The Nation's Pulse

A Tale of Two Schemers

In the dining car of the Auto Train on the way to impoverished Palm Beach.

By 1.18.12

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PALM BEACH, Fla. --- For dinner, they sat my wife next to a self-declared gigolo on the Auto Train to Florida.

The seating in the train's dining car is four to a booth, and the couple across the table from us looked like a nice elderly pair, each 80 years old as it turned out.

It wasn't long after we discussed what to order based on our previous dining experiences aboard the Auto Train -- the not-too-good chicken or the not-too-good steak (our server told us to "stay away from the salmon") -- that we started to talk about where we lived and what we did for a living.

Our dinner companions said they were both professional dance instructors, working for a nationwide chain with well-known dance studios (they said the name, but I won’t state it here).

It was a good half-century ago when they were cutting a rug, back when the fox trot, tango, mambo, and ballroom spins were hot.

"We would try to sign up elderly women for $20,000 lifetime memberships," explained the husband. That was the price of a nice house back then (our first house, a three-bedroom, two-story brick colonial in a nice suburb, was $12,500 in 1964).

"We would become their regular dance partners, several times a week," he said. "We would flatter them on their appearance, suggest what they should wear and recommend how they could vary their makeup and hair. We would take them on trips to New York City, to shows, restaurants, fancy hotels, and have them meet the principals of the company."

The wife said she didn't get into that part of things. "Men aren't as gullible," she asserted.

There was never any hanky-panky, explained the husband (but his wife was sitting next to him with a steak knife).

"I look back now and I'm ashamed of some of the things I did," he acknowledged. "You had to do what you had to do," his wife responded. They said they were both now evangelicals.

The instructors got a 10 percent bonus, $2,000, for every $20,000 lifetime member they signed up, and it wasn't hard for a handsome fox trotter to pick out the rich widows, as our dinner partner explained: "They'd say, 'My husband owned a string of lumber yards.'"

But his career at the dance studio ended with a lawsuit. "I had to sue them because I signed up two women for lifetime memberships in one month and they refused to pay me the $4,000. They just told me to clean out my locker."

When we arrived and got to the beach, we noticed that several of the best restaurants on the uber-wealthy island of Palm Beach were gone. As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2010, "Palm Beach is, in many respects, unfortunately ground zero in the $65 billion Ponzi scheme perpetuated by Bernard Madoff."

One of Madoff's fallouts may be that there are fewer folks around now who are willing and able to pay $21 for a hamburger and $59 for a pork chop -- salad not included.

There is a Starbucks, though, right next to Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Several years ago, a storm of protest occurred when the owner of a building on super-tony Worth Avenue asked the town council to approve a permit for a Starbucks inside his building, discreetly tucked away and not visible from the street.

The town newspapers published a collection of anti-Starbucks letters. The locals weren't sure if people drinking coffee through small slits in plastic lids on paper cups were their type of people. Resident Jere Zenko expressed a popular sentiment: "Is Nike next? How about a Disney store?"

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.