Pick my pocket, Pierre?

I know that it must seem a strange thing to brag about, but I take a certain pride in the fact that I’ve had my pockets picked in nearly every country I’ve ever visited. And since my chances of setting any record for the high jump or making it into the Guinness World Record book for the fastest mile, I settle for “The man who’s had his pocket picked most often.”

Let me first explain that I’ve never actually lost anything of value. When I travel I have my money and passport hidden in places so deeply that only Dr. Prabhakar could retrieve them. In fact, when I go to pay for a tea and crumpet in London you might want to turn your head since the process involves some anatomical gymnastics that are usually reserved for fifth-grade health and hygiene films. Instead, when walking the streets of the world I carry a wad of scrap paper that loosely resembles a roll of cash, topped off with a note that says, “You are a thief.” Sometimes for a change I’ll write, “Idiot!” I’ve never lost a dime to the thieves, but since the crooks always come away with a handful of nothing and I know they’re going to be in my pockets anyway I get a bit of satisfaction in knowing that on this sunny morning in Rome I wasn’t the one who got fooled.

To be honest, I’ve come to admire the creativity of the various pickpockets of the planet. When you walk into one of the world’s hottest tourist spots, say. . .the park below the Eiffel Tower, the square in front of Westminster Abbey, or Rome’s Coliseum, you can bet your last euro that someone will try to rob you, especially if you look as American as I do . . .overweight, sunglasses, camera, and clueless. The usual method involves the “bump and run,” whereby one of the thieves will bump you on one side and as you turn to confront them you’ll be robbed by his friend on the opposite shoulder. Here’s where the real admiration comes into play. These guys. . or girls . . or kids. . . are good. I mean really good! I’ve often thought that the pickpockets of the world might be rehabilitated and turned into colon examiners, so quick and smooth are they in getting their hands in and out without ruffling a nerve.

The very best pickpockets seem to be in Southern Europe and they get a bit sloppier as they move northward. Perhaps it’s the colder climates that make them less agile. I was once robbed of my fake wad while climbing into a gondola in Venice. I could see the guy who did it but I’ll be darned if I know how he did it. Then there was the late night I took with my Triopia students on the Paris Metro or subway. These three little urchins snatched the purse of one of my girls while we were in the moving car. She screamed, I plastered the little miscreant up against the wall, flattening the creep out like a crepe, and he dropped the purse. I held him there until we reached our next stop, but here’s where the criminal turned into the unbelievable. As I pinned the little rascal to the wall and allowed my frightened students to exit the car, the little poop reached across and tried to take something out of my shirt pocket. This kid was clumsy, but boy, what nerve!

I’ve had my roll of useless paper stolen in France, in Italy, twice in London, in Australia (at a zoo!), in Tahiti, and Spain. In fact, in single day of touring Madrid I completely ran out of fake money. The only foreign realms where I can’t remember being robbed are Sweden, the Soviet Union, and Lichtenstein. The Swedes were too nice, theft at that time in Russia was Siberia-destined crime, and we didn’t get off the bus long enough in Lichtenstein for anyone to pick my pocket. Besides, it was raining, and I don’t think pickpockets work in the rain. They need dry fingers.

I once commented to our tour guide in Germany that I’d never had my pocket picked in the United States, and he answered, “No, in Chicago they shoot you.” I could see his point. Violent crime is still the exception in most of the first world countries except the U.S., but the petty theft is rampant and in some places even accepted.

Perhaps the neatest trick is employed by certain gypsies in Paris. A young mother will rush up to you with a live baby in her arms, thrust the child into yours and your gut response is to take the kid. Not dropping babies is something we learn at birth in Illinois. So while your hands are full the mom’s accomplice will snatch your billfold. She runs away, you turn the baby in to the police, and someone comes to collect the “stolen” baby. Pretty darned slick.

It’s great to live in a country where I don’t have to worry about someone getting into my pockets. Which reminds me, I need to pay my taxes.

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