The foyer of the Greenville Secret Service office was smaller than a decent walk-in closet. A pretty blond sat behind bullet proof glass stuffing envelopes and promising that somebody would be with me in just a moment. I surveyed the limited decor while I waited. President George W. Bush looked at me from the confines of his familiar official photo. A 180 degree turn smacked me into a photo of Vice President Dick Cheney. His grin looks like a combination of the Cheshire Cat, the cat that ate the canary, and anyone who has ever gotten away with anything. Something tells me Harry Whittington knows the smile better than anybody. For now, though, it was staring me in the face saying, “Serves you right.”
A copy of Essence magazine sat on small table, a curious choice to be sure. Mo’Nique was on the cover. I’d never heard of her before and had to Google the name just to get the punctuation right. I decided at that moment I couldn’t justify giving the current administration any grief over its relationship with black voters. Pot calling the kettle Mo’Nique and all.
After a couple of minutes, a man walked through the magnet-locked door. I took my hand out of the pocket to shake his.
“What’s up?” he said, and breezed by me into the hallway the office shared with the ATF. I put my hand back in my pocket.
By the time I’d turned back around, young guy in a crew cut stepped out and said, “Brad?”
This was going to be very unsatisfying.
Two days before, I’d been at our favorite Mexican restaurant. I’d spilled my soda and negotiated myself voiceless with the boy. He always says he wants a cheese quesadilla, but usually he just wants to be polite to the waiter and confuse people into thinking he’s good-mannered and cute. By the time I made it to the counter, all I wanted to do way pay and get on with the day.
“Hey, amigo!” That was the manager, who find the boy to be worthy of a reward every time he walks in the door. It’s usually a balloon or a lollipop. At least 50% of the time, the reward is unjustified. I was just about to protest when the girl behind the counter looked at my $50 bill and said, “This isn’t real.”
The boy sensed what was coming and ran off to hide with his lollipop.
The girl was yelling to the manager and marking my $50 bill like it was a kid’s coloring book. None of her special pen marks disappeared.
I was pulling money out of my pocket as fast as I could. Several $100 bills fell onto the counter with three more fifties. I started throwing money at the woman as fast as I could. My tab was something like $20. The girl had more than $1,000 on the counter before Enrique arrived and grabbed the original $50.
He held it up to the light. “This is fake, man,” he said in perfect English. And then he laughed as if to say, “Serves you right.”
My hands still collecting the avalanche of cash on the counter, I looked up, spotted my boy sucking on his lollipop with a Dick Cheney grin, and then turned back to Enrique.
I said, “So, what do we do now?”
Two weeks before I’d been on my first trip to Costa Rica. Before I left, my favorite bank teller had warned me to keep an eye on my cash, carry new crisp bills, and be wary of all money I took in change. I nodded, said I would, and then forgot about everything the woman had said. I was worldly. I’d made purchases with pounds, kroner, euros, and francs. I could certainly handle myself in the land of the 540-1 Colon (the name of the Costa Rican currency speaks a great deal about its relative worth).
And so I did what good travelers do. I carried everything in my front pockets and guarded the area between my pockets with care. I avoided the gypsy cab drivers, kept a close eye on my surroundings, and never let loose of my bags until I was in my hotel. I drank bottled water, kept my back to the wall, and listened closely to everything around me. I was not going to get jumped, rolled, or picked. If I did, it wasn’t going to be my fault.
By the time I left the land of Pura Vida six days later, I considered the trip a success. I’d not been robbed, jacked, or otherwise molested. I was the man. Pura Vida!
As I boarded my U.S. Air flight for the four-hour ride back to the States, I barely thought at all about the night I’d cashed out at the casino cage and the girl behind the bars had paid me out in $50 bills instead of hundreds.
I hate $50 bills.
The fifty is roundly useless. It’s too big for most small purchases at places where cashiers refuse to take anything over a $20 bill. It’s too small to play at poker tables (for those who don’t play cards, poker players often play with chips and cash and anything smaller than a $100 bill will not count as part of your stack, even if it’s sitting in front of you).
Several years ago, I friend told me fifties were unlucky. I didn’t believe him and then went about making sure I never carried one again.
I don’t speak Spanish very well and when the casino cage girl paid me out in fifties, I had only been in the country for a few hours. I told myself I would rid myself of the bills before the end of the day. Then I promptly wrapped them inside the $100 bills and forgot about them until I got home and decided to get rid of the first one at Corona.
Enrique knew me, which was probably a good thing. My family and I go into his restaurant once a week and have been for many years. We have a relationship where he doesn’t bother me, I don’t bother him, and he spoils my kid unnecessarily. So, when I said, “So what do we do now?” Enrique didn’t call the cops, didn’t write my name down in a big black book to make sure I couldn’t get a chimichanga anywhere in town, and didn’t take me into a back room for a little bit of ass-kicking.
He handed me the $50 bill and shrugged. “Sorry, man,” he said and watched as his girl took a good bill from my pile and gave me my change. A few feet away, my kid chomped on the end of the lollipop. Though he didn’t say it, I knew what he was thinking.
“Serves you right, Daddy.”
I kept the $50 in my back pocket for a couple of days. It was little more than a piece of interesting trash. I didn’t know whether to toss it, be a criminal and pass it off somewhere, or turn it into the proper authorities. I decided on the latter, for no other reason than I thought it might make for a better story.
I told the guy on the other end of the line that I had picked up a bogus $50 and that I’d been busted trying to pass it. I asked what he wanted me to do with the bill.
“Can you come down to the office?” he asked.
Because I had nothing better to do and, again, because I thought it would make a better story, I said sure.
Later that day, dressed a little better than my normal t-shirt and blue jeans, I shook the agent’s hand and waited for him to take me back to his office. I expected, at the very least, to be interviewed for a few minutes, have all the details of my transaction recorded for the record, and released on my own recognizance. In the best-case scenario, I would be trained an an undercover operative and flown all over Latin America as the world’s best counterfeiting tracker.
Instead, the guy said, “You’re still with Channel 4, right?”
I told him I hadn’t been on TV since early 2005.
“Hmmph,” he said and then studied the bill. “No watermark,” he said, as if deducing, “that baby doesn’t have a penis, so it’s a girl.”
“Sorry this happened,” he said and then asked me what it was like to travel on the poker circuit. In short, my trip the Secret Service office was only slightly less interesting than spilling my soda at lunch the other day.
I did learn a few things. It’s very rare for a regular citizen to turn in fake bills. Usually the Secret Service gets all its fakes from banks. My $50 bill would be recorded, checked against local fakes to see if any kind of local case would be made (not bloody likely), and then shipped off to Washington D.C. And that’s that.
He said again, “Sorry this happened,” which I took to mean, without the hint of a question, “Serves you right.”