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From childish fibs to polite little whites, amusing tall tales to the bold and bare-faced, the practice of dissembling is a time-honored and ever-present craft

Here are as many perspectives on lying as there are liars. For some it’s an art form. For others it’s a philosophical exercise. For a few unfortunates it’s a way of life. But for almost everyone, the borders of liar-land are ill-defined. Is Santa Claus a lie? How about “No, I didn’t notice the burned taste at all”? Is it a lie when it saves a life—and should we care?

The following essays won’t give you a detailed map, but they will take you to some of the far reaches where truth and lies meet. We hope you’ll enjoy the trip—and find your way home.

Don’t You Want To Hear My Excuse?

When I was 5, I stole grape bubblegum from Thrifty because my mom told me I couldn’t have any. Then, as I chewed it, I denied having stolen it. In a way, I suppose this act of insubordination was inspired by the thought that I could get away with having my way.

I, like most kids, was learning to take liberties with the truth in the form of a fib. And so began the push-pull of imagination and egoism against the social responsibility of honesty. I was testing the system. While a fib is more trivial in its nature, a real lie intends a deeper deception, and holds greater weight. A liar knows her statement is false, but she tries to pass it off as true.

Children on playgrounds chant the English rhyme “Liar, liar, pants on fire, sitting on a telephone wire,” or “sitting on a copper wire,” or the more complex, original “Liar, liar, lick spit, turn about the candlestick. What’s good for liars? Brimstone and fires.” We learn to use rhymes like these to illustrate points with emphasis. Though this one in particular has several variations, the point is the same: to tease another who is accused of fibbing, and in so doing, to socialize us into thinking that lies are bad.

Early in life we also learn about George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington and “Honest” Abe Lincoln. Abe earned his reputation for honesty as a clerk in a general store, because if he realized he overcharged someone, he would pay them back, but George never even wielded the axe. Hardly monumental in reality, these stories of our early leaders have become national myths intended to teach youngsters by example. Don’t lie, and maybe you can be president. These lessons are in place because everyone lies—even, and sometimes especially, the president.

Granted, there are steaming heaps of lies which are hurtful and deceitful, which do nothing but shred our social fabric. These, I in no way defend. What is unspoken in these rhymes or the myths is that it is only sometimes ethical to be completely honest. As our conception of lying becomes more nuanced, we learn to lie in the name of something else that is more important. There are circumstances, most of which are extreme, where lying is the right thing to do.

Let’s say it’s 1862, and you’re a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and you lie to the local authorities, saying you’re harboring no one. Or it’s 1942, and you’re harboring a Jew; when Nazis come to your door looking for her, you lie pretending to be a loyal German who would do no such thing. Those particular lies were illegal, but the morally superior choice was to lie because you were protecting the lives of hunted innocents.

So, is your lie wrong? No—there are greater goods which lies can serve. (Apologies to Emmanuel Kant, but he’s wrong.) We make exceptions to absolutes constantly, relying on our moral compasses to guide our actions to the appropriate ends. These exceptions to the rule reveal the hierarchy of truths, ranked by the value given to different actions, often colored by the desired results.

This, however, in no way accounts for the myriad trivial lies which plague our personal relationships, even the ones that seem very important personally when uttered. People lie constantly. We lie irrationally, for sport, out of boredom, to protect those around us from the truth, or out of sheepish self-interest—precisely the sorts of lies those early fables of presidents and chants were geared at weeding out. These are so frequent and common that they have turned us all into doubters.

Clearly we value honesty because it helps us function as social beings. Trust is, as most of us know by now, the necessary component to the health of any relationship, be it between lovers, neighbors, or the public and its leaders.

It is when unnecessary and cowardly lies are told that relationships are clouded. When the government says, “What wire taps?” Or when a girlfriend says, “What Herpes?” These lies are motivated sometimes by pride or guilty fears of an action’s unforeseen consequences. These selfish lies are the ones that are the cheapest and least socially acceptable, even though they may come out of some instinct for self-preservation or momentary necessity. The desires to quell emotions or prevent further upset are powerful motives, though they are not in anyone’s self interest in the long-term.

The very serious point that the early lessons seek to teach is this: In a way, telling a lie is a moment in which one makes oneself an exception to the rule. The liar thereby is declaring herself as better/more important than society as a whole. It makes you the driver who cruises down the shoulder while the rest of us are patiently waiting out the traffic jam. Sometimes lies are truly necessary, such as situations when the majority is wrong or when you’re driving someone to the hospital, but most of them are just shabby cover-ups.

—Ashley Hahn

Well, Virginia, It’s Like This...

I wanted to believe everything they said, because they were older kids and they were my friends.

My 9-year-old next-door neighbor, Kurt, was predisposed to avoid 6-year-olds like me. But I was a big kid, articulate and clever, able to keep up appearances with an older crowd. When Kurt’s buddies collected, however, I felt the shakiness of my acceptance. I was the handy tease victim, the invariable monkey-in-the-middle.

