The Great Depression sparked an odd creativity in the American people. Necessity is the mother of invention, as Captain Cliche once said. Money was scarce. So peoople came up with a million clever ways to stretch that money, save that money, and make more money.
And, of course, steal somebody else's money.
America's con-artists were particularly creative during this time. The Depression was their Renaissance. The height of their achievements. And the flourishing of their art.
We became acquainted of their artistry, thanks to the "Roach Under Toast" con. I saw it for myself, and will now describe it in detail. (This is not a second-hand account. I happened to be bussing dishes that day and saw the whole thing.)
As I'm sure I've told you, the Hotel Walton had a little restaurant until 1952 or so. Ma-Maw finally had to close it because the Baptist Church next door blocked her repeated attempts to obtain a liquor license and the profits were just too slim. She kept it open through The Great Depression. Profits were slim then, too. But she needed every dime she could get.
Just like the con-artists who invented the Roach Under Toast" con.
The first time in happened, a corpulent gentleman strolled in who looked like a cross between Oliver Hardy (from the Laurel and Hardy shorts) and the Walrus (from "The Walrus and the Carpenter.") I might also mention a resemblance to Thomas Nast's caricature of Boss Tweed. A balding man in his early 40s. He was wearing a well-cut, three-piece suit. The sartorial element was essential for the scheme, although atypical in the sauna that was an un-airconditioned restaurant in South Florida on an early Saturday morning in July of 1942. The ceiling fans were turning, but to little effect.
He walked in a stately manner past our "The Customer Is King" sign with the cute little crown on top. Evidently, he took it literally.
Without waiting for the hostess, he plopped his massive bulk down at a table of his own choosing and snapped his fingers. As if to say "Your true King has finally arrived and must be served!" After summoning our solitary waitress, Jolene, he ordered every item on the menu. Scrambled eggs, eggs sunny side up, egg-over-easy as well as waffles, pancakes, hash browns, home fries, six strips of bacon, two plates of sausages, and another side order of grits. A slice of toast, too. I forgot to mention that.
Jolene delivered his steaming breakfast in a series of installments, although this did not delay his feeding frenzy. Upon the clink of the first plate, this gentleman began stuffing his gaping maw in great haste as if food itself were going out of style. He continued in this voracious fashion with the various breakfast items that subsequently arrived.
From my concealed position by the coffee machine, I watched his whole feast in fascination. He reminded me of a hibernating bear who needed a thick coat of fat to get through a long winter. The spectacle was nearly identical to the image in my picture book.
The fat man dutifully cleaned every last plate.
But he had saved the toast for last.
He lifted the corner of the toast. And leapt back in horror. The whole restaurant heard his chair scootch.
He stood up and pointed to his plate.
"This is an outrage! An outrage I say. Look!"
He wiggled his finger to make everybody look. Everyone did. The heads at various tables all turned. He had the restaurant's complete attention.
"What is this?"
The diners burned with curiosity.
"Can't you see?"
I think the answer was mostly "no." The object of his outrage was tiny. And most of the diners couldn't get a good look at it from where they were sitting. Unlike your dear old dad.
"I demand to know what this is!"
From my vantage point, I could see quite clearly what it was.
It was a roach.
Evidently, a dead roach had been hiding under his toast.
In an astonishing improbability, it had been there -- under the last menu item that he touched. By the law of averages, it could just as easily have been concealed by the scrambled eggs, eggs sunny-side-up, egg over easy, as well as waffles, pancakes, hash browns, home fries, six strips of bacon, two plates of sausages and another side order of grits. Why, the poor fellow could've chomped that roach right down and never known it!
But Lady Luck had smiled upon the fat man.
By pure chance, the roach had been under the toast.
Now he waggled his finger at it and hollered.
But he had yet to receive an official answer.
Jolene, our overworked waitress, had been wisely hiding in the kitchen the whole time. The hostess (Ellie, a distant Kentucky cousin filling in for my somnambulant mother, still abed and floating in dreams of Early Times) had been talking to a couple at the front throughout the tirade. Put off by the unappetizing commotion, they decided to eat breakfast at another establishment. Ellie reluctantly turned to face the horror. Having nowhere to run, she finally skittered up to the fat man and inquired, "What seems to be the problem, sir?"
"This! This is the problem, young miss!"
The fat man pointed to his plate again. And proceed to relate the terrifying tale of the dead roach under the toast. It was a short but gripping story, like something you'd hear on the radio. You'd think you'd heard the absolute worst. But he'd holler "And THEN!" and relate some even greater horror. He did a fine job of dialing up the drama. A real pro.
Ellie just stood there shaking. Absolutely and utterly outclassed in every possible way. This may all seem very funny in retrospect. But what he put her through was cowardly, cruel and inexcusable.
"I sure am sorry, sir."
"Your sorrow has just begun! I refuse to pay! Moreover I shall take you to court and sue you for damages! This is gross negligence with malign intent, and most certainly a violation of health regulations."
