The Best Time I Was A Child Con Artist

by Sarah Hagi

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My family has many unwritten rules. The second most important is: do not open the door if the doorbell rings only once. In our family, if the doorbell only rings once, you were either a salesperson or a canvasser. And salespersons and canvassers are liars and thieves.

My mother came to this conclusion shortly after she first immigrated to Canada; two scam artists pretending to work for the government tried to enter our home. Looking back, this is probably why I couldn’t make it as a (sort of) con artist, selling chocolates on the mean streets of southwestern Ontario.

I have a really big extended family by most standards — twenty-nine aunts and uncles. My family seems to either reproduce at an alarmingly fast rate or have short gestation periods, because I have more cousins than I will ever know. Due to the Somali Civil War, we’ve all been displaced to almost every continent, making it easy for me to travel all over the world. As a child, while my friends were going to camp, I was visiting places and relatives I never knew existed.

The summer of 2002, I went to London, Ontario. As someone from Ottawa, which is lovingly referred to as “the city fun forgot”, I can say London was just like home — only somehow sleepier and more suburban. I didn’t really care. I was visiting cousins my own age. Besides, Avril Lavigne had just blown up; I had big plans for testing out this new punk rock attitude I was going to adopt for the school year.

We spent the first couple of weeks eating hot dogs, playing foosball, and not listening to Avril Lavigne (Usher had two hit songs that summer, there was no time). I knew our relative freedom wouldn’t last — my uncle didn’t like us wasting time. Usually that meant we’d have to go to the library, but somehow this year was different. This year, we got jobs.

My cousins and I found work soliciting for an organization called “Canada’s Youth Against Drugs and Violence.” As I was, truly, a youth who didn’t like drugs or violence (I wasn’t that kind of punk), I was fine being tasked with selling chocolate-covered almonds.

The “charity” was all organized by a woman who provided us with pamphlets full of vague and poorly-sourced statistics on youth, drugs, and violence. It was a relatively easy job — all we had to do was go up to people and say, “Hello, I’m here on behalf of Canada’s Youth Against Drugs and Violence. Would you like to buy some chocolates or make a small donation?” The chocolates were two for five dollars, or one for three. The catch: we, the children against drugs and violence, kept the donations. The entire thing was a scam.

I mean, it was 2002. The pamphlets seemed like enough to validate the charity’s legitimacy. Our boss was a fun and upbeat mom who really seemed like she wanted to make a difference. The boxes of chocolate-covered almonds were the same ones everyone sells; the charity existed to combat the two most things most hated by suburban mothers. Who was I to question such a worthy cause?

A typical work day went as follows: our boss would pick us up in her giant van and drop us off in front of suburban strip malls or neighbourhoods. In groups of two or three, we would walk up to homes or ambush unsuspecting shoppers and try and sell chocolates. If we made our arbitrary quota of the day, we would be allowed to keep a percentage of the chocolate money along with the “donations.” The rest of the money apparently went straight to our boss.

Because most of the participants were my cousins, we’d usually be paired up together. I was clearly the weak link of the tribe. It was obvious our boss didn’t care much for me either; I was barely bringing in any profit. My inability to sell in strip mall parking lots can only be attributed to how little I cared about making money in a competitive environment. The dynamic wasn’t the same when we’d go up to houses, where we would take turns knocking on each door, but more of a team effort: together, we would show adults how much we cared to raise money for our cause.

As I mentioned, my family generally regarded anyone going door-to-door as a desperate weirdo. Because of our don’t-answer-the-door rule, I always felt like I was doing something wrong when I knocked on a strangers door. Whenever I would go up to a house, regardless of the time of day, I would imagine interrupting a family eating dinner. I didn’t want to see the look of annoyance on a soccer mom’s face when the door eventually opened. Looking back now, I realized it wasn’t even the door-to-door aspect of the job that felt so wrong. What was wrong became obvious when I approached a young rabbi in front of a Jack Astor’s restaurant.

I approached him like I would any other stranger. We’d moved from the Blockbuster Video area of the strip mall to the casual dining area. At this point it was almost dusk; we were nearing the end of our five-hour strip mall shift. As usual, I hadn’t met any sales quotas. At this point in my short career, not making a lot of money was the norm, and I was just waiting to go home for my post-shift hot dog.

Once I finished my introduction, the rabbi asked what we did with the donations. As I begun to tell him the truth — we kept them — my partner elbowed me in the side. I didn’t have a chance to fully disclose everything and we finished the transaction. When I asked why she had interrupted me — I was only telling the truth — she had no response.

That night, while counting my money (enough for a few McFlurries), I decided to quit. My choice wasn’t based on the sudden realization that the entire thing was an elaborate lie. It just didn’t feel…right. I wasn’t making as much money as everyone else, and it didn’t warrant the constant nagging feeling of having annoyed a family. My eleven-year-old self would have rationalized the shadiness, to be honest, if I had been racking in enough money to buy earrings at Claire’s like my cousins.

The following day, as my cousins went off into the lady’s van, I stayed home. While getting dropped off that evening, I was confronted by my former boss and had what was probably the most confusing exchange of my childhood:

“Why didn’t you work today?” she asked.

“I quit.”

“Why?”

I hesitated. I couldn’t tell her the truth. “I’m just lazy.”

“Hm,” she said. “I appreciate your honesty, I guess.” She didn’t seem too impressed.

My cousins continued working for as long as they could until the woman abruptly stopped answering her phone. It took us years to figure out she was probably a professional con artist. To this day, we still no idea how she fooled so many parents. I brought it up to my uncle last year, and he hardly remembers us ever working, I guess I’ll never know the truth.

Every once in a while, usually when my doorbell rings once, I Google Canada’s Youth Against Drugs and Violence just to see if maybe it was legitimate. Maybe I was imagining the shadiness of it all. I’ve never found out anything for certain. At least the scam was sweet in spirit.

Sarah Hagi is a 20-something year old Canadian writer who is still trying to figure out if she could have been a child prodigy. You can follow her on twitter here.