None of that dimmed my craving for acceptance. The ribbing seemed an easy price to pay. We lived in northern New Jersey, in a small town long since given over to the close-together housing of Manhattan-bound commuters. But there were earlier-age remnants, like the freestanding garage set back from each house, a garage where the family’s horse once lived.

We sat inside Kurt’s garage one day in early December, puffy in winter jackets. The conversation turned to Christmas.

“I’m getting a race car,” said Kurt, and others chimed in with their anticipations. “Santa’s getting me a rocket launcher,” I said, and the others giggled and traded knowing looks.

“Santa Claus is your parents,” one of the boys said.

“He is not!” My defense probably made me red-faced. The laughter swelled.

“He’s your parents. I saw it. I stayed up last Christmas,” the kid continued. Others nodded confirmation as he described witnessing his parents spread presents under the tree. “Besides,” he concluded, “it never made sense. Nobody could carry presents to so many people in one night.”

That was an undeniable fact, but it was easily surmountable by magic. And I so much wanted that magic to be real.

I persisted, inciting them to a frenzy of insistence. If they had any doubt themselves, this was all it took to convince them. As I trudged home, the full weight of the betrayal crashed in on me. My parents—and every adult I knew and trusted—had lied to me. Television, that seemingly benign living-room-based authority, had lied to me. Every shop-window display I studied had lied.

Confronting my parents was no good: I didn’t want to hear the excuses they’d come up with. I listened to the holiday songs with their cheery refrains about reindeer and such and understood that the whole goddamn grownup world was in this conspiracy, and it was all about defrauding children. Not to mention inflicting that oh-so-simple torture of the “You better watch out/You better not cry” school. Of course it wasn’t some miracle elf deciding whom to reward—it was your parents.

There were aftershocks, of course. The Easter bunny and the tooth fairy fell quickly in Santa’s wake, and a fabric of similar lies was exposed. Until the nasty shocks of puberty set in, this was my most painful growing-up experience.

So I resolved I would never lie to my own kids this way. And when my first (and, so far, only) child arrived some six years ago, I remembered this resolve.

My wife wasn’t as sold on the idea. “Santa Claus is a special part of childhood,” she opined. “I don’t want to take away that magic.”

“I don’t want to lie to my child.”

“It’s not lying.”

I’m now convinced that she’s right. Not that I in any way joined in the Santa-making frenzy. It seemed to hit one day when my attention was elsewhere, and next thing I knew my kid was swept up in the holiday deceit, abetted everywhere we turned by songs and signs and stories. Even without any broadcast TV in our house, the bullshit leaked through. And I’m paralyzed by it.

My daughter has asked me point blank about Santa and how all those presents get delivered. “You know,” she insisted last Christmas. “You know how it’s done? Is it magic?”

I haven’t got the heart to dispel the myth. That’s right—it’s now become a myth. That’s because it’s a lie in which I’m participating, however passively, and it salves my conscience to assign it another name.

Some day, and I hope it’s soon, it will make sense to ease her out of this fiction. I’d like to spare her the sense of betrayal I felt at her age, and I’ve been trying to seed the situation with such sappy sentiment as “Isn’t it wonderful and kind of magic the way people are all nice to one another at Christmas?” but I can tell that’s not working. She clings to this concept of other-worldly magic and right now it makes a great deal of sense to her, as it did to me when I was 6. I suppose it’s an offshoot of innocence, and that’s an endangered part of childhood I’d like to see preserved in my own child for a little while longer.

—B.A. Nilsson

But Is There a Lie in ‘Team’?

The very first job I ever had was picking potatoes on my family’s farm. I was 6 or 7 years old and not quite big enough to drag a full bushel basket down the rows. Intuitively, I made a deal with the older kids that I would fill the first half of a basket, and they would finish and carry it up to the truck where my father’s cousin would put check marks next to our names in a little notebook. We were paid by the bushel. In retrospect, I think this may have been the best job I’ve ever had. The loyalty I felt to our family’s farm was unwavering. It would be mine some day, and the reward I received for my labors was directly tied to how much effort I was willing to put into the job. I have tried to carry that young boy’s work ethic with me into adulthood and into every job I’ve had. However, after many years of being away from the farm, I have learned the hard lesson that holding this attitude makes me a sucker. Why? Here’s the lie: hard work and loyalty are rewarded.

Let me let you in on a little secret. It is not hip to be crew. Unless your toilet scrubbing and fryer cleaning affords you the opportunity to own a home in the same gated community as Ray Kroc’s grease-bloated heirs. You are not part of a team and you never will be. Inevitably, only one member of “the team” is victorious enough to buy a new Corvette each year, and it’s not the grill guy. Mind you, I have been told that, if it were only possible, each of “us” would be driving a fancy new sports car, too. How I was going to achieve that at $10.50 an hour was never explained to me.

