True Pickpocket

…written under a “beware of pickpockets” sign near Track 8, SMN.


BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS. So the guidebooks tell you. And maybe their advice will save you from giving painful temptation to a runaway with the fingershakes of withdrawal. But to a true pickpocket, they will be no deterrence. You should know this.

I shall explain it to you.

1) KEEP YOUR WALLET IN YOUR FRONT POCKET. It is true that during harder times I have seen Japanese emerging from Grand Central or Americans emerging from Termini and all with wallets emerging from their back pocket, soldiers peeking over the trenches to see if the bullets still fly. And in those harder times I have been tempted. But I am not a true pickpocket. Like Vito di Castellovecchio, about who it can only be said for certain that he had never been to Castellovecchio. He would not take from a back pocket. He liked to let on that he felt it beneath him, a Michaelangelo working in granite. Beneath his bluff I always felt that he was scared, that a prize so easy must surely be a trap. He would turn his head from the temptation, leaving it for the ones with, he said, no self-respect. No, Vito would only take from a front pocket. Perhaps the flap of a jacket or overcoat, if the rent was due. Around him I put my wallet in my back pocket to keep it safe. Until the joke started to wear him thin.

2) DON’T TAKE OUT YOUR WALLET IN PUBLIC. But this is silliness. You are carrying a wallet. Everyone is carrying a wallet. No confirmation is necessary. A good thief, even a poor thief, will be able to tell from looking at you how rich is your prize. Are you a tourist flush with banknotes from the airport exchange? Are you a sharp with a fat fold out for a Friday night? They will know this from the time and place, from the way you hold yourself, from the way you dress. This is true of any street-thief, as it is of the leather-seller in San Lorenzo or the great art dealer in a storefront on the Bund. Mary Mok could measure the thickness of your pocketbook while it was still inside your purse, and you still on the street, and she inside her store that sold Gevinchy and Chanel. You might as well try to hide bad teeth when you laugh. Worry about better things.

3) IF YOU MUST TAKE IT OUT, DON’T LET THEM SEE WHERE YOU’VE PUT IT AWAY. I remember my first trip abroad, nervous like a rabbit in the dark, moving my wallet from pocket to pocket within the folds of my great ugly overcoat that I loved so. Perhaps it hindered a blind beggar in spotting my billfold. But a true pickpocket would hardly need have noticed. Such a one has no need to estimate. They will see your wallet. Like Henri La Choux, the thin Burgundian, the one with the cocked cap and the lavender cigarettes. Wherever it is, he would see it. Left or right pocket, front or back, inside jacket, tucked in your waistband like a child with mittens clothespinned to its jacket. He could tell. He could tell from how you carry yourself, from little tells like what part of your body you favor when you pass through a crowd or the mouth of an alley. You could be dressed in tatters and rags and he would know if you carry a rich purse, dressed in evening-gowns and know if your little clutch is just for show. This is how Henri moved from city to city, staying always two steps ahead of his father’s detectives. I saw him last in Budapest. Did not see him – but in front of a cafe, a little basement barroom near the river, I smelled lavender-smoke, stale perhaps a day.

4) CARRY A DECOY WALLET. I think the people who write these books have never been on a street. A true pickpocket will be able to tell a duck from a decoy as well as a bloodhound. Even if it is a used wallet, bought from a vintage clothing-store in the Quartier Latin, worn soft by some other man. Even if it is stuffed with dead credit cards and bits of newspaper or old francs. Laszlo Forint loved the decoy wallets. He would notice one, in the pocket of some Australian at the counter of a Munich bar, and he would clap his hands and laugh like a fat priest presented with a fresh new sin. And you would feel the comforting weight of your decoy on your hip. For you would know that when it is gone you have been robbed. And you would order drink after drink. Perhaps he would order one for you, and laugh with you with foam in his Magyar beard. And then you would go to pay, and take out your decoy wallet – and laugh as you realized your mistake, and laugh at how clever you were. Then you would see that your other wallet was gone. And Laszlo would be sympathetic, then roar with laughter and cover your bar-tab like a brother. Using your own money. Like a brother, too.

5) DON’T LET STRANGERS GET TOO CLOSE. Pernicious advice! There are as many pickpockets who prefer a one-on-one as who work in crowds and clutches. And there are many more cutpurses, unsavory characters, lurking in alleys – no, much better to keep strangers all about you. It saves the true pickpockets the unsavory work of protecting their trade. Like that terrible man, that cutthroat, who stalked the streets of Dubrovnik like the Whitechapel-ripper, cutting up addicts and bums for his pleasure. People were scared. The tourists, they stayed away, or went out in packs, or even more they hid in taxis and never went to the street. So the Thalberg brothers, they stalked the streets too. It did not take them long to find him – they knew those steets like sailors know the horizon. And they caught him and held him up to a wall and put a furnace-poker through his throat. Called the investigators like a cat with a mouse. In thanks the police let them work the taxi-stand until the tourists went back to the streets.

