Staff List: Lies, Damn Lies

The Bureau Staff tells tales of deception and untruths.


Like any good private school student with few extracurriculars and fewer volunteer hours, I took an SAT prep class to juice my chances of getting into a decent college. My Kaplan course employed a simple method for boosting its students’ scores: lock the kids in a dreary suburban office building for three hours a week — away from television, videogames, liquor, drugs, sex, and internet porn — and they will have no choice but to take a few practice tests and get used to the logic of the SATs. (Of course, a group of kids still snuck out to the parking garage during the fifteen-minute break to smoke pot.) Any teenager with some measure of self-discipline (ha!) could have achieved the same results at home for free by studying old tests. The teacher of this course and the robotic lessons he was paid to impart were unnecessary and uniformly unhelpful.

With one exception.

Our teacher was a recent grad, with an awkward haircut stuck between youthful and professional, who squirmed in his dress shirt. His lesson plan consisted of parroting Kaplan’s tricks for “beating the test” to us, which seemed designed primarily to mask the fact that most students never learned geometry. But in an unguarded moment he gave us a piece of information that probably raised each kid’s score by 50 points.

It was a vaguely scientific anecdote, the sort that would find itself at home in a Malcolm Gladwell book, on the subject of sleep. He told us that a given night’s sleep does not determine how a person feels the following morning. Rather, he said, getting too little sleep will make you feel tired one day later. This is, of course, complete horseshit. But as Stanley Milgram predicted, I trusted the word of this barely competent authority figure over a short lifetime of personal experience. So I didn’t panic about falling asleep the night before the test, nor did I worry about being at peak mental strength during the test itself. Basically, with one fantastic lie, my Kaplan teacher cancelled out a huge element of creeping doubt in the minds of all his students. And my SAT score ended up being the strongest part of my college applications. — Editor Nick Martens

In college, I had a habit of telling people that Nick was a really, really good skateboarder. Which is funny because Nick, as far as I know, has never rode a skateboard in his life.

I forgot how the joke started, but it picked up steam during the spring semester of our junior year of college. Nick was abroad in Amsterdam, and I was in the United States, spreading fantastical tales of Kickflip McTwists and 360 Flips to Mute (the only two tricks I remembered from the Playstation game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater).

“Yeah, a few years ago Nick flew down to LA for a qualifying competition for the X-Games. He didn’t make it, but he got pretty close.”

Nick doesn’t look like a skateboarder, but at the same time, no one’s ever doubted me — probably because nobody cares about skateboarding.

Still, I’m not sure what the long-term goal was. Maybe I just hoped that one day someone might actually hand him a skateboard and ask him to show off the skills that only existed in the conversations he wasn’t around for. Nick would have to politely decline, and explain that there had been some kind of misunderstanding or that the other Nick Martens was the one who skateboarded.

That never happened, although I’m pretty sure one time I even overheard someone refer to Nick as “that kid who skateboards.” But who knows. I could’ve made that up too. — Editor Kevin Nguyen

When I was eight, I visited the Philippines for the first time with my mom, who was born there. It was 1994, and we were visiting in the middle of summer. Being a spoiled American, all I wanted to do was bask in the air conditioning, read Martin the Warrior, and watch my uncle’s Laserdisc copy of Jurassic Park, both of which had been released the previous year.

After two days of trying new things — banana ketchup, pancakes with pure Karo syrup, Jollibee burgers, and a disastrous encounter with a fruit that looked like a kiwi but was about as sour as a tamarind — I decided that I’d had enough local cuisine, and would from that point on stick to familiar foods. This short list consisted of adobo, sinigang, cans of shoestring potatoes, and not much else.

In order to get me to eat the occasional fruit, my mom played a little gastronomic bait-and-switch. One afternoon, she presented me a bowl full of fruit pieces, which she called “Filipino peaches.” I knew what peaches were, so I ate the entire bowl — and asked for another, which she happily produced. These “peaches” were actually mangoes, and they were much sweeter and juicier than the limp, slightly sour versions I’d tried (and declared unfit for consumption) in the U.S.

Needless to say, I was hooked, and I ate two mangoes a day for the rest of my trip. It was one of the few times in my life that I didn’t mind being lied to at all. — Assistant Editor Darryl Campbell

There’s a woman I’ve encountered several times near my apartment. She looks normal. She walks very quickly and whenever she spots a moving person she’ll beeline toward them with unnatural speed. Though not obviously homeless or crazy — she looks perfectly well clothed although her hair is a little ragged — the way she runs toward people makes me a little uneasy.

The first time she approached me, waving her arms madly as she came close, she started speaking before I could even hear her.

“Hey guys, hey guys! Hey guys! You’ll never believe what happened to me—”

She was looking for a handout. Or was she? The lady launched into a strange, rambling story about how her car was just broken into and all of her law school textbooks were stolen. She needed money so she could buy more textbooks to pass her test.

And then the overplayed, so-worn-out-I-immediately-stop-listening question came up:

“So could you guys spare a buck or two?”

My answer was no.

I thought my acquaintance with this lady was over, but a couple weeks later she returned. She was on the same street, rushing from one person to the next. She still looked fairly normal. She stopped me again, insisting that she was struck by a car while on her bike. She needed a ride for a taxi (this part was unclear) so she could get a ride home. She obviously didn’t remember me from our last encounter, or didn’t care, but I was so taken aback by her creative method that I almost gave her a dollar.

Why jump through so many hoops only to return to what every beggar inevitably asks his listener? I’ve since seen this storytelling mendicant only once. I ran into the nearest coffee shop until I watched her pass by in the window. She spotted a hapless victim across the street, and ducking oncoming traffic, ran toward them. — Writer Jordan Barber

I see my three-year-old niece just a few times a year, so every visit provides only a small window of time to endear her to me. Since she loves animals, I usually start our conversations with questions about whatever animals she’s seen lately. At the beginning of our last visit, I asked how her family’s pet chickens were doing. As I finished asking the question I looked up to see her father giving me the silent “finger across the throat” symbol.

Behind my niece’s high chair, I was told in hushed tones that just a few nights earlier, the chickens became the latest victims of a roaming pack of neighborhood raccoons. I was worried that it was too late; the topic of the slain chickens had been breached and now we would have to give my niece her first lesson on mortality. Worse, this dose of reality might be engraved in her mind alongside an early memory of me.

But she happily babbled that “the chickens are with the raccoons,” which is, if you think about it, nothing but the truth. Her parents had constructed the whitest of lies, and I was more than happy to play the accomplice. In fact, I hope the conceit will continue for as long as her innocence allows. Whenever they get replacement chickens, I will pretend that the two species were off on a worldwide hot balloon trip, or solving mysteries in an old Western mining town, or perhaps just out on a picnic, and finally the chickens got tired and needed to come home for a nap. — Contributing Writer Daniel Adler

Photo by The Wolf.