Buying into the team lie means that you will forever be at the mercy of some contemptible jackal of an assistant manager or boss who will take credit for everything you do right, and demoralize you for everything you do wrong. This is the psychological tool of the bully, the “I never had a prom date so I’m going to take it out on you” guy. It’s the tool he uses to reinforce your eternal subordination to him, the tool by which he justifies the measly nature of your paycheck (the receipt of which you guarantee only by your acceptance of his abuse). These people are the rabid dogs that walk among us. They tirelessly search the landscape of their meager realms for the dust speck, the forgotten light switch or the next exploitable opportunity to fuel their desperate need for a boost in their self-esteem by gluttonously swallowing up some of yours. Unfortunately, they are also the ones that all of the rest of us are supposed to want to be like.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a way to battle these people effectively, and pass along some piece of advice that will perpetually change our fractured selfish culture into something that doesn’t feed on the subjugation of one person’s hopes to another’s. Maybe that’s just the way it’s always been, and I was just too naïve to believe it until now. I hope that’s not true. Every once in a while though, after a day of haying, I’ll take a stroll through what used to be a potato field and try to conjure up a memory of what I felt when I was a child and a teenager, but the answers don’t seem to be there either. Later, at the dinner table, I admire the scratches on my forearms where the stiff dry bales left their mark. I’m full of my mother’s chicken and homemade biscuits, and a cozy warmth comes over me that is familiar, but not too common anymore: Pride.

—Carl Smith

The Age of Innocence?

When I was no more than 7 or 8 years old my mother told me of an incident from her childhood. Something had happened involving her and another child—I think it was that something had been broken or damaged due to playing around. Her mother—my grandmother—learned of this and asked for an explanation. Two stories were offered up and my grandmother chose to not believe the one from her own daughter. I don’t recall what the incident was specifically, but whatever happened, not being believed by her mother made an enormous mark on my mother, enough so that it was vivid and painful to her still, decades later.

I also don’t recall why it was that my mother told me that, but I’m sure it had something to do with ideas of honesty and trust. I know that it affected my own sensibilities; I’ve never forgotten that her mother didn’t believe her.

Childhood lies. Looking back on them, they seem incredibly amateurish, because they were. In first grade, home after school, sitting with my mother and with no forethought I simply rolled out a flat-out lie, telling her that the girl who lived next door to us, Mary Beth Wagner, had been taken to the principal’s office for misbehaving. I knew it was ludicrous as soon as I said it, but I didn’t retract it. Later, in conversation with Mrs. Wagner, my mother learned that there was no truth to my news flash (and as well there wouldn’t have been, as Mary Beth was not the type to be embroiled in shenanigans of any sort, certainly not the kind that would warrant a trip to the principal’s office).

Those childhood lies, at once experimental and a component in learning boundaries and parameters, linger in the memory in much different and less pleasant ways than the memories of other childhood misconduct. I once took a stick and wrote my name in the wet cement on a neighbor’s new driveway. Not having the smarts to use a pseudonym or just skip the branding altogether and make a design or write a slogan or phrase, I was easily tracked down and had to answer to my father. That prank bore the marks of an idiot or a child and I don’t feel bad about it now, nor have I since some time much closer to the event. Being a child (but not an idiot, thank you), I behaved as a child and learned my lesson, subsequently either avoiding such pranks or being more thorough in hiding my tracks.

However, childhood lies (yes, there were others, and I even tried to be better at it) have stuck with me. They carry a certain personal shame that can even grow as the years roll by. Perhaps it’s the clash of innocence and corruption, or innocence and the harsher realities of the world. Adults lie regularly, for reasons ranging from sparing someone else’s feelings to bureaucratic necessity to unmitigated grabs for personal gain.

Over the years this didn’t prevent me from lying, but it did affect my outlook as a parent. Always believe first unless compelled to do otherwise. Around the time my daughter, Norabelle, was 10 or 11—at the age when she began to have preferences for radio stations to be listening to in the car—I instituted a sort of game to determine how long a given station would be on. We’d switch to “her” station, but once she couldn’t name who the artists were of four successive songs, we’d change to “mine” for a certain length of time. This was altered slightly when she had a pal along, with the two of them having to name three in a row without missing.

On one excursion Norabelle and her friend Emma correctly accounted for the names of each successive act. A week or so later she revealed to me, “That band that Emma said—Mailbox—well, they’re not a band.” My first response was “You mean they were put together by producers, in the studio?” That was followed by a certain pride of fatherhood that she knew what I meant by the question, she knew the difference between naturally occurring band formations and those created by careful design and casting. “No,” she said, re-emphasizing, “They’re not a band.” Seeing a still-puzzled look on me, she came clean. “Emma made it up so you wouldn’t change the station.”

