“How to Sell the Ponti Bridge” — Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s most recent novel, the international bestseller The Graveyard Book, won the prestigious Newbery Medal, given to great works of children’s literature. Other novels include American Gods, Coraline, Neverwhere, and Anansi Boys, among many others. In addition to his novel-writing, Gaiman is also the writer of the popular Sandman comic book series, and his books Coraline and Stardust were recently made into feature films. Gaiman’s short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including my own The Living Dead, By Blood We Live, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Most of his short work has been collected in the volumes Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and M is for Magic. His latest book is a hardcover edition of his poem, Instructions, illustrated by Charles Vess.

Most Americans have probably heard someone say, “If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you,” referring to New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. It’s just taken for granted that handing over your money to a con man who offers to “sell” you such a famous landmark would be the ultimate example of gullibility. Believe it or not though, this old cliche is based on a real scam that was perpetrated over and over again on naive immigrants whose heads were filled with exaggerated notions of America as a land of opportunity. Con artists would memorize the routes of the beat cops and then set up signs saying “Bridge for sale” when they knew the police would be out of sight. Police repeatedly had to evict people who had been swindled and were attempting to charge tolls for crossing “their” bridge. As newcomers to the city gradually become more sophisticated, the con died away, but lived on in movies such as Every Day’s a Holiday and even in a Bugs Bunny cartoon (“Bowery Bugs”).

Our next tale, about a gentleman’s club for con artists, provides a new twist on this old idea, albeit one involving a much grander bridge and a much grander swindle.