulled four packets of cookies out of his backpack, then laid them on our table. M. handed him the $20 bill. The young man started making change.
He should have given M. a total of $4. He gave M. three $1 bills, then started rifling through his coins. He placed several dollars worth of quarters into M.’s hand and continued looking for more.
I watched the man in disbelief. I knew about the high illiteracy rates in the area but it never occurred to me that math would be a problem too. I didn’t even know that such a thing had a name: dyscalculia. (I just looked it up.) Even petty theft would seem to require a functional knowledge of math. The young man suddenly didn’t seem so conniving.
My suspicions released their chokehold on my brain. Even a mathematical genius wouldn’t get rich quick by selling cookies the way this young man went about it.
M. returned the excess money then explained that the man had given him more than the $4 needed to satisfy the deal. The man looked at the change in his hand blankly as if trying to solve complex mathematical equations on a blackboard without chalk.
I felt my heart breaking.
I wanted to throw my money at him. Beg him to do whatever he could to make sure that little boy with him would learn what he hadn’t.
Why was I so suspicious to begin with? Even if it was a scam, what was the big deal about a few bucks? Don’t we admire people who “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”? But this young man lacked the basic tools to not cheat himself out of money, never mind others. It left me wondering how could we expect anyone like him to succeed when they lack the most fundamental tools?
I looked at this young man and felt, deeply, that the real scam was on him.