—David Greenberger

The Geography of Lies

You can lie where you want to . . . and you can leave your friends behind, because your friends don’t lie and if they don’t lie, then they’re no friends of ours. Well, actually that’s not true, because your friends do lie, so you’re lying if you’re telling us that they don’t, and we actually like ’em more than we like you, anyway. But, all that having been said, you can still lie where you want to (it’s more of a worldwide sport than soccer, after all, since Americans can play it well too) although it’s worth noting that some places may better lend themselves to fabrication and falsehood than others.

Take, for instance, Moncrabeau—the Village of Liars—in France’s Gascony region. Every August, gaggles of felonious fabricators, social swindlers and flat-out bald-faced liars gather there for an international festival of falsehood, with each entrant spinning tales in turn, until the best word weasel is crowned the King of the Liars at the event’s end. Humor is highly valued in the competition, and the winning tales will typically be knee-slappers built around classic “good little lies”—the sort that make your eyes roll in wonderment at the audacity of the perpetrator, until he or she finally gets the ultimate comeuppance that such traditional tall tales require. People will like you a lot there if you insist on ordering freedom fries with your goat cheese. We did.

To prepare for the competition at Moncrabeau, you could visit one of the world’s better-known slick-talkers’ shrines: the Blarney Stone in Ireland, at Castle Blarney, near Cork. The Stone, high in the ramparts of the castle, is reputed to be part of the mystical Stone of Scone, over which Scottish kings were once crowned. Robert the Bruce gave a piece of the rock to Cormac McCarthy in 1314 in return for the Irishman’s support in the Battle of Bannockburn. More than a century later, England’s Queen Elizabeth I accused her contemporaneous lord of that very same castle of giving her a “load of Blarney,” after he deftly and repeatedly promised loyalty without actually acceding to her demands. Legend has it that you, too, can acquire the Lord of Blarney’s “gift of eloquence” by kissing the stone that bears his name. It’s also been said that placing your buttocks on the Stone will endear you to the people of Blarney.

After slipping the Blarney Stone some T&A (tongue and ass) and convincing the Gascon masters of your skills in subterfuge, you might find yourself enshrined in the National Liars’ Hall of Fame in Dannebrog, Neb., a town claimed by the hall’s perpetrators . . . um, sorry, by the hall’s proprietors, to be the Geographic Center of Western Civilization. “Extensive exhibits on the art of prevarication and metric mendacity, tributes to champions in the field, exhibits, demonstrations, living-history presentations, historical panoramas, pageants, parades, and publications,” reads the hall’s very sincere mission statement. “Free admission. Call ahead for tours of more than 500 visitors. Access to the Dannebrog Convention Center. Close to Loup River Ferry Landing and subway station. Often compared to the Smithsonian Institution.” Be sure to buy plenty of subway tokens before you go. We’re sure New York Transit Authority ones will work just fine.

Romania’s Bridge of Lies might seem like a logical next stop for the chronic dissembler—except that its name is a lie! Trickery, trickery! It should actually be called The Bridge of No Lies, since legend has it that no one can stand atop it and tell a lie without the structure collapsing. Given that it was the first cast-iron bridge built in Romania (a nation with a worldwide reputation for cast-iron bridges, don’t you know) in 1859, I think it’s safe to say that you walk on it at your own risk, never mind lying on it. And so much for truth in tourism advertising if you can’t even lie on a bridge called the Bridge of Lies, so we won’t even get into the layers of falsehood beneath such place names as Big Bone Lick, Ky., or Muff, Northern Ireland, or Titz, Germany, or Twatt in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, or Dancing Dicks in England, or South Carolina’s Sugar Tit. But if you visit those places anyway, we’ll fully expect you to lie and tell us that they lived up to their names. We would. Then we’d jet off to Intercourse, Pa., and Fucking, Austria, just so we’d have better stories to tell than you do.

Old-time sailors had a hell of a time when it came to geography, as scads of deceptive coastal features caused them to run aground on a variety of treacherous rocks, reefs, bars, bays and bights over the centuries as they sailed abroad looking for great fibs to tell Ferdinand, Isabella and their fellow monarchs. Cape Town, South Africa, abuts False Bay. There’s a False Harbor on Cape Cod and False Capes in (among other places) Newfoundland, the north of Australia’s Queensland (where it was once known as Kaap Valsche to the Dutch East India Company sailors who wrecked there), Virginia and Baja California Sur in Mexico. Fales Court in Troy, N.Y., is also similarly reputed to have been founded by a semi-literate pirate who found himself driven aground in the Wynantskill Creek behind the Emma Willard School. If you write to any good regional historian, they’ll give you the full story. It’ll be worth the stamp.

Virginia’s False Cape has been rehabilitated, and is now a state park featuring primitive camping and an extensive environmental- education program in one of the last undisturbed coastal environments on the East Coast. (Yeah, sure, right.) In the 1800s, it gained a reputation as a ship’s graveyard, as it resembled Cape Henry, causing many very large boats to venture into unfortunately shallow waters. The nearby village of Wash Woods was founded by survivors of such a shipwreck, who built their church and homes using cypress wood that washed ashore with them. Mexico’s False Cape, conversely and helpfully, has a lighthouse atop it called El Faro de Cabo Falso, built in 1890, high on the sand dunes above its Pacific Ocean cliffs.

