When we first moved to New Orleans in 1999, we saw flyers in the Quarter warning tourists not to be suckered into making any wagers on the provenance of their footwear. Over the intervening years, I’ve been accosted by any number of fine gentlemen who’ve assured me that they know where I got my shoes, and I’ve dutifully brushed them off.
Therefore, though I’ve heard tales, I’ve never actually seen the famous scam in action.
Until last night.
Mardi and Leo (aka Mike Leonard) are in town for a columnist convention. Leo writes a column for the Herald-Times in Bloomington. We got together for dinner at Coop’s Place. Many thanks to Mardi for picking up the tab.
After dinner we were walking along the river. A guy came up to Leo and offered him a shoeshine. I immediately knew what was up, but somehow I didn’t know what to say, and the guy was working Leo so fast. “I bet I can tell you where you got them shoes. Exactly where you got ’em and in what city.” The stakes: a shoeshine.
Being a good-natured Hoosier, Leo took the bet. And then, the inexorable rejoinder: “You got your shoes on your feet — in New Orleans.” And without pausing a beat, he bent down and squirted some sketchy white liquid on the tops of Leo’s shoes.
The price to wipe the stuff off? Five dollars. He wanted $5 per shoe. Leo just gave him a fiver and laughed it off.
I felt like a prime dumbass, letting my friend walk into that. I should have interrupted, fended the guy off. But it was educational. Maybe Leo will get a column out of it.
It occurs to me that this routine could work anywhere, or at least in any city where a bunch of tourists are walking around. Yet it seems to be very much associated with New Orleans. I wonder why that is.
It’s because Da Quarters is not insulated from the surrounding poor disenfranchised and angry neighborhoods.
Disneyland is miles from the nearest poor person.
Why? It is a variant of “city mouse, country mouse”. It works in New Orleans because once you get out of New Orleans it is a long way to the “Big City”. The scammers always play the role of the big city guy. The “mark” is almost always a country boy who thinks he knows better than to be taken by this incredible bet. The payment of the lost bet, particularly with the ridiculous yet absolutely correct answer becomes a point of honor for the “mark”. So the scam continues. It also gives that country mouse a story to tell and confirms the “image” of New Orleans in the region as a place where people work entertaining scams.
There’s a shoeshine guy outside the hotel we stay at when we can afford to visit NYC. Because the hotel is popular with unsuspecting touristas, he sets up right next to the door. He got me many years ago.
I saw this same scam when I was in Chicago a few weeks ago………..
B, I know exactly why it only works in New Orleans. When they say “You got your shoes on your feet — in New Orleans”, that would be incorrect in St. Louis and other cities. That is why this scam only works in New Orleans.
This happened to a former boyfriend of mine on my very first trip to New Orleans, right in front of the Felix Oyster Bar. We were in college and he had been to New Orleans before – he professed to be very knowledgeable about the city, advising me not to let anyone approach me while we were in the quarter and such.
I remember this like it was yesterday because the ‘scammer’ was so good natured and we had such a great laugh about it (at the former boyfriend’s expense, of course) that we didn’t even think about the money he passed over. In hindsight this is one of my most charming memories of New Orleans.
That thing is still going on? It’s been around since at least 1988, when I first encountered it.
BTW, I don’t understand Michael’s post above. It works in N.O. b/c the reputation of the city begs it. FWIW, at least it’s an attempt at “work,” a form of street theater…as opposed to simply begging.
Still though, kind of a dik move for not warning your friend or calling the bluff as it was happening.
I like to bet the guy that I know where he got his shoes…. that generally lets me pass undisturbed.
This phenonemon may not be unique to the big easy. However, tourists to New Orleans are not accustomed to the high humidity, therefore are more doltish by far.
When I entered Tulane as a freshman in 1986, this scam was the FIRST thing I was warned against at orientation. Literally the FIRST thing.
It doesn’t work in many other cities because 1) the vernacular doesn’t allow for it (i.e., “You got your shoes on your feet right here”isn’t true because it doesn’t make sense.) and 2) there aren’t many other cities with the same density of relatively good natured drunk tourists out on foot. Still, for $5 a pop, it’s a pretty harmless scam and it does require a certain degree of good-natured showmanship to make it work–so at least it has a bit of entertainment value!
It’s funny that I was talking about something similar with my friend today, a time that I almost got into a fight because of something being squirted on my shoes. It was in a small department store in Shenzhen. There were two people, a guy and a girl, selling shoe polish. They asked me if I wanted to try it, and I said no. Then the guy squeezed some out of the tube and flicked it onto my shoe. I was pissed off, took off my shoe, and wiped it on his pants. They both got really mad, and the girl said, “He didn’t want that on his pants!” and I said, “I didn’t want it on my shoes!” She started arguing with me, and I said to her, “You have no culture!” Actually, I’d meant to say she was rude, but I trying to work out how to say it in my mind, I said she had no culture instead, which is MUCH more insulting. She freaked out and wanted to fight with me. I slipped out of the store when someone restrained her.
I think Adrastos might be onto something when he speaks of Mr. Homan.
I actually tried this scam myself at the Riverwalk when I was 13 years old. My dislike for bullshit kicked in too early in life for me to pull it off. I was the only guy in the group I was in not to make any money.
That’s why I always walk through the quarter barefoot.