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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bad Bills and Legerdemain

Ulitsa Fokina is a downtown street of renovated 19th-century brick buildings, flower stalls, book kiosks, cigarette girls pushing L&Ms, and smoking buses and vans that use it as a turnaround.

The street also serves as the city currency exchange, where jovial babushkas and pallid Raskolnikovs hang out with hand-lettered dollar and yen symbols clipped to their jackets.

Because the ladies look a little less shifty than their male counterparts, I tend to do my business with them. And, if I may say so, I am extremely popular among them, as I used to approach, glance around for cops, and ask in a low voice if I might commit adultery with a $100 bill.

"You mean pomenyat?" a bearded babushka finally corrected me last year. "Izmenyat is if you want to make me your girlfriend and your wife doesn’t know about it. Pomenyat’ is when you give me dollars and I give you rubles."

Apart from adding a little fizz to the fantasy life of an ancient and heavily rouged moneychanger, there is another incentive for doing my business with the women. I figure I can out-wrestle any babushka who might stuff my cash in her bra and try to scuttle off. As we all know, there is reason for caution.

Changing money is not just a marginal activity. It is a popular means of protecting one’s savings in a land where nobody trusts the ruble not to plummet overnight, where banks can fold and deposits vanish. Some people use street moneychangers to get a better rate and avoid taxes on a bank exchange. But some of us, who are simply too lazy to stand in line at an exchange window, sometimes forget we are playing a risky game.

Last fall, a reporter from a local daily dropped by my office with a worried look on her face and asked me to examine two $100 bills she had just bought with her life savings of rubles.

The likeness was perfect, but I only had to touch the banknotes to know they were counterfeit. They were printed on ordinary paper, and when I held them up to the light, I saw the front sides lacked the tiny impression of Ben Franklin’s face on the right and the bar on the left that reads: "USA 100 USA 100..."

"They’re fake," I said. "I’m sorry." I think she went somewhere to cry.

Two years ago, Janina de Guzman, then a reporter at the Vladivostok News, ran into a swindler at the train station. As she waited to exchange a $100 bill at a currency window, a guy with bad hair and worse teeth sidled up and offered a better rate, she wrote at the time.

"A warning buzz sounded," Janina wrote, "but I swatted it aside and followed him around the corner thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I shouldn’t be doing this. But the line is long, writing the exchange slip takes forever and they always mess up my name.’"

Out of view of the public, she wrote, "He took my $100 bill and began to fold it. Slowly, deliberately. I stared at his folding hands, perplexed but entranced. What was this? Origami? Where were my rubles?"

But just as he finished his folding, another man barged in and roared, "What do you think you’re doing? Get out of here!"

The moneychanger returned the bill to Janina and ran, pursued by the other man. Then, she wrote, "I unfolded the bill — slowly, deliberately — until the $1 figure in each corner was clearly visible."

For a long time, I kept Janina’s warning in mind when I traded money on the street. But warnings fade in time, and the other day I wandered down Fokina to where the currency women gather at the west end of the street. On my way, a wan young man with bad teeth hailed me.

"Want to change money?" he asked.

Well, why not? He led me a few steps down an alley, and I dug out my $100 bill and handed it over. As he scrutinized it, I noticed the corner of a folded-up $1 bill peeking from inside his cuff. He began folding my bank-note, slowly and deliberately. Like origami.

I snatched the bill back, and his mouth dropped open in surprise. "I heard about you!" I cried.

"What do you mean?" he said.

"You stole my friend’s money."

He slipped away, and I strode off to find my favorite babushka. Needless to say, she was happy to adulterate my money. But please, be discreet. It’s our little secret.