And if you trust your ship to a lighthouse built on a place called False Cape, then we know a guy who’s got a Bridge of Lies to sell you, cheap. Shoot us a note at cabofalso@kaapvalsche.com and we’ll write back fast and hook you right up. Honest. Now pass us the damn freedom fries, will you, Jacques?

—J. Eric Smith

Overture, Curtains, Lies

I see 50 to 60 theatrical produc-tions a year, and I act and direct in a half-dozen more. In reviews, I write about actors who are truthful versus performers who lie with enthusiasm. I laud the former and loathe the latter. But is there a difference between lying and acting? Aren’t all theatrical productions lies? Aren’t all actors liars? Isn’t the difference between acting and lying simply one of degree?

A liar tries to convince the listener that the false is true. An actor tries to convince an audience that memorized lines spoken before muslin walls, under Fresnel lights, are his spontaneous words spoken in a room lit by a floor lamp. A liar has the tougher job, then, because audiences want to believe the actor’s lie. Only a little willing suspension of disbelief is needed for the actor or performer, because an audience has willingly paid admission. The audience has a financial and emotional stake in the actor’s lie; paying up to $100 just for a ticket means the audience member wants to believe money paid means value received.

The value of the actor’s lie is increased by the scenic designer, light designer, sound designer and costume designer. (Liars are on their own.) Sets, lights, sound, costumes all create mood; it’s akin to buying someone a drink before lying to them, or flowers, or a romantic candlelit dinner for someone who’s interested in you anyway. So an actor or performer has lots of help with the lie.

So is there a difference between lying and acting?

Several years ago I studied acting with Shakespeare & Company. From 8:30 in the morning till 10 at night, six days a week, I studied acting: how to breathe, how to articulate, how to analyze a scene, how to move, how to dance, how to fight, how to clown. Acting styles are like religions: Method actors, Meisner Technique, Suzuki, Viewpoints, Stella Adler’s school, Uta Hagen’s HB studio, all the different theories are like Methodists, Mormons, Wiccans, Catholics, Muslims, or Jehovah’s Witnesses—you won’t find agnostics or atheists among actors. Shakespeare & Company was no exception; they had their own truth.

I had believed the truth as taught: that an actor doesn’t play the words, the actor lets the words play him. An actor, so the aesthetic goes, acknowledges the lie of the stage (we are not literally in Elsinore or Ilyria or Birnam Wood, and there is an audience in front of us) and finds where the truth of the character (“I want to kill Claudius because . . .” or “I want to love Olivia because . . .”) intersects the truth of the actor (“I’ve felt like killing,” or “I understand loving”). As with a religion, the actor served to find a greater truth. But about halfway through the Intensive (Shakespeare & Company’s title for the four-week training), one of the teachers confessed in a drunken stupor, “I don’t know whether we teach the truth, or whether we teach how to manipulate the audience.”

So is acting lying?

Hamlet’s theory on acting—that “the purpose of playing . . . is to hold . . . the mirror up to nature . . . to show virtue her own feature”—rings true. That’s what actors do: They act the truth of the situation in which they find themselves. Hamlet’s criticism of some performers—those “highly praised” actors who “have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably”—rings true, too. I see lots of performers praised highly, some of whom manipulate as an art form. I’ve seen performers too old for the description of their characters make liars out of their fellow performers. I’ve seen acts of manipulation so calculating that the effort deserved praise, if not the outcome. I’ve seen critics get drunk on celebrity sightings, just as an audience will, applauding the fame walking onstage. Performers, like liars, manipulate to be interesting, to entertain, to convince an audience not only of an untruth, but that the truth of the play is irrelevant.

For actors, the truth of the play is all. Despite the lie of the set, the lights and the costumes, an actor will doggedly find the truth of a play and do it, act it, regardless of where that truth takes her. The intention of an actor is different from the liar. A liar lies to hide the truth. An actor uses Hamlet’s mirror no matter what it shows. A performer uses Hamlet’s mirror to make sure his hair is perfect.

—James Yeara

Your Money or Your Lies

‘Ma’am? Ma’am? Could you spare 50 cents?” Skeptical look. The second pitch: “I’m just tryin’ to get something to eat,” or “I just need to get a bus ticket,” or “I just need to make a phone call.”

If I’ve made it this far without mumbling an incoherent apology or pretending I don’t hear and speeding by, I’m most likely feverishly trying to decide in a split second if this person is lying.

On the face of it, most requests are plausible. People do go hungry and jobless. People—even people who are not homeless and desperate—do run out of change and need to make a call or get a bus home. It seems unfair that once you get below a certain level of poverty, your word is constantly suspect.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be a raving right-wing bootstrapper to know that many panhandlers are addicts, spending the money they get on alcohol or drugs. Anyone who has the foresight to carry food to give away knows that there are people who won’t take it. How many panhandlers are addicts? Who knows? Certainly not me.

