Let the Wookiee Win

David Allan
6 min readJan 28, 2024
I unmask a sophisticated tourist scam
but stick my hands into a new jar of jam.

A got down on my knees for a closer look at the boom-box radio. Something was fishy about the street salesman and his dancing puppets.

As I sleuthfully squinted, the man stepped in front of me to block my view.

I looked up as he wagged his finger in my face and repeated: “No, no, no, no, no!”

That’s when I knew something was rotten in Denmark (or, in this case, Barcelona). I didn’t have him quite yet, but I’d get there. I was going to expose this cat prowling among the tourist pigeons.

Minutes earlier, Kate and I had come out of the Musee de Picasso in Barcelona when a small crowd of tourists caught our eye. We joined them.

In the middle of the group stood a man selling cardboard cutouts of various cartoon characters: Bart Simpson, Pokémon, SpongeBob SquarePants, the usual suspects. They had legs made of yarn and what looked like tiny magnets for feet. But the reason people were buying them at 5 euros a piece was because they danced.

The man demonstrated their magic by turning on a cassette on his boom box that played a song with a steady beat. Then he placed the characters next to the radio, where they charmingly, adorably danced to the rhythm on their thin string legs.

People were thrusting money at the nuevo Geppetto. You could take home your own 5-inch dancing puppet, just in time for the holidays!

Kate reached for her wallet.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “This doesn’t make sense. How can cardboard dance?”

The man overheard me. His English, or his ruse, was good enough to detect skepticism. And in an act of faux transparency, he handed Kate one of the characters and pointed to the back of the cardboard, where a small hook the size of a paper clip protruded.

“Vibrations,” he said.

“Vibrations,” Kate repeated to me, as if I’d played hooky the day the teacher covered this basic science lesson. Satisfied that she would explain it to me, the man went back to taking money from those less skeptical.

“How would ‘vibrations’ keep them standing up?” I asked Kate. “They have yarn for legs.”

“I can send a couple of them to my brother for Christmas!” Kate replied.

The man stopped the music, and the characters stopped dancing. He restarted it, and they started again. The magic of vibrations!

That they kept standing when the music was turned off was another confusing detail.

“Something about this whole thing is ‘off.’” That’s what my inner dialogue sounded like. “Maybe if I look at it from a different angle.”

I was in full “Bloodhound Gang”¹ mode. I got down on my hands and knees for a better look. That’s when the man stood in front of me, wagged his finger and let me know I was getting warmer.

¹ A live action “Scooby Doo”-esque recurring show of shorts within the 
1980s public television show “3-2-1 Contact,” which itself was like
“Sesame Street” but for older kids.

Losing track of Kate in the crowd, I moved around to the side of the semicircle for a look from there. The vendor moved to stand in my way, but I caught a glimpse of something curious: a little wand behind the radio. It moved back and forth like a metronome to the same beat as the song.

From that wand, I saw the faintest hint of a line as it caught the light for a moment. It was a fishing line attached to the wand and, on the other end, to the wall a few feet away.

I had figured out the scam! And the man figured out that I’d figured it out.

“There’s a string,” I said aloud to no one but everyone. Then louder: “It’s a scam!”

I proudly walked through the middle of his staging area. “They’re on a wire.” I now held the group’s attention. “The hooks on the back aren’t for ‘vibrations’ but to hang on a fishing wire behind the boom box.”

The man stopped the music and angrily threw down the tiny marionettes, which landed with the soft clap of cardboard on the sidewalk.

Money retreated back into the would-be victim/customers’ wallets, and the man looked pissed at me. But what could he do? Call the police? He had to stand there and take it, I thought. Then again, he could have lashed out like a trapped animal.

I was so pleased with myself. In my mind I stood tall, chest out, arms akimbo, the OG Superman pose.

As the crowd dispersed, I was grinning and looking around for Kate. She was gone.

I caught a glimpse of her blonde ponytails turning the corner at the end of the street. Kate was so worried the con artist was going to retaliate with violence that she fled, she explained.¹ Better to let the Wookiee win, was her philosophy.

¹ Let us not forget our Hughesian bible. In the Gospel According to 
Ferris Bueller we learn the parable of the skeptical and vindictive
principal, which ends with Ed Rooney's vindication but also his downfall,
attacked by both a guard dog and karate kicks to the face.

The takeaway
Some things are too good to be scientifically true.

Unanswered question
How widespread was this rather sophisticated scam?

And now a word from Kate…
“Shit was about to go down and I wasn’t about to be there.”

Related dream:
December 6, 2002
Stefano’s house, Milan

Confidence Men

Based on the looks of locals, I couldn’t quite tell where in the world I was. Possibly North Africa, the Caribbean or India.

A man with dreadlocks and a colorful reggae hat was talking to me, and I told him that I knew he was trying to con me. He got so angry that he tried to punch and kick me (missing both times) and finally threw his radio at me.

I quickly walked away, happy to get out unscathed. I was prepared to let the whole thing go, but then I saw a police officer walking down the street, and I told him about my incident. Before he and I went to go look for the con man, he put my CD case and camera on a shelf in his small guardhouse.

When we reached the spot of my altercation, the man was gone. A more senior officer then took over the case. (I was calling men by their French title: gendarme.) This officer listened very carefully to my story and then asked if the man had dreadlocks. “Yes!” I exclaimed. And the officer held up the man’s hat. I was amazed.

We went straight to the con man’s house, and on the way, I thought about what I was going to say to him now that I had the police with me. As we arrived, the man saw us and ran into his apartment. The officer chased after him.

After a minute or so, I went up to the door myself and looked up the stairs. Inside I saw the con man, the cop and another man all dancing together. I grumbled to myself about how corrupt police were there.

Then I remembered my CD case and camera, and in a panic, I went back to the guardhouse, which turned out to be a used CD store. Another man there told me he had seen someone go through my stuff. The camera was gone, and all the good CDs and DVDs inside the case were missing as well.

I walked down the street screaming about my loss and looking for my stolen CDs.



David Allan

CNN’s Executive Editor of Enterprise and Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science). This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.