Howard Jacobson: Just what our dreary street life needs in these days of iPods: entertaining con men

A new scam has appeared. And it gave me so much pleasure I want to share it with you
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The Independent Online

Of the many arguments to be advanced against the Walkman, the iPod and the mobile phone when used in conjunction with one of those headsets that make you look as though you're jibbering to yourself, the most telling is that they shut you off from the sights and sounds of the world around you. I would say the sights and sounds of the city but I don't want to get into a distracting argument with people for whom the sights and sounds of the country, too, are important. Enough we agree that a person locked inside an electronic device is a person who has opted out of existence as a changing visual and auditory experience. The mad must be assumed to do the same, only the mad have no choice in the matter.

To what degree the iPod and the like are the cause or the consequence of the streets and lanes of our country becoming less interesting I am unable to say. Perhaps the two phenomena are concurrent: there is nothing to see or hear out there and we'd rather be locked inside our own heads. Whatever the explanation, the fact of it is this: give or take the odd The Big Issue seller with patter, or the college kid collecting for Help the Aged with an exhaustingly vivacious personality, there is now nothing to see or hear out there except the deranged on their iPods and their mobile phones.

Once upon a time ... but you know all that. Once upon a time we played hopscotch in the street. But that was before every paedophile in the district got to hear of it, alerted one another on their mobile phones, and gathered round to watch us hitch up our skirts and roll up our trousers. Once upon a time we played tennis in the street. But that was when there was so little traffic we could put up a net, confident it could stay there until the rag and bone man came round in his cart at the dying end of the afternoon. Ah, the rag and bone man, reader. Ah, the cries of old London. But I mustn't fake it. By the time I got to London it was already Walkman Land.

The streets of my native Manchester, however, were no less rowdy. Stand outside the Kardomah on Market Street and in the course of any 10-minute period you'd be offered a gold watch, asked to find the lady, told to pick a card, sold five pairs of pre-laddered nylons for the price of two, and instructed in the art of picking up a woman in a Russian accent by any one of a dozen pensioner-Lotharios in ill-fitting ginger wigs.

Altogether less urbane, but the more entrancing because he wanted nothing from you but your capacity for wonder, was a nutter called Marty who would get you to blow cigarette smoke down the left sleeve of his raincoat and then summon it to appear in smoke rings from the right, which, after a brief interval, it never failed to do.

Magic? Different smoke released from a concealed capsule? No, just an ingenious system of pipes and bellows which he'd sewn - or maybe his mother had sewn, because of course there was no girlfriend: men who ask you to blow smoke through them never have girlfriends - into the lining of his coat.

They were immigrants, all of them. If not first-generation immigrants, then the children of immigrants. They had no choice but to live on their wits. And thus did their necessity - though we were sometimes the poorer for it materially (if we bought the nylons, for example) - contribute to our store of happiness.

So let's hear it for the immigrant, I say. I know it can be exasperating to walk into a shop or restaurant staffed only by Bulgarians and know that not a thing you ask for will they understand. So you get a knuckle of pig when you order a cheese sandwich. Is that so terrible? Isn't food still food? So they tell you at a shirt shop that they don't sell sheets. Big deal. Go to another shirt shop. Go to Bulgaria to buy your shirts.

The question to ask is does the immigrant otherwise add to the store of your happiness? And the answer, I am pleased to report from the front line of the city, is yes. No Pole has asked me to blow cigarette smoke down his sleeve, it's true, but then blowing cigarette smoke in a public place is now banned. Ditto the sale of pre-laddered nylons. But a new scam has appeared. I was subjected to it twice last week alone. And it gave me such pleasure I want to share it with you.

He is walking towards you, smiling the smile of the immigrant, looking around him, marvelling at it all. Suddenly, at the very moment the smile of his ignites the smile of yours, he emits a little gasp, bends down in front of you so you have to stop, and discovers on the paving stones a ring. Gold! It's true what they say - the streets of London are paved with gold! "My lucky day," he exclaims.

"Indeed, it is," you say stiffly, because this is London where people speak their thoughts aloud only into headsets.

He shows you the ring. It is the size of a human ear, has been bought from Woolworths and is worth approximately 30p. But you cannot tell him that. He is a migrant and you do not want to break his heart. "You think it is wedding ring?" he asks. "Assuredly," you tell him. You imagine him back in Krakow, showing his betrothed his find. You see her in her zapaska, throwing her arms around his neck.

He goes on his way, glowing with his good fortune, trying the ring on his wedding finger. Then "Oh," he calls out, making you turn back, "it doesn't fit."

"Shame," you say, wishing you owned an iPod.

"Perhaps," he says, "you would like?"

Isn't that brilliant? He is going to sell you what he has just found, only he hasn't of course found it, he goes around with it hidden up his sleeve like Marty's system for transporting smoke.

Why I don't buy it, as a way of thanking him for his performance, I can't say. I don't buy one from the Romanian woman who tries it on me a few days later either. But I promise I will the next time. We must reward enterprise. And encourage anything that liberates our streets from the isolationism of technology.

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