Despite the deepest, most radical political convictions, after a while suspicion begins to run deep.

I once spent a full half-hour or more on my way home from work standing in line at a McDonalds with a woman who had adopted the “I’ll ask you to buy me lunch instead of asking for change so you’ll trust me” approach. I wasn’t the first one to bite; the folks at the McDonalds knew her, and knew exactly who I was in our little dance. But distrust dies hard. As I left, I was still wondering—is she building up goodwill, expecting that I will just give her the cash directly next time?

There are some phenomenal liars out there asking for money. Anyone as softhearted as I am has a stash of stories about the young homeless woman to whom they gave $50 to get an Amtrak ticket to her grandma in South Carolina—only to see her again two weeks later, still asking for money with the same story.

It makes you feel crazy for believing any of the stories at all. And yet, it’s frustrating to be disbelieved. I think my record of being believed when I say “Sorry, I just gave all my change to the last guy,” is easily as bad as most 50-cents-short-of-a-bus-ticket-ers. Of course it doesn’t lose me 50 cents to be considered a liar.

When it’s on the table that all parties expect to be lied to, things can get interesting. There was one guy who used to ply the New York City subways swearing that he would use whatever you gave him for alcohol and not a cent for food. His cup was pretty full, too, so I guess we still didn’t believe him. Chalk up a few points for reverse psychology.

Less successful was the kid, well-dressed and clean, who made his way through the A-train one morning asking for money to buy a new pair of sneakers. I assumed he was either a performance artist or someone with a chip on his shoulder about begging, but a very earnest woman across the aisle from me took him completely seriously and lit into him with a vengeance about his greed and laziness.

Utah Phillips, a lefty folksinger and activist with deep roots in the hobo tradition, was perhaps the first person I’ve run into who just tossed the whole lying question out the window. An aficionado of hobo tricks (like using a rubber cockroach to get free restaurant meals), Utah once complained from the stage that a bum around the corner had just asked him for some change “because he was homeless and hungry.” Utah was indignant. Couldn’t the guy come up with a more creative story?

Though I squirmed in my seat when he said it, I soon found myself adopting the Utah lens. Completely unable to judge truth, and therefore perpetually on the fence between taking every story at face value and dismissing them all, I began to look at the stories panhandlers tell—and how they tell them—as marketing pitches.

If I’m sold—for whatever reason—I pay the piper. If I feel threatened, harassed, or extremely suspicious—or if I don’t have any change, which is usually true when I say it—I don’t.

And in either case, I walk away thinking, “Were they telling the truth?”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Hook, Line and Sinker

I’m in a motel in New Orleans and the wee Irish immigrant who’s been hustling me for the past few hours is now sleeping naked on my floor. His long-sleeve, silk button-up lies crumpled in the corner along with his snakeskin boots, the Danzig belt buckle and his little-boy Levis. I, fully clothed and cocooned in my Army-surplus sleeping bag, stare at the ceiling waiting for sleep and a tour that was never to come.

I was 19 years old and just too damn eager to experience life. You know, real life, the kind you see in movies and read about in books. I’d quit my job, zeroed out my sorry little bank account and packed all my earthly possessions into my car. Off I drove on a Kerouac-inspired odyssey to find the soul of America on the open road, or something.

Looking back, my romanticism seems pretty funny. In all earnestness I believed that my idealized world—late nights of mind-bending conversation around campfires with canned beans, bottled beer and light cigarettes—was only as distant as my will to find it. So off I drove, regardless of the fact that I was pretty much living that life already and just hated my surroundings—read, 19-year-old skin. I set out on my quest so willing to believe the lie I was telling myself that I ended up believing a number of others along the way.

The most egregious instance came in New Orleans. Instead of finding the city I’d romanticized—big bands and voodoo priestesses on street corners as gumbo oozes from sewers brimming with gators—I found Bret.

When I met Bret he was pissing on my car, which he didn’t know I was in at the time. I jumped out and after I told him that no, in fact, I did not want some, we began to chat. He told me he was a dart shark and I thought that was pretty cool. He promised to give me a tour of city in his Jeep and directions to a hostel if I gave him a ride home, and I thought that was even cooler.

No more than three minutes into the ride the story began to change. We were no longer going to stay at Bret’s house, but his friend’s place. Fair enough, I thought, a bed’s a bed as long as we’re still exploring the city in the morning.

But Bret’s friend had other ideas, mainly ones that didn’t include some random teenager crashing on his couch. Bret cursed his friend as he directed me toward a motel where he said I could drop him off. He would give me directions to a nearby hostel and in the morning we could meet up and Bret would give me a tour of the city in his Jeep. Oddly enough, things still sounded all right to me.

