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
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
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.
You Want To Hear My Excuse?
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
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,
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
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
Virginia, It’s Like This...
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
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.
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.
Claus is your parents,” one of the boys said.
is not!” My defense probably made me red-faced. The laughter
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
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
don’t want to lie to my child.”
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.
Is There a Lie in ‘Team’?
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
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.
Age of Innocence?
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
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
Geography of Lies
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 email@example.com
and we’ll write back fast and hook you right up.
Honest. Now pass us the damn freedom fries, will you, Jacques?
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
Money or Your Lies
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
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
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
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
And in either case, I walk away thinking, “Were they telling
Line and Sinker
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 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 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.
May Already Be a Winner
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
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
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.
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
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.”