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The Milk House: Chancers

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 June 2018

“Now look at the sitting room. Big sitting room, big sitting room. Very comfortable. Look at the couch there. Go ahead and sit on it. And look at the light. Lots of light, those windows. Now look at the kitchen.”

My second day in Ireland, and I responded to an ad that said there was a room to rent. P.J. Flaherty had picked me up in a small, beat-up car filled with boxes. Now the crafty old Irishman was opening all the cupboards at once. “Look at all the pots,” he said. “You can use all the pots you want.”

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“How much is the rent?” I asked.

“Ah sure, pick out a room first.” He opened the fridge and pulled out a plate with a raw chicken breast. “And look, there’s chicken in here too. You can eat the chicken if you move in.”

He took me through all the rooms, some of them already occupied, and even suggested one of them has always been particularly popular among Americans. Finally, he stopped at the bottom of the stairs.

“So,” he says. “You haven’t asked me about the rent yet. What do you expect to pay for a room here?”

“I have no idea, really. I’ve just arrived.”

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“Ah, come now. Surely the university must have given you some idea.”

“I guess between 300 and 400 euros.”

“That’s right,” he said, holding up his finger. “Your rent will be … 390 euros.”

They say it’s the strictness of the German mentality that produces such a strong counterculture in Berlin because it gives them something to rebel against. I’ve come to think it’s the same way for Ireland and shysters (or, as they call them, “chancers”). The people in Ireland are, as a whole, helpful, honest and sincere – perhaps more than anywhere else.

Once I was hitchhiking in the north when a mother with small children pulled up and lectured me on the dangers of accepting lifts from strangers and how it was also unsafe to pick up people like me – and then ended by saying, “Sure, hop in.” With such generosity being commonplace, it makes running across the odd chancer a little jarring, if not easier for the swindler himself.

Unfortunately, having been fresh off the farm, my education of the greater world was not complete. For the first few days in that house, there was only me and Paul, a kid my age from Dublin. He walked with a swagger and a smile, had swift movements like a squirrel and liked an audience. In hindsight, I know these to be potential signs of a chancer.

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But I didn’t understand that, even after he turned to me on the couch the first night and said “Yank, can you loan 20? I’m just a bit short. You’ll get it back next week.” Nor did I realize it when he asked me for another 20 the next night.

When I asked him about the money the following week, he didn’t pay me but said he wanted to thank me by throwing me a big party for my birthday coming up. He said he would buy a couple of kegs. I told him that wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. After I invited everyone I knew, he asked me if I could pay for the kegs first – he was going to reimburse me next week; he was just a bit short.

After the party, I went traveling for a few days in another city. Paul welcomed me back. Before I went into my room, he told me he had a “friend” staying over while I was gone. The friend had needed a blanket, so he hoped I didn’t mind that the friend had climbed through my window (since my door was locked) and borrowed it.

“Oh yeah,” Paul said, as I was closing the door of my room on him. “He might have stolen the change off your desk. I just have a feeling.”

Another housemate, Dirty Billy (long after Paul), was exceptionally good at placating the bothersome old lady next door and getting the rental agency to fix the back fence by citing false legal repercussions. Once he confided he was able to get a loan from every bank in town (and not pay them back) by walking in with a suit and a smile.

He told the story once of how he helped out his friend, who owned a company that installed sound systems for entertainment venues. The company was based in Dublin, but a hotel in Galway demanded they send someone out to check their wedding hall. Dirty Billy’s friend couldn’t make it down to Galway that day.

Enter Dirty Billy wearing headphones that led into an empty duffle bag. “Sure, lads, I’m the sound engineer they sent. Play me what you got.” He moved around the room, pretending to be adjusting something in his bag. After half an hour, he told the hotel the problem was bigger than he thought, and he’d have to report back to the office.

Such stories were entertaining – until I moved out of the house with him still owing me for the internet bill. Before taking the last of my things, I reminded him. “Sure thing,” he said, disappearing into his room. He came out five minutes later. “It’s so strange; I can’t find my debit card. Can you believe that?”

After five years, Drama John, an Irish friend of mine, had been cheated on by a German girlfriend. It made him decide he hated all Germans and, to better extract his revenge, he moved to Berlin. There, he rode the streetcars without paying fares, amassed a large collection of stolen bar glasses and kept a company bicycle for himself.

Once, he was under the impression a taxi driver had charged him too much. He refused to pay and told the taxi driver he can try to get the money from him if he wants. The taxi driver chased after him. Drama John circled the entire block, jumped into the driver’s seat of the taxicab and drove it away.

The older I get, the more I appreciate not just the boldness it takes to be a chancer but the art of it as well. There’s a sense of showmanship to it and a commitment to the con that is often impressive. Myself and several former housemates went to a soccer match in England, including Dirty Billy.

When booking, I had paid for the tickets, and Joe covered the accommodation. Within days we got each other squared away – except Dirty Billy. Before getting on the train to come back, Joe asked Dirty Billy if he could get the accommodation money off him. I had a strong sense of what was coming, and I thought about telling Joe, but I decided to just let it happen.

Suddenly, we saw Billy put his hand to his face and pace in front of the ATM. He rummaged through his wallet dramatically before jamming it back in his pocket. We could hear him sighing loudly as he made his way back to us.

“This is so weird. I forgot my PIN. Can you believe that?” end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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