The route to Bret’s motel included a detour at some oil riggers’ honky-tonk bar on the outskirts of town. Bret said I needed a drink and I figured he was right. He opened a tab for us.

As Bret shot pool with a couple of Mexican cowboys, I perused the jukebox—Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Skynard. Wasn’t this New Orleans? I thought. Where was Louis Armstrong? Some big band? Something Cajun? But before I could finish the thought Bret had started a shouting match with one of the cowboys. The barkeep gave Bret the boot. Since he was my tour guide I followed him, but not before the bar tender could hand me the bill.

No sooner did we find a motel than Bret, now slurringly drunk, said it would be best, for the tour’s sake, to both crash at the same place. It was 4 AM. I was tired and had no idea where I was. It didn’t sound like the worst idea at the time, which I guess would’ve been leaving New Orleans without a proper tour. Even though the owner said there were only singles left, I paid cash. As he proceeded to remove his clothes, Bret said he would pay me back in the morning.

Morning came and I held out for that goddamn tour as if to go without was making me sick. When I asked where his Jeep was, Bret offered one excuse after another. When I asked him for the money, Bret said he’d need a ride to the ATM. Morning stretched into evening and eventually I reached my limit and told him I was leaving New Orleans.

To this day I have no other excuse for that experience other than to say I was courting it. As I dropped him off I asked Bret to pose for a photo, an image I’ve kept to this day. After I dropped him off, I drove around the city for another few hours and cursed myself as I found my way out. But heading west, I didn’t waste more than a few hours mourning my broken image of the Big Easy. I couldn’t let it bother me really; my trip had just begun. Besides I had bigger fish to fry—I was on my way to Los Angeles.

—Travis Durfee

You May Already Be a Winner

I’m going to be a millionaire. Close acquaintances of mine in the Nigerian royal family have assured me of this fact. I was the lucky one—the one they chose for their desperate e-mailed plea. They told me that all I had to do was to send them some information about my bank account, and I would receive millions of dollars in unclaimed wealth. The way I see it, opportunities like this only occur once in a lifetime, and even though they informed me of this in broken English, full of misplaced capital letters and bad grammar, how could I afford to be skeptical about such a chance?

I’ve been thinking about how to repay my foreign benefactors, but my finances are in a bit of disarray recently. My bank tells me it has something to do with “questionable withdrawals of a sizeable amount.” Luckily I decided to forward a message from Bill Gates himself to everyone in my address book a month ago. I can count on receiving a $1,000 check any day now, because Mr. Gates has been tracking every person who keeps the message circulating, and rewarding them for their efforts. I hope that I can afford to get the Nigerians something nice, because they seemed to be so thankful about finding someone to help them find a place for their money. It’s like they don’t even realize that they’re also helping me!

At first, I considered sending the Nigerians some of those expensive cookies I read about in an old e-mail message. You see, a lady once tried to buy the recipe for a delicious brand of cookies, and then discovered much later that she had been charged hundreds of dollars more than she had expected to pay. So in order to get even with the company who tricked her, she sent the recipe out to everyone she knew. Unfortunately, I tried to e-mail a message to the Nigerians, asking them if they liked fancy cookies, but they haven’t responded yet. I wish they weren’t so difficult to get in touch with.

I’m sure the Nigerians are probably just having some computer problems, because they’ve neglected to respond to any of my messages in quite a while. Hopefully they didn’t forget to delete one of those bad files from their computers. An e-mail message I received a few days ago told me that there might be a virus on my computer, and if I found a certain file when I ran a certain program, I should delete the file right away. Sure enough, I found it—but I think I was too late, because after I got rid of it, my computer began acting a little funny.

If my check from Mr. Gates doesn’t arrive soon, I guess I can just ask the Nigerians to visit America. That way, I can give them a tour of all my favorite places, and thank them properly. This should give me a chance to use those free restaurant vouchers that I’ve got coming to me. Places like Applebee’s, the Outback Steakhouse, and the Cracker Barrel all promised to send me gift certificates if I forwarded their e-mail messages on to at least 10 other people. So just to be safe, I sent the messages to all of my friends, family, and even my coworkers. I’m sure they would enjoy a free dinner just as much as I would.

Of course, one thing I’m not going to do for the Nigerians is to trade in my collection of aluminum pull-tabs. Did you know that soda companies will pay for one second of time on a dialysis machine for every little metal ring I pull off the top of cans and return to them? An e-mail message alerted me to this little-known fact a few years ago, and since I started telling everyone I know to give me their pull-tabs, I’ve had to set aside an entire room to hold all of little rings I’ve accumulated! I’m going to make someone very happy once I figure out where exactly I’m supposed to send my collection, and now that I think of it, I guess I’m just as generous as the Nigerians—they’ll be quite impressed!

