There were several stories about how the tradition began, but after at least two decades, a group of 10-20 friends still gathered each April 1st at an outdoor café in Washington, DC to prank the passerby with the wallet gag.
The wallet gag: Tie a length of fishing line to the hinge corner of a well-used billfold – 8-10 lb. test monofilament will do – and then tape the torn-off corner of a $20 or $50 bill to an inside edge, letting the number stick out plainly. The wallet is discreetly pushed out to a sidewalk. Then you wait.
We called it “trolling for suckers” and it evolved into a half-day event that stretched from lunch hour to rush hour. There were kazoos, whistles and other assorted noisemakers, a rubber chicken and a significant bar tab. When a passerby reached for the wallet, he or she came up empty-handed to a soundblast of semi-musical mockery and a rubber chicken, loosed from the awning, flopping at face level with a rope around its neck.
We had only one general rule for the afternoon. Prank only the sentient and hurt nobody. Okay, two rules. So when someone whispered “cardiac,” it meant a frail person was approaching. The wallet could stay out, but the chicken stayed in its roost and the noise was reduced to sober-like human sounds. Yes, we profiled our prospects. It was our duty as responsible adults.
So there she was strolling, a woman in her 80s with a cane, a heavy coat for the early spring chill. The “cardiac” warning had made the rounds and we waited. She reached and watched the wallet skate under the railing. She rose up only halfway and stared as the chuckles and “April Fools” calls greeted her.
But no smile. Instead she rose upright, clutching her chest. The cane tip shot up to the hem of her coat as her hands clasped together. Her face was pained. Ours too. We fell silent and jumped up to steady her.
Then she smiled. A sparkling melt in her eyes and face and a laugh that said “Gotcha.” So we breathed. Then we understood. Then we applauded. One of our ringleaders at the rail leaned over to shake her hand for a job well done. She gripped and pulled back in a start as his joke-shop hand buzzer went off in her palm. Then we all laughed together.
(A version of this post appeared originally in the April 2015 edition of AARP Bulletin)