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Minor Con Men

Brooklyn is known nowadays for its growing population of Indie Label elitists and baby stroller pushing moms and nannies.  It used to have more of an edge, even as recently as when I lived there in the ‘90’s.  Ask any old timer and you’ll hear that Brooklyn was the home of New York’s schemers and scammers, its minor league flimflammers.  I met just such a character back in 1997.

Back then I had a friend named Lisa.  She had a nice little apartment in Bay Ridge.  She’d come in to shop at Perelandra Natural Foods, where I worked.  If I’d ask her how her day was, she’d say good, or bad, or blah.  As for any deeper questions, there was usually an invocation of a guy named Jerry, who I assumed was her boyfriend.  “Jerry thinks I’m not making enough money,” or, “Jerry says there’s gonna be a stock market crash.”

Probing a little deeper, I found that Jerry was not her boyfriend at all, but instead he was a very influential figure in her life.  Mistaking my inquiries for actual interest, Lisa thought it would be a great idea if I met Jerry, and soon.  But hang on, I’m getting a little ahead of myself, more on that later.

Jerry Cincinnati owned a photo shop (appropriately called Cincinnati Photo) on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.  When I first heard his whole name I thought of other cliché Brooklyn monikers like “Tommy Two Times” or “Vinny the Weenie.”  It sounded like a character in an early Springsteen song and I assumed the name was also assumed.

Site of former Cincinnati Photo

Site of former Cincinnati Photo

Lisa raved about this guy, and when she felt she could trust me enough she told me he was not only a wise man but also a powerful psychic; that in fact he was the deciding factor in her recent divorce.  She said he made life decisions, not only for her, but for a group of Brooklynites who convened at his house in Marine Park every two weeks.

To me this stank to high heaven.  I was suspicious, very much so, but I wondered if I was being unfair.  Maybe I was just feeling suspicious because of another character from my life; from way back further, a man possibly named “Bill Corbin.”

Bill Corbin befriended my mom back in California in 1981.  I wish I had all the gritty details at my disposal but I was 13 years old and didn’t really fuss over the facts, especially the financial ones.  I remember meeting Bill at a Sizzler in Hollywood with my two sisters in a big meet and greet arranged by our mom.  During this time we were reeling from unpaid bills and knew we would soon have to move out of our apartment at the Lido on Wilcox Avenue and settle into something cheaper.

Mom said this guy was going to be our salvation.  I eyed him through squinted eyes; maybe it was because my mom had been divorced so long and it was just weird seeing her with a strange man.  I wondered if they had a little thing going on.  I decided probably not.

Bill seemed a little slick, he laughed a little too easily and a little too loud.  He made very temporary eye contact with us kids but seemed to zero in on my mom, flattering her constantly.  I realized he probably just didn’t like kids.  I didn’t really care what he felt as long as he was going to pull us out of our big financial mess.  We had a conversation about actually “moving into a house” while we sawed through our overcooked little Sizzler steaks and I distractedly spied the ice cream machine (Kids eat for free!).

This sounded really cool but I couldn’t imagine us getting a house!  I mean, Laura and Mary and I shared a bedroom while my mom slept every night on the sofa in the living room.  Things were a little tight to ever imagine such a turnaround.  I remember the words “investment” and “security” being thrown around a lot.  We finished eating and got up to leave; mom grabbed the steak knives and put them in her purse on the way out.  I was always embarrassed by mom’s petty restaurant pilfering but as she always explained it, she was a child of the Depression, and they (whatever was being stolen) might just come in handy.

A week later we drove out to Whittier to meet Bill and look at a house.  Moving there would mean changing schools and losing all my friends but did I mention that it was a house?!  It was amazing, Mary and Laura and I would have our own rooms.  And mom too!  I dared to dream that day, and it was a wonderful dream.  I looked out at the neighborhood, our new neighborhood through our soon-to-be bedroom windows on the second floor.  Mom liked it indeed, she gave the go-ahead to Bill and we all left.

Presumably money changed hands and in another week we were all packed and sitting in our apartment living room.  Waiting excitedly for Bill to pick us up and give us the keys.  We waited.  And waited. For several hours.

We waited but Bill never showed up.  In fact we never heard from him again.  We were never able to reach him either, he just vanished with all of my mom’s savings.

As the years went on I imagined finding him and cursing him out.  When I got older and bigger I imagined finding him and punching him in the jaw for making my mom cry that day while we all sat on our luggage in shocked disappointment.  A few weeks later we moved out of the Lido and into a dilapidated motel on Hollywood Boulevard.  Bill Corbin was a con man and we had been his marks.  I never found out what his real name was.

So years later, by the time I lived in New York, and still stung from being taken in; I figured I knew from con men.  And like the Great Harry Houdini used to do to psychics, I would go meet Jerry and expose the guy for what he really was.  I finally accepted Lisa’s offer.