If all else fails, I think I’ll just take the Nigerians to the mall, but I’ll have to be sure not to bring them there on Friday the 13th, Sept. 11, Halloween, or the second Tuesday of each month. Over the last few years, I’ve read so many e-mail messages about people who performed good deeds, and in return, were warned about an upcoming terrorist attack on the mall on one of those dates. Better safe than sorry, right?

Now that I think of it, I can’t even imagine how different my life would be without e-mail. How did I go through my daily routine years ago, oblivious to all of the horrible dangers and amazing opportunities that were just a few keystrokes away? I read a message about a plan by the Postal Service to create a system for charging e-mail users each time they send a message, and I can’t even explain to you how upset it made me. I immediately sent an angry letter to every one of my government representatives, and since I haven’t heard anything more about the plan, it seems as if my hard work paid off. I guess that’s democracy for you!

Well, don’t worry, folks, I won’t let my newfound wealth go to my head. Once I’m a millionaire, I plan on living the same old life I always have, without any dangerous new hobbies. No, you won’t start seeing me jump into pools less than an hour after eating, or going around mixing Pop Rocks and soda—I want to enjoy my millions. I may be the lucky one, but the way I see it, it all stems from one simple fact: I’m nobody’s fool.

—Rick Marshall

Fraternity of Fibbers

Did you know that the Adirondacks once sported a bird called the Gillagaloo, which had one wing longer than the other so it could fly around the mountain peaks? Males flew one way, and females flew the other. And when they met they laid square eggs. Those eggs were so prized by loggers, who hard-boiled them and made them into dice, that the Gillagaloo is now extinct.

At least, that’s the word from Bill Smith, an Adirondack storyteller who travels throughout the North Country telling tales and selling homemade pack baskets. Smith is also a member of the Adirondack Liar’s Club.

I learned about the Gilligaloo when the Liars met this past Sunday (Aug. 24) at the Tannery Pond Community Center in North Creek. There they regaled an audience of 40 to 50 with their tall tales, groaners, Adirondack lore, and a smattering of cowboy songs for good measure.

Attending a performance of the Liar’s Club is like having eight of your favorite grandparents take turns trying to convince you of things they saw when they were kids—except that you’re sitting in an auditorium and they’re using a cordless mike.

Joe Bruchac, who was hosting Sunday’s gathering, learned his stories on long winter nights behind the pot-bellied stove in his grandparents’ store in Greenfield Center. Chris Morley, the senior liar at 83 (though he had some stiff competition—and several of them were having trouble not nodding off on stage), began picking up his tall tales when he went to work for the Delaware & Hudson railroad at age 10. Not every Liar grew up with the Adirondack’s tall tales, but they are all committed to preserving the tradition.

Tall tales in the Adirondacks emerged largely from the live-in logging camps, where song and story were used to pass the long winter nights. “If you could sing and tell stories, you were valuable,” says Bruchac. “The only person more valuable was the camp cook,” adds Morley, chuckling.

The Liar’s Club came together in 1985 during intermission of a music and storytelling performance at the Brookside Hotel in Ballston Spa. A group of strangers began swapping stories in a way that rapidly became reminiscent of those logging camps. Vaughn Ward, a noted folklorist in the region, who died in 2001, was there. She recalled in the introduction to I Always Tell the Truth (Even if I Have to Lie to do It), a collection of Liar’s Club tales, that the opportunity was just too good let pass. With Vaughn’s organizing, the first performance of the Liar’s Club was held in October 1986 at the Middle Grove Methodist Church, “where no lie had ever been told before.”

Today, the Liar’s Club, which Vaughn’s husband, George Ward, describes as “really just a group of friends” is under the umbrella of the Black Crow Network—an organization for people with an interest in regional culture. They perform two or three times a year somewhere in the southeast Adirondacks.

George recalls that Vaughn frequently said recreational lying depends on a culture in which the truth is valued. “The point of the whole thing is that you are playing with the truth, which is play and is not a normal part of daily life,” he says. “You get people, there’s an awful lot of it in this culture, where we really fudge the truth in a great many ways—commercial advertising certainly. . . . As a result, it’s not something you play with, it’s part of everyday dialogue.” Ward adds that the collaborative repartee of tall-tale swapping can be considered an alternative to more destructive kinds of competition.

Thinking of it this way might make all the jokes before Sunday’s performance about whether the Liars could be trusted (there really was a 16-inch trout in the creek outside, but Bruchac had trouble getting anyone to go see it) an interesting comment about the culture we live in today. Or maybe it was just all within the ambiance of the performance.

But, no, if we were unsure, then it wasn’t actually a tall tale, by Bruchac’s prescription at least. “Your audience is in on the joke,” he explains. “The laughter is a shared laughter; you draw them to the point where they all go together [groans], like you get for really terrible puns.”

It’s about more than the groans, though. “Liars know the difference between the truth and not the truth,” says Bruchac. “Everyone jokes ‘No politicians allowed,’ but politicians are professional liars. There’s an awful lot of people who literally fool themselves, presenting falsehoods that we then have to live and die by.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute


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