Joe the Dead belongs to a select breed of outlaws known as the NOs, natural outlaws dedicated to breaking the so-called natural laws of the universe foisted upon us by physicists, chemists, mathematicians, biologists and, above all, the monumental fraud of cause and effect, to be replaced by the more pregnant concept of synchronicity.
Ordinary outlaws break man-made laws. Laws against theft and murder are broken every second. You only break a natural law once. To the ordinary criminal, breaking a law is a means to an end: obtaining money, removing a source of danger or annoyance. To the NO, breaking a natural law is an end in itself: the end of that law.
Ordinary outlaws specialize their trades, in accordance with their inclinations and aptitudes—or they did at one time. Many of the old-time criminal types are endangered species now. Consider the Murphy Man. How many even know what a Murphy Man is? Your Murphy Man steers the mark to a nonexistent whore, having located an apartment building without a doorman and with the front door unlocked.
“Looking for some action, friend?”
“Well, uh, yes . . .”
The Murphy Man makes a phone call: it’s all set up. He leads the mark to the apartment building entrance.
“Go up one flight, first door on your left, 1A. Prime grade, friend, and she’s ready and waiting on you. You pay me now, so there won’t be any arguments.”
Only a black man can have the real Murphy Man voice— cool, insinuating, familiar—and the real Murphy Man face— sincere, unflappable, untrustworthy.
And practitioners of the Hype or the Bill, a short-change routine. You start by paying for a two-bit item with a twenty-dollar bill. You get the change on the counter, then you tell the clerk, “I must have been dreaming—I don’t mean to take all your small change. Here, give me ten for this” and count the ones back, minus the five. Or something like that. It’s hard to get a conviction on the Bill, because nobody can explain exactly what happened.
The basic principle can be found in a sketch by Edgar Allan Poe on nineteenth-century hustlers who were known as Diddlers. The diddler walks into a tobacco store and asks for a plug of tobacco. When the plug is on the counter, he changes his mind.
“Give me a cigar instead.” He takes the cigar and starts to walk out.
“Wait a minute. You didn’t pay for the cigar.”
“Of course not. I traded it against the tobacco plug.”
“Don’t recall you paid me for that either.”
“Paid you for it! Why, there it is! None of your tricks on traveling men.”
Unobtrusive and insistent, practitioners of the Bill are often addicts.
I wonder if there are any hype men left? Like Yellow Kid Weil and the Big Store: he would set up a prop brokerage office or bookmaking parlor and fleece his customers for several days before vanishing one night with the boodle. Also noteworthy is the sordid yachting swindle, practiced at one time by a certain well-known cult leader who shall be nameless. They’re going to buy a boat together, sail the South Seas . . . this swindle requires that mark and swindler live in the same trailer, get drunk together every night and lay the same whore. Yellow Kid Weil would have been scandalized. “Never drink with a savage,” was one of his rules.
The old-time bank robbers, the burglars who bought jewelry-store insurance inventories and knew exactly what they were looking for, the pickpockets trained from early childhood—they say the best ones come from Colombia—where are they now? The Murphy Men, the hype artists, the Big Store? Gone, all gone.
From William S. Burroughs’ last novel The Western Lands.