We took a car service over to Quentin Road.  We arrived, there was only one other car up front, but I could see about 15 people through the living room window.  I guess they took the R Train and hoofed it. I was really nervous, not knowing what I’d find or if I’d even say anything.  I already didn’t like being in a room full of people I didn’t know.  Lisa was pretty miffed at my skepticism, saying “You’ll see, you’ll see.”

I saw Jerry and it was like looking at Bill Corbin 2.0.  I quickly perceived his blustering self-confidence and heavy-lidded arrogance.  I wondered if I was just transferring my childhood experiences with Corbin onto this guy; so I decided to hear what he had to say.  The people arranged around the living room were a bunch of misfits, by all appearances.  They looked even more uncomfortable around me than I imagined I looked to them.  They didn’t seem like a group that got out much, I could just tell by their dress and general mousiness.  They were all struggling financially, I could see that too.

I think these people were all Jerry’s photo store customers.

Somebody brought buckets of KFC, the chicken was passed out and Jerry called everyone to order.  A few people walked up and stuffed cash into his hand.  I whispered to Lisa, “What’s with the money, what is he, a Mafia Don?!”  She just said, “Oh, we all give money to Jerry every week for helping us.”  The guests all seemed to me like they needed more help than whatever-this-was; and my instincts on that were borne out when they started to speak.

They seemed to vie for Jerry’s attention as Jerry himself noisily and messily consumed the greasy chicken.  He’d call on people, lazily lifting a hand to point, like some corpulent CEO.  “Jerry Jerry, what about my job?!” one guy asked.  And then Jerry:  “You should not take that job, you always do things like this – it’s a pattern.  Don’t be such a loser.”  “OK Jerry, OK.  Thank you.”

Well, alrighty then!

That was annoying; Jerry seemed like a common bully.  His minions said the word “Jerry” every few words, it was unsettling, the junior psychologist in me decided it was a sign not only of their neediness but most importantly of Jerry’s mastery of them.  He started to call on people to talk about how their lives had been the last two weeks.  This went on for a bit while I sank deeper into my chair and kept checking my watch.  Finally Lisa spoke up, she said she had brought a friend who was skeptical about the whole thing, and then pointed over to me.

Then Jerry sealed the deal.  What he said in reply was all I came for.  He uttered the phrase that is the trope of every dramatized as well as real life charlatan.

“Yes, I knew you would say that.”  As if my obvious discomfiture and glancing at my watch was not a tip-off.

I snickered and he shot me a hot glance.  He went on, “After all, you know of my psychic abilities, I don’t try to hide them.”  They spoke a little more, and in reply to something else Lisa said, Jerry exclaimed, “You see Lisa, you are the kind of woman that makes men hate women.”

Wow, so he was a bully and an asshole.  I knew saying something to him would not change anything, neither Jerry himself nor the weird people with their probably-harmful attachments.  So I got up to leave, I made my excuses and called a car service.

Days later I met Lisa for coffee and very strongly encouraged her to end her association with the guy.  I told her I had immediately seen him for being a con man and Lisa would have none of it.  I told her about Bill Corbin, she saw no relevance.  Just like my mom, she’d been taken; and I pitied her angrily as I did my mom some 16 years before.  I spent some time over the next few weeks trying to save Lisa from the fate that had befallen my mom.  I’d only retreat when she started to get pissed off at me.

However, Lisa’s association with Jerry didn’t last much longer.  Maybe my words had proven helpful, I sure hoped so.   Meanwhile he’d moved her into one of his buildings in Midwood; with everything, including the utilities, in his name.  His control of Lisa was nearly complete.

Then she suddenly seemed to see the light.  In an attempt to gradually disassociate herself she stopped attending his biweekly creep-out sessions on Quentin Road.  This angered Jerry to no end, so he had her lights and gas turned off and finally evicted her out of her new flat.  Then and only then did Lisa finally see him for who he was.  It was very disillusioning but thankfully she got over it.

People like Jerry Cincinnati and Bill Corbin seem to prey on certain personality types, the vulnerable (especially financially); the people who want answers for life’s insecurities.  Maybe what this insight means to me is that my mom was like those people in Jerry’s house at Gravesend.  I’d like to think not.  These guys passed themselves off as rendering some needed service but in the end took the money and ran (or in Jerry’s case, stayed – now that was ballsy).  From my view, nobody who associated with these minor con men ever came out the better for it.

At least for me, I was partly vindicated in that I was right all along about Jerry.  Bill Corbin kind of prepped me, you know, trained me to be on the lookout for his type.  I guess it wasn’t all a loss; I did get that out of him.

2 replies
  1. Alannah Murphy
    Alannah Murphy says:

    Love all your stories Bill, especially the ones that involve your mum before I knew her. You are a born story-teller. Your mum was a kind-hearted woman, it’s a shame that there are people like that Corbin character that prey upon those who are desperate for help, but glad your experience at least helped you help someone else.

  2. ryan corley
    ryan corley says:

    Another amazing story! Thank you for delving into your past. I know it’s hard to do, but you are definitely a master at your craft! Bill Hardesty: author and creep-exposer extraordinaire.


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