A daily bulletin of news & opinion

29 March 2012

Do you trust people? What about if they ask for you for money? Do your antennae twitch? Do your eyes narrow? Mine did. A couple of nights ago the bell rang and I opened the door to find a smartly dressed man looking slightly out of breath. He was, he said, my new neighbour, just moved in.

But there was a problem. He had shut the door behind himself and left the keys inside the flat – along with his phone. Could I, he gently wondered, lend him £20 (€24) so that he could nip back to his old flat in a taxi and pick up the spare set?

It was such a good story. A load of codswallop, but a very good story.

Now, in many instances he would have been onto a winner, but what he didn’t realise was that although I live in a central London street it just happens to be one of those rare exceptions in a big city: it’s one where everyone knows everyone. So when he pointed to the flat at the far end of the road and claimed it as his own, I knew he was misaligned with the truth.

His ruse, and it was a good one, was that in a London street people wouldn’t know each other, or who lived where, but they would have enough sense of community – or feel bad that there wasn’t enough neighbourliness in the world – to cough up £20 with a smile and no questions. Bad luck.

Rather smug in my knowledge, I offered to come back to his flat and help him break in. Or I could phone the police for him? His grin became tortured, there was some excuse and he was gone. But I did admire the fact that he had worked out some of the psychology needed to trick the passing fool. Or at least the one kicking back on his sofa.

Yet there are plenty of instances where people must be locked out of their flat and in need of £20. What happens then? What, I wondered, would happen if it was me? Would people believe my story? I wasn’t so sure. I have locked myself out of my flat more than once. I have jumped out of a cab and left my wallet behind. What if there hadn’t been a friend on call?

And so while I may have won the game, I was left feeling that these attempts – all too common in London – made me the bigger loser in the end. Cities tick by on an extraordinary level off trust. Despite all the tales of muggings and crime we hear about, we know that people around us are, on the whole, actually good. But a trickster makes you raise your guard. Raise it too high and the city is obscured and becomes your enemy. May be it’s better to just give the £20 and have blind faith that people are honest.

Although I am still feeling a little pleased with myself and have the £20 to prove that, occasionally, it pays to say no.


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