Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I Am The Odd Shaped Object

The morning of July 3rd was cold and gray in Paris. I tucked in my canvas overshirt for warmth and put on my straw hat. We took the Metro to the Concorde station to change to the Number One line. As we walked through the connecting tunnel it occurred to me that the crowds were getting thicker and that I should move my wallet from the back pocket of my jeans to the front. I didn’t.

A train was pulling in as we arrived at the platform. Madame Le Chef was trailing slightly behind me in the crowd. I stepped onto the train. A short girl with black hair and a pink top suddenly stopped in front of me, blocking my way. I assumed she was unsure if she was on the right train. I had the impression she was a young teenager. I never saw her face.

She was violating the unspoken rule that one moves rapidly on and off the Metro. The trains do not normally linger in the station. I was trying to figure out how to get around her without pushing when she turned and left the car, just as the doors closed. I turned and found Madame Le Chef who immediately asked me if I had my wallet. I put my hand back. It was gone.

I felt sick as the train accelerated. It was a fait accompli. We got off at the next station, thought briefly of notifying the police and rejected that idea. We headed back to the apartment where I got on the phone and canceled my Credit and Debit cards. We were out over 120 Euro and my driver’s license, which meant that Madame Le Chef would be the chauffeur when we rented a car.

Since she was behind me, Madame Le Chef saw much more of the robbery although she did not realize at the time that that’s what it was. While the first girl blocked me, her identically sized confederate came up behind me. Madame saw her put one hand on my back but did not see her other hand pick my pocket. I never felt anything. The teenage Artful Dodgers exited the train with military precision.

Everyone I told the story to said, “Oh, Gypsies”. Apparently Les Gitanes have the franchise for petty thievery or, at least, are widely perceived as having it.

I realized in retrospect that the pintsized felons probably first noticed me because of my straw hat and then registered the wallet shape in my back pocket. Maybe I even sensed them watching me and that caused my inkling that I should move my wallet. As an American, everything has to be a learning experience, so the moral of this tale is: if you have an inkling, act on it. (Unless it’s an inkling telling you to take off all your clothes and start screaming about Earth’s imminent collision with an asteroid.)


Joey said...

David Maurer's "The Whiz Mob", a sociological study of slang language used by middle American pickpockets living in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky during the 1920's to 1940's is based on their yarns but not on actual experience. Great stuff, nonetheless, as the author describes traditional pickpocket group's -- typically three people for touring professionals -- setups and social games. It is mostly characterizations of how tough it was to get the "mark's leather," similar to the experience of M. Le Chief. The author's "The Big Con", made into a film titled something like "The Big Chill," is also delightful.

Bureau Chief said...

Thank you for the info about the Maurer books. I'll definitely check them out. Bresson's film "Pickpocket" has also been recommended.