"We sincerely regret that this has happened."
"You regret it? You regret it? How dare you! How do you think I feel. I nearly consumed that ... that THING!"
"I sure am sorry, sir."
"'Sorry' doesn't cut it, young miss. Now I demand to know what you intend to do about this outrage!"
"How 'bout we make this breakfast on the house? How 'bout that?"
"Oh that is your response? You serve a meal containing insect life —and think to comfort me by saying it is free? How dare you! I most certainly do not intend to pay, young miss. I most certainly also plan to obtain the requisition compensation which this so-called restaurant must surely owe for this outrage! 'The Customer is King' indeed. Well this is one king whose wrath you have incurred! My friends and colleagues shall hear of this, make no mistake. And the legal authorities as well! As for myself, I will never darken the door of this establishment again. You will neither see nor speak to me again. But do expect a call from my attorney. You shall hear from him shortly!"
With that, he turned and waddled on out.
Some jerk applauded.
Despite his threats of legal retribution, we never heard from this unhappy customer again. Upon the next morning, our restaurant was an archipelago of empty tables, pristine tablecloths shining white. Ma-Maw, wide-awake this time, was terrified. The thing she had feared had come to pass. Well, one of them.
The restaurant door opened with a tingling bell. She perked up and smiled. "Welcome—" And smile turned to frown.
She beheld not a customer, but a cop.
A lanky man, in an armpit-stained, white shirt and scrawny tie. He presented a badge in a case of black leather for my mother's inspection. The sight had the effect of the offer of a dead rat. She pursed her lips and turned her head in evident disgust. I offered him a cup of coffee. Mother stabbed me with a dirty look.
He politely declined my offer. Mother impolitely inquired as to the purpose of his visit.
He replied in a lengthy stammering fashion. She glared at him the whole time.
With expressions of sorrow, this upstanding officer of the law said he merely wanted to make a few inquiries. He was sorry that he hadn't called ahead and didn't want to put her out. But would she mind if we gathered all the witnesses together? Any witnesses currently on the hotel premises, of course. He hoped that wouldn't be too much of an imposition.
Mother replied, her voice ascending in pitch.
"Well, why on earth would a police interrogation the first thing in the morning be any sort of imposition whatsoever? I will do as you ask, officer."
The witnesses totaled up to three, and we were all in the restaurant. But Ma-Maw wanted Don to suffer too, and she sent me to fetch him from the front desk. I dragged him over, and we all sat down at a table.
We sat in a circle, like the Knights of the Round Table, at least geometrically. Our company comprised the detective, myself, mother, Papa Don, Jolene, and cousin Ellie, who had the (correct) impression that Ma-Maw thought that it had all been her fault. Your uncle Marion had been talking to a Naval Air Force recruiter at Homestead Beach on the day of the incident. He was someplace else on this day.
The detective cleared his throat. I thought he was going to lead us him prayer. (I think I even bowed my head for a second.) But it was yet another apology for his existence in our establishment.
But my mother remained unforgiving.
Ma-Maw had dearly hoped to bury this incident and made no call or official complaint. But it seemed that the Pompano Beach Police Department had somehow heard about yesterday's encounter. They had sent this rumpled detective over (another forgotten name). He wasn't like the detectives in the Warner Brothers crime movies. He tended to apologize about everything. Aside from the bags under his eyes, he had no resemblance to Humphrey Bogart whatsover. His very presence affected Ma-Maw like a fine dusting of itching powder.
The baggy-eyed, apologetic detective tried to get the ball rolling, but mother cut him off. She asked if she should send me to fetch a Gideon's Bible so we could all swear to tell the truth and so forth.
The detective assured her that that this wouldn't be an official deposition, although he could arrange for that later if she so desired. For now, let's all just talk. What happened yesterday?
Cousin Ellie gave him the short version while Ma-Maw fluttered her hands and looked nervously at the empty tables, accusingly at Ellie, and angrily at the detective. Jolene's version was even shorter. Then, at last, I gave my version of the story. Mother reacted to my points of repetition like the rattling tea-kettle on the verge of its screaming whistle. She interrupted me as I detailed the fat man's final diatribe.
"How long is this going to take?"
"We're almost done, ma'am. Anything else, son?"
"No, sir. Nothing important."
Based on our accounts, the detective informed us that we'd been the victims of a fraud. Mother rolled her eyes.
"Oh, what a horrifying surprise, detective!"
The detective blushed and handed Papa Don a smeary-blue, mimeographed list of assorted con-games.
"I should've given this to you earlier, sir. You're a block from the railroad, so that makes you a prime target. I'm really sorry about that."
