An Amsterdam Story
The Hustlers on the Kalverstraat
Working a crowd during the Festival of Fools, 1984.
Hustlers worked the shell game on one end of a main shopping street called
They knelt on a piece of cardboard laid out flat on the ground, using matchbox tops as shells and bits of foil from cigarette packs rolled into peas. A beefy guy, adept despite his meaty fingers, struggled to his feet. Pain reflected in his broad face and ice blue eyes. He said to Jim, “I can see in your eyes you know the moves before they are done.”
“Gambling’s a sucker’s game,” Jim replied, the top of his head barely reaching the blond’s shoulders.
A strangled cough shook the man. I looked up, staring at the thick network of scar tissue braided through one of his eyebrows and down a cheek, but he ignored me and jabbed a finger at Jim’s servante. “I want to know these cups of yours.” He held out his hands, palms down, and they twitched and jerked as if afflicted by palsy. “See? I have lost my nerve. No one knows of this. How do my people survive? This terrible thing happening to me is no good. Show me how to make the cups work.” His eyes pivoted from Jim to something behind us. An ugly look cut across his face. I turned around. Two cops hurried toward us to break up the group of gamblers.
Jim said, “We’re headed to the tourist center café on the Leidseplein. Come see me.” With a wave of his hand, the Romany melted into the stream of shoppers.
“He isn’t losing his nerve,” I said. “He’s sick. Looks like symptoms of Parkinson’s, just like my dad.”
“That makes sense. And he doesn’t want to admit it.”
At exactly five o’clock, the Romany sat down at our table. A young girl slipped into the seat next to him. Her eyes fastened onto me. “Show me how to make the cups work,” he said, leery of the surroundings. The girl shifted uneasily in her chair.
“Show me your method of picking pockets,” Jim shot back.
And he did. Then Jim demonstrated all sixty-four moves of the Cups and Balls. Afterward, something spooked the two of them because they vanished from the café as silently as they had appeared. When we looked out the window, they disappeared behind a large platform stage being erected on the square for the Festival of Fools. We never saw them again.