We spend a lot of our time on Zelda & Scout trying to figure out what exactly makes someone a New Yorker. We’re transplants, both of us, uprooted from our bluegrass homes. Most days, it feels like we’ve put down roots in Brooklyn, blooming in the borough where we have planted ourselves for the foreseeable future. But having made a home in New York and being a New Yorker are two very different things.
To judge by most pop cultural representations, a New Yorker is someone who is tough, blunt, confident. They suffer no fools and waste no time. New Yorkers are savvy, some would even say jaded. Their concrete environs have made them tough, able to withstand whatever bullshit comes their way. The rat race makes scrappy competitors of them all. In short, you do not mess with New York City.
Now I have also found New Yorkers to be incredibly kind. If you trip on the sidewalk, someone will help you up (not so in Paris, mes amis, even if you have been hit by a bus, but that is a story for another day). If you ask (politely and concisely) for directions, they’ll point you the right way. If you sneeze on the subway, someone will bless you. But many of the stereotypes do ring true. And on most days, I feel like I have adapted to the better parts of the New Yorker mold. I walk my neighborhood’s sidewalks with confidence, I don’t glance up when the calls of “showtime” ring through my subway car, and usually when somebody asks me for directions, I can point them down the correct path. Sunday, however, was not one of those days.
I was walking home from the subway when it happened. It was a slow news night, so I had gotten off early, and I was appreciating the last tinges of twilight still illuminating the sky. I had a podcast in my ears and leftover Easter chocolate waiting for me at home. And then a man stopped me and began to spin a tale.
He told me he was a fashion designer in town from California. He had been scouting the neighborhood for locations for an editorial spread when he hailed a gypsy cab to take him to his next spot. The car drove off with the door still open, half his stuff — hoop skirts, Vivienne Westwood platform heels, his phone — still in there. He didn’t realize the unregistered cars were illegal, he said. He’d gone to the cops but they said there wasn’t anything he could do. They wouldn’t drive him back to his hotel.
My New York senses tingled, as they do whenever a stranger approaches me in public, and especially if their entreaty has a whiff of monetary demands. But this guy had me Google him, pointing out photos of him with his designs on the red carpet of a fashion awards show. He kept apologizing for stopping me. I’ve never had to do this, he said. I’m not from here.
My ex-pat heart understood that. He seemed frazzled and scared, at sea in unfamiliar terrain. I’ve never fallen prey to a gypsy cab myself, but I have friends who have. And the picture was there, clearly matching his face. That’s when he made his pitch: He had found a cab that would take him and his stuff home, but he didn’t have any money. Someone else had already given his some. He needed $18 more. Could I please help?
I only had $2 in my wallet, but we were oh-so-conveniently standing in front of a bodega with an ATM. I took out $20, gripping it uncertainty. He gave me his email, told me what to notate in the subject line so he could pay me back once he had his phone. He was slick. The Google result was there. So I handed over the cash and, with a huge hug and a thank you, off he went.
Walking the rest of the way I felt torn. I tried to tell myself that I had done a good deed. I had proven correct all the things I always said when defending the city to my non-New York friends. People here are good at heart, and they’ll give you a hand when you need it. It had been a mitzvah to help this guy out, an act of generosity that he would hopefully pay forward the next time he came upon a stranger in a crisis. Fresh off the heels of Passover, I thought: An Elijah had come knocking, and I had let him in.
But the doubt wouldn’t quite settle, gnawing at the pit of my stomach. I’m normally an optimistic person, but something cynical in me was raising its eyebrows. So when I got back to my apartment, I googled the name in the Gmail address he’d given me. The first few results were about fashion, an obituary for an older relative. And then I saw the fifth result — from Ripoff Report.
“For people like myself who show too much empathy, don’t get taken advantage of [by] one Randuel Sandiford,” the poster wrote. “He approached me on the street with a story about being a designer stranded during New York Fashion Week who had much of his stuff taken by a town car.” They described the pictures he’d shown them from the IED designer awards. They, like me, felt bad for the guy and thought he didn’t seem “too shady.” They gave him some cash and sent him on his way. I’m sure you can see where this is going: He never responded to their emails or messages, and they were never paid back.
My heart sank into the pit of my stomach. I was just so angry: at this man, Randuel Sandiford, for taking advantage of me and ripping me off, but even more so at myself. I should have known better, should have been on my guard. I’m a journalist, damn it. Why didn’t I pay closer attention to the holes in his story? And for all the time and work I’ve put in over the last four and a half years to carve a niche out for myself in this city, I felt like I had just failed an essential New Yorker test. I was a sucker. I was weak. I had let this city down.
I debated whether to write about this, because part of me is still embarrassed at having been conned. But ultimately what the Ripoff Report poster said convinced me I should. “I don’t suspect that anyone reading this might find themselves in the same situation with him,” they wrote, “but because he has a fraud online presence I’m putting this out there in the hopes that the next time he tries to google himself to prove himself to another victim, this post will pop up.” New Yorkers have each other’s backs. This poster did. So even though I’d like to forget this ever happened, I will, too.
I sent Randuel Sandiford an email last night. I do not expect him to respond. In the grand scheme of things, $20 is not too much to lose. I hope he needed it more than I do. A commenter on Ripoff Report replied that they had also fallen prey to his scam. “It’s unbelievable how low people will stoop to take advantage of people’s kindness,” they said. “Never again!! This guy is a creep!!!” The complaints were from 2015. I found another from 2017. Clearly he doesn’t feel bad.
But instead of continuing to kick myself, I’m going to choose to cultivate one of New Yorkers’ other typical traits. Yeah, I got fooled. I was taken advantage of, and that makes me feel icky and angry and ashamed. But New Yorkers do not stay knocked down. They persevere. They get back up. They don’t let some asshole change who they are or impede how they live their lives. So maybe I haven’t failed my New Yorker test. Maybe this is it. I am an empathetic person who wants to believe that people are, more often than not, good at heart. And I refuse to let Randuel Sandiford, or anyone else, change that.