"Roach Under Toast" was one of the classic con games. Had we been in possession of that list, we would've known it. In this particular scheme, the perpetrator would get his hands on nice clothes to create a show of wealth. Thus attired, he would bring his trade to some unsuspecting restaurant, then order and devour a prodigious amount of food. Prior to his deception, the perpetrator would obtain a dead roach, and conceal the unfortunate insect in a baby food jar. He'd bring the jar with him, retrieve the dead insect, usually in a surreptitious trip to the bathroom, and then slip it into his meal. When nobody was looking, of course. Kind of like a magic trick, sleight of hand, I guess that's what they they call it. Evidently this scheme was popular with unemployed and barely paid actors. Vaudeville and burlesque types, mostly. They skipped around the country, had lots of different stage names, which made them harder to track down.
Mother's lower lip pulled up. She closely resembled an angry bulldog ready to bite.
"I fail to see the point of this sordid information, detective."
"I apologize, ma'am. I'll get straight to the point."
He then said the perpetrator would pretend to discover the roach at the last possible second. Then he'd pitch a fit. The nervous restaurant owner would just want to get 'em the heck out of there. The grifter would get a free meal. Sometimes, a little chunk of hush money.
Ma-Maw's eyes seemed to brighten with this information.
The detective forged ahead.
"A crime has definitely been committed. You could swear out a complaint, but the perpetrator is almost certainly long gone. I'm sorry we didn't apprehend him."
Ma-Maw waved her hand, brushed the thought aside like a fly. "What's done is done. I suppose this concludes -- "
Papa Don unwisely cut her off.
"Well ... What should we do if this happens again?"
"Do your best to keep the bad guy here and call the Pompano Beach Police Department. We'll --"
Ma-Maw slapped the table with her palm. Ellie jumped like a nervous cat.
"You'll do no such thing, detective. What I most dearly wish you'd do now is conclude this hateful interrogation. Would you do that? Please? I have no desire to be rude but you can see I have a business to run."
The detective could see a restaurant full of empty tables, but he didn't point that out.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry for this intrusion on your time."
Don awkwardly shook the detective's hand. Ma-Maw turned her head and looked away. He saw himself out.
Ma-Maw then informed a teary-eyed Ellie that her services would no longer be required; she'd handle the hostess duties from then on. And indeed, she did. She dragged her hungover carcass out of bed from that day forward whenever our restaurant opened its doors.
A few weeks later, yet another outraged grifter found a dead roach beneath a slice of toast on an otherwise empty plate. Ma-Maw fluttered over, cooed and sweet-talked in whispered dulcet tones, and slipped the man a dollar. This had the effect of handing out chunks of steak to stray dogs. Four more grifters appeared in short succession. The penultimate con-artist informed her one measly dollar would cut it. She gave him two, but he was unmoved. She ultimately gave him three hard-earned Depression-era dollars. He smirked, and strutted away. Your uncle Marion saw red when he found out. She bit his head off when he complained to her.
One day, a skeletally thin individual in a nice suit strolled in and grabbed a table. He started talking big, as obvious as all get out. We could all see it coming.
But your uncle Marion didn't let it happen.
He always excelled at track and field events. Today, he drew upon those talents. He moved like a blur.
Then he was right by the thin man's side.
Standing uncomfortably close to his table, and in a position which afforded eye-contact. My brother was only 16-years-old, but physically imposing nonetheless.
I didn't miss the show, so I got as close as I could. Edged on over with little baby steps in what I thought was a subtle fashion.
The thin man's Adam's apple went up and down. My brother just stood there for a few seconds. Then he spoke.
"This is really an honor, sir. I truly admire your acting ability."
This caught the thin man utterly and completely by surprise.
He almost replied, "Thank you." Hand to God.
But he caught himself in time.
"I have no idea what you're talking about, young man."
Your uncle Marion didn't start whispering. But he lowered his voice just that least little bit.
"I'm talking about that jar in your back pocket." Charming smile. "The one with the dead roach in it?"
The thin man attempted no outraged denials. The jar in question stuck out like a tumor on his bony behind. And was as equally obvious.
He blushed at his amateurish mistake. He was evidently new to the job of con-artistry.
For one brief second, I actually felt sorry for this underfed individual. As I mentioned, the man was thin -- thin to the point of a horrifying resemblance to the just-released photos of displaced person in Life Magazine. I figured he might get a good meal, eventually, once he got a little better at his job.
"Young man ..."
Uncle Marion sat down.
And lowered his voice just the least bit more.
"Here's how it goes. Right now, you're at a fork in the road."
"What on earth are you --"
"You've got two choices. One. Keep sitting in that chair, and I will personally remove that jar and shove the roach inside down your throat. You looking for a free meal? That's it. Two: Get the hell out of here, now."
The thin man got the hell out of there.
Ma-Maw got wind of this encounter. She was absolutely furious. You and your matters of principle! We do not want scandal! Uncle Marion just denied the whole thing.
"Ma-Maw, I think you've got the wrong impression. The thin man came in asking for directions to Wewahitchka, is all. I said, 'Take State Road 710 up to Clewiston. There's a fork in the road. Turn left and you're right on your way.'"
And he gave her that big smile.