The King and I

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Picture yourself at the end of a long working day. You're standing on the light rail platform at the Downtown Transit Center, more or less brain-dead. Suddenly there's a very well dressed fiftysomething black guy at your elbow. "Excuse me, sah," he says in an accent that could be African or Caribbean. He points to the still under-construction Lee P. Brown transit building. "What is that building for?" You tell him what it is.

"Forgive me," he says. "My English is not too good. Thank you for talking to me. Most whites in this country won't talk to black people like me. You look like a nice Christian man," he says. "Let me tell you my story.

"I am from South Africa. I have been on a ship for the last six months -- nothing but the sky above and the waves below. And tonight I want to shake my rutabaga!" (He grabs his crotch vigorously.) "They told me at the bus station that I could find a good-time girl at this address."

He digs in his pocket and fishes out a Greyhound baggage tag. On it is scrawled the following message: "Paid $200. Come to the Don Bella Hotel. PLEASE HURRY! Brenda."

Your new friend wants help finding this place. You notice he is wearing a lot of what smells like very expensive cologne. "They tell me that I have to look this place up in one of those big yellow books," he says. "Will you take me to one of these big yellow books?"

What the hell, you think. He's already made you miss one train -- it slid by while he was talking about his rutabaga. "I've got one in my office," you tell him. "It's just a couple of blocks away."

"No!" he exclaims. "If I go in one of those buildings as a black man, they will put the dogs on me! We have to go there." He points to a cash advance place a couple of blocks away. Again you think, what the hell.

You saunter over and he keeps up the patter. In Africa, he says, he is a king. He says his name is Chotta. He has eight wives and 17 children, and when he returns to his kingdom, he will be taking three more wives. He has a gold mine and a diamond mine. He is carrying $30,000 in cash -- he waves a fat wad around -- and has $270,000 more in a locker at the Greyhound station. He is using the money to buy blankets, food, clothes and drugs for his people, and he has some kind of ill-defined job at Rice University. But he needs your help. He doesn't know how to open a bank account or find an apartment -- hell, he doesn't know how to do anything here. Money's no object, he says.

By this time you're at the check- cashing place. He waits across the street as you go in. Just as you suspect, there is no Don Bella Hotel. Maybe you think this: The poor guy's been hustled by some bus station ne'er-do-well. When you come out he's talking on one of his two cell phones. The dude really looks like he stepped out of French GQ. He's wearing creased army-green slacks and a gray vest over a pink cotton shirt. On his head there is an Englishman's flat cap and he's sporting what looks like $500 shades. You tell this dandy that, sadly, there is no Don Bella Hotel. He's disappointed but not surprised. In his unsuccessful endeavors to shake his rutabaga the last three days, he has been ripped off by street hustlers to the tune of $900. The poor innocent abroad, you might think.

You walk back over to the train platform. The spiel continues. He says that you are the first person he has met in this godforsaken country that he can trust -- he reaches over the racial divide to tell you that, Christian to Christian. Only your soul is worthy of this African king. He asks what you do and you tell him you are a writer and he says, "Ah! Smart!"

He tells you to look at him and guess his age. You think "about 50 or so" but you say "42." He says, "I am 52 years old! I do not look like it, do I?" Talk turns back to banking issues. He says that the captain of the ship on which he traveled to America warned him against opening a bank account. He always calls it a "banco," for some reason.

"He told me they would steal all the money," he says. "Is that true?" You tell him not exactly -- although banking fees are a scandal, they won't clear out a six-figure account in a month. You tell him that you will take him to a banco right now and help him, but again he starts talking about attack dogs.

He changes the subject slightly. "And they also tell me that you have in this country little cards that you can stick in machines and get out little green and big green. In my country we call them food-stamp cards, but here you can get money too," he says. "Is this true?" You say sure, and perhaps foolishly, show him your ATM card. You add helpfully that you even bought your Metro ticket with it. (Meanwhile, he sees the four or five crumpled dollar bills in your wallet and says, "That's chickenfeed. I will help you get more.")

"I can see that I can trust you," he says. "Here is what I want to do. I want to go to that building" -- he points to 2016 Main -- "and see about renting lodgings. I want you to hold on to my big green. I don't trust that woman I have to see." He hands you a little package -- it's a blue bandanna wrapped around what feels like a plastic soap travel case. He insists that you put it in your pocket. You do. "Now you have some of my money, lots of it. Now I have shown how I trust you," he says. Suddenly he changes tack.

"Those machines…Could you show me how they work? Could you show me how to take out the little green and the big green?" He'll pay you $1,000! He'll buy you a car! He's going to be here a whole year -- he'll lavish gifts on you the whole time!

Maybe now it dawns on you what this "African king" is up to. Or maybe it doesn't. Hell, maybe he really is an African nobleman bewildered by America and ripped off on all sides. He's that good -- against all logic, you can't help but believe some of it, even days later. But this writer will never know for sure what his game was, 'cause this is when I bug out.

"I'm not doing it," I say. "You give me bad vibes." You give him back his rag-wrapped bundle.

"Okay, good-bye," he says simply. Is that the flicker of a grin on his lips? Was his accent still African? You'll never know. He takes his amazing spiel back over toward the Greyhound station.

Welcome to what is informally known as the Jamaican or South African Charity Switch scam, a hundred-year-old bunco scheme that is said to have been invented here on the Gulf Coast. Details vary -- but it always involves a rich foreigner, usually but not always purporting to be from Africa or the Caribbean.

Had I stayed with his game any longer, the king -- who bears a marked resemblance to a guy I later found on the San Antonio Police Department's Web site who ran an identical scam -- would have asked me to let him hold my ATM withdrawal as a show of "good faith" and would have absconded, perhaps with the aid of an accomplice with a car. And I would have found nothing but shredded newspaper in my bandanna bundle.

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