23 September 2007

The Tale of Brian Patrick Rawson

This all happened near the end of February 2007. It had been less than two days since I activated an account on couchsurfing.com when I had my first couchsurfing request. ‘Brian Rawson’ had just activated his account that day, and claimed to be sick of spending money on expensive downtown Calgary hotels. I consulted with my roommate, Rowan, and my girlfriend, Andrea, who accepted after much skepticism, and I hoped that this experience would quell any misgivings we all may have had about letting strangers stay with us. If only…

I called his cell number and asked him if he still needed a place to stay, it being around seven in the evening. He said he was, and came to our place no more than an hour later. Rowan and I chatted with him for a while, and he was a great well of conversation. His purported lifestyle accounted for this: He was from Germany and spoke English with a slight accent, and had previously worked as an Apple computer consultant. He had also formed a computer design company and played for us a DVD showcasing his works – basically, every well-known commercial involving computer animation on television in the last ten years He had amassed a considerable fortune in this practice and now lived off of the money he made from the few Apple stores he owned back in Germany. Now he spent his days preparing for major snowboarding competitions, for he was a professional sponsored by Burton and was presently training at the ski hills around Banff. He had decided to come to Calgary for some downtime – a few days to see the town and get away from his peers for a while.

There were subtle details that seemed to reinforce his story: As Rowan mentioned that he enjoyed snowboarding from time to time, Brian offered to take a look at his board and claimed that it was not the right fit for poor, tall Rowan. He offered to have a board and gear sent from Burton in his name – a gift for the gracious host! Moreover, he was constantly sending messages on his Blackberry and would occasionally leave to field a call as if these were pressing business matters that could not wait. He also had a ton of amusing stories to tell about the slopes – be they in Canada, Aspen, or Switzerland.

It was not until a couple of days later that Rowan expressed his doubts, after we had just dropped Brian off at Canada Olympic Park for a snowboarding event for which Rowan had lent him his digital camera (and where he would later tell us that he happened to cross a Finnish snowboarding acquaintance). The night before, Rowan had gone online to verify some details about Brian. Granted, it did not help that there was a photo artist in New York by the same name, but he was not among any list of Burton-sponsored snowboarders. The German Apple site was also unhelpful. A search of the name of his design company generated absolutely nothing. The internet had never heard of him. I was later to verify this all myself and come to the same fruitless conclusions. However – and I admit this with much contrition – I was still not prepared to reject his story out of hand. I could not, simply because there was no other clear conclusion present. If he was full of it, then what was he really hoping to get out of staying with us?

That night being a Saturday, we all went out to a bar with some friends and rendered ourselves (if not just myself) amazingly drunk. In retrospect, it was a very surreal experience to be doing that with someone I did not entirely trust. The next day was thus a hangover day that Rowan and I spent lounging around. We succeeded in dropping numerous hints to Brian that our primary interest was simply to read, and so that afternoon he went out to check out a snowboarding shop (of course). Before leaving, however, Rowan asked him if he still had his camera, to which Brian answered “Can we deal with that later?”

Understand, dear reader, that under these very curious and dubious circumstances I was very eager to reach the truth, and so my next actions should in no way reflect any general disregard on my part for someone’s private space: While he was out, I took a look through his bags. I proceeded cautiously so as not to disturb the contents so much so that he would notice, and so I only handled a few items. Nevertheless, it became immediately clear that he had been lying. I found a pass for the Washington D.C. public transit network, an 8x10 portrait print of a man I had never seen and who bore no resemblance to Brian, numerous receipts for Apple electronics gear, and, most bizarre of all, a letterhead which gave his name and position with the American Department of Homeland Security.

I was spooked, so much so that I immediately stopped snooping and shuffled things to make it look as it had when I came in the room. My imagination soon got the best of me. Assuming he was a spy for the American government, what did he want with us? Was it my stay in Marseille, possible hotbed of Islamic malcontent? Was the house now wired?

We did not know what to believe, save that Brian had to go as soon as possible. We tried to decide how best to handle him: Admittedly, I am not much of a confrontationalist, so I was not keen on the idea of demanding that he spill the beans upon his return. Rowan called the city police so as to ask them for their advice on the matter, and they proved to be very unhelpful beyond reminding us that we should not let strangers into our homes and never lend out personal belongings (the suburban code of conduct). That evening, once everyone was home, Rowan suggested that he leave the next day given that the coming week was to be a busy one for all of us. Brian consented graciously, but then spent the rest of the evening locked up in the spare bedroom where there was an online computer. That night, we all had the worst sleep of our lives - if you can even call it 'sleep'.

The next evening, with Brian gone and us breathing a collective sigh of relief, we decided to take a look at a curious little item that Brian had left behind. A couple days prior, he had for some reason backed up his Blackberry contents on Rowan’s computer. Of course, Brian was astute enough to make sure that it was properly deleted upon his departure, but Rowan had earlier saved a copy of it elsewhere. A freely downloadable piece of software permitted us to access the file, organised in the categories of emails, text messages, call logs, notes and an address book. This little file was Brian in a nutshell, and the three of us – myself, Rowan and Andrea – were glued to the screen as we passed from one correspondence to another. The amount of information one can cull from an addict’s Blackberry is astounding.

Apart from his name, next to nothing he said was true. He was not a snowboarder, Apple consultant, or member of Homeland Security. He was simply a man who spent his life living off of one woman to the next, playing numerous girls at any given time. He would sponge what he could, but not going so far as committing a crime. He worked on the trust of others, and it explained perfectly what he was doing here with us. Most of the emails came from a woman in Calgary, and their correspondence had been going on for some six months. The more recent messages made it clear that there had been a rift in their relationship, to put it lightly. She, among others, had some interesting expletive descriptors for dear Brian, including a man who was in receipt of some computer equipment that was evidently not forthcoming; Brian even had the good humour to have a package of Coca-Cola bottles sent to his house instead. There were some interesting outgoing messages as well, including threats of imprisonment by the Department of Homeland Security. It would seem that the Homeland Security schtick is a card he plays when exposed.

That evening, we contacted the woman from Calgary who now devotes a portion of her time to tracking Brian’s movements in the hopes of having him one day prosecuted. Brian has apparently been in this line of work for years, and with each person he tells a different story. His cons and façades are numerous.

In summary, I can say that Brian is one of the most disturbing and morally offensive persons I have ever met. He is not violent or belligerent, but he takes selfishness to an amazing extreme. He can deceive someone for months on end, and for what? He is perpetually broke and homeless, and he must constantly manage the convoluted network of people on whom he depends. Perhaps he is just a pathological liar, and that this is the most effective way he thinks he can lead his life. It is hard to say if anything he told us of his past is true, even the trivial details. I mention all of this only for the sake of interest, and it is not intended as a condemnation of the Couch Surfing principle. In fact, I continue to couch surf and have since only encountered warm and trustworthy individuals. This account should only be seen as a reminder that there are a few unsavoury individuals among us, and that one should always resolve skepticism to the point of nullification if ever it crops up. There are many multifaceted and profoundly interesting people on couchsurfing, but if something sounds too good to be true, then it very well may not be!