6) DO NOT TALK TO STRANGERS. Silly advice. If you do not wish to talk to strangers, take a cruise. Walk on the footpaths between the cruise-terminal and the Doge’s Palace, stopping in each little Burberry-stall and eating pizza that would not pass muster in Montreal. Don’t go anywhere that isn’t marked on the cruise-ship map. See nothing but the Rialto and the Sighs. Don’t look at anything that a hundred other people are not looking at – and don’t look at anything but through your camera. Do not accidentally find yourself in a part of the city where people live, and do things, and the city is not the carcass of a whale beached up on the store for you to walk between bleached bones already stripped by better vultures than you. Because no pickpockets work these routes, oh no. These routes are safe. The Carabinieri assure it. So that when you get drunk and wander ten feet off the tourist-route, you will know it is your fault, you will know you should not have strayed, and you will accept the little apologies of the officer with sheepishness. And when you leave the officer will grumble that his take is only ten percent, twenty for his commander. It was ever thus, he’s very sure.

7) CHECK YOURSELF WHEN A STRANGER BUMPS YOU. I have always rather felt this to be good manners – especially for members of those races which are prone to taking up more than their share of the world – but it will not get your wallet back from a true pickpocket. The next time you are walking, notice how many people bump you. Notice how you have trained yourself to ignore them like other people’s babble in a cafe. The stranger who you notice has careened off you is undoubtedly a tourist like yourself. The true pickpocket could have his hand in your pocket for three blocks and you would not notice. Alfonso the Catalan liked to do that. Try for three blocks. Four. But then, he spent a lot of time in jail. The hazards of taking a craft and making it a game.

8) LOOK OUT FOR SUSPICIOUS CHARACTERS. You will have a harder time noticing a true pickpocket than water will have in staying on a raincoat. He is not suspicious. He is the perfection of the inconspicuous. But sometimes this comes by being a little conspicuous. Something annoying. A cough, a stutter. Something you must work, unconsciously or even consciously, to block. Mihescu had a stutter. Mihescu would argue with store-clerks, traffic-cops on the street. They would feel bad for him. And a little annoyed. And so would you. And two blocks later he would take your check-book, knowing that he moved in a shadow you had made.

9) DO NOT TRAVEL ALONE. Yes, because you are always far more on your guard when you are bickering with your wife or looking at the men who are looking at your daughter. Might as well wear cowbells around your neck as you wander about someone else’s pasture. To travel alone through foreign lands is one of the great pleasures in life. It is, I think, the motivation of many true pickpockets. They are farmers who can move from field to field – a heady thing! When they see a young man, a wandering woman, upon the same journey, their heart is moved by them. They are closely allied in their ways. The true pickpocket will tend not – not stop, but tend not – to take from such a person. The only exception I can think of is the Yemeni, a brilliant man, but he enjoys cunting the corn more than any thrill of the harvest. He is a madman. I say that with respect – he can arrive in a city, work it two days or three, and have a suitcase filled with wallets and purses and jewels. Cannot go back to that city afterwards. But on the train, always, in the bathroom, he counts out all the bills and leaves the rest in the trash-bin. I do not know what he does with the money. Sends it home to his aged mother, burns it, I don’t know. He has no sympathy for the fine things. Half I think to call him an addict – stealing seven dollars is better to him than stealing six. But he steals seven. He is a master. And he will not be deterred by your backpack or your considerate little command of the local tongue.

10) DO NOT DRESS EXPENSIVELY. Not carry an expensive purse, not wear jewelry. Leave your watch at home! Might as well leave your credit-cards there, travel without money. A true pickpocket can see past your dress. See how youc arry yourself, or hear how you speak, or see in your eyes the confidence which only comes from a man who has his wallet full. That kind of flash will only draw one sort of thief – the one who wants to prove something. The inferior man. A true pickpocket is not he. I met a boy in Joburg. I never learned his name. He hadn’t been on the street for long, that you could tell. His eyes were the saddest things I have ever seen, like a rabbit in a cold trap. His clothing, not large to begin with, hung loose on him. Underneath the remnants of a styling gel, to give that upturn so popular with the boys back in his school, his hair was dirty and crusted. He kept going up to pass rich people, expensive hair and dress, and just could not do it. They intimidated him. He felt, you could see, that they were too good for him to steal from. Benny showed him. Benny, the little Englishman, walked back and forth past a great hotel for five minutes, back and forth, and came back with three long billfolds in oxblood leather and a coinpurse studded in freshwater pearls. But the boy could not. It just wasn’t in him. So he contended himself with other urchins like himself, hooded-sweatshirt dregs and Erasmus-kids with a rail-pass. He found their purses fat enough.

I see I have demonstrated my point to you. Good enough – I have, more examples, but my train is coming, I must go to it, I always wait on the wrong track. Keep your head high. See what is to be seen. Do not carry what you cannot lose. And save your money for things better than guidebooks.


~ by davekov on 7 June 2014.

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