Monday, October 26, 2009

Picky, Picky

by Ben Small

Ever had a run-in with a pickpocket?

I'd seen them before, gangs of little kids harassing tourists in the streets of Florence or Naples, while others in their band slipped in and out, tugging at backpack zippers, brushing one's wallet pocket. My sister had fallen victim on a tube train in France when a crowd pushed together as the exit door jammed up. Someone slipped a hand inside my sister's backpack and removed her wallet and passport.

From all these experiences, I'd learned to keep my valuables in front cargo pockets, where buttons would serve as added protection.

And that may have helped... a bit.

So there I was in Split, Croatia, a nation usually crime-free, where cops are hard to find and usually not needed. A tour group was approaching as I was preparing to snap off one last picture of a fifteenth century sculpture high on the edge of a building on a narrow street corner. I wasn't getting the shadows right, and needed a position adjustment. Just a little to the right. But the tour group was closing in around me.

So I stepped back, hoping to let the tour group pass. I could take my time; we had three days left in Split. But like most tour groups, this one moved slowly, especially so in front of this sculpture. Seems most of them wanted shots of it, too.

There was a large man in front of me. Very large, about six feet, three hundred pounds. A wall of black clothing. And he was on my side of the tour group, pushing his way through, making slow but steady progress.

My eyes turned back to the sculpture and I drew a deep breath, a "be patient" breath, waiting for the group to pass. Meanwhile, the great black whale was pressing along on his way, still heading toward me, slightly to my rear. I stepped forward a bit, risked the small margin between myself and the tour group, hoping I'd given the man enough room for his girth.

But the man didn't try to step around me; he was walking through me. "Hey," I said, a bit peeved now. "Move over."

I had no idea if the man spoke English, and of course, I had no clue how to speak Hrvatski, the Croatian language. Sounded like a bunch of grunts to me.

The man kept pressing. I felt his girth surrounding me. I was losing my balance.

I stepped forward again, trying once more to get out of the man's way. I'm a big guy, six-foot-six, two hundred twenty-five pounds. But I was no match for this guy. He was pushing me along.

I felt pressure along my right leg, my wallet leg. I slid my hand around the side of my pants to my front cargo pocket for a reassuring pat to my wallet buttoned inside.

A man's hand was there, pulling my wallet out of my pants pocket. My hand met his, and I felt the rough rattlesnake skin of my wallet inside his beefy maw. I jerked down hard, and freed my wallet.

"Thief!" I yelled, and then I pushed. Not "pushed," really, sort of a hard shove. The man barely moved.

"You a$$-h%%e!" I bellowed. And then I struck. A hard thrust to his chest, aiming for his throat but striking his massive chest instead. The man's shirt was slick with sweat, and my hand slid up to his neck, and I thrust once more. The man went down in a pile, sliding off to his right.

I looked for a cop, but as usual, none were to be found. Another man came to me, a fat, older guy. He looked concerned. "What happened?" he said. He spoke with an American accent. I figured him for the tour guide.

"Pickpocket," I said, pointing down to the behemoth I'd felled. The perp had rolled under a cafe-style restaurant's retaining bar and was struggling to his feet. "Had his hand in my pocket and was pulling my wallet out."

I glanced over at my wife, who was on the other side of the tour group. She looked concerned.

The pickpocket was now on his feet, and scurrying. The tour guide charged after him. Briefly I thought of following, but I was in a strange country, didn't speak the language, and he was a native. How would the police react, especially when it was my word against his, and I had my wallet? I deferred.

The pickpocket exited the cafe portion of the restaurant, and hurried down the street away from us. The tour guide followed him, gaining. Just as the pickpocket turned the corner on the other side of the restaurant and was about to enter another street, the tour guide caught up with them. I couldn't hear the conversation, just some yelling. I saw the tour guide reach out, grab the man's shoulder, saw the pickpocket shrug the hand off violently. The tour guide backed off.

My wife broke through the remaining members of the tour group to stand by my side. "What happened?"

I told her, showed her how my cargo pants pocket was unbuttoned, showed her my wallet, still in my hand. By now, I was re-thinking everything, feeling a bit guilty I hadn't done the macho thing and gone after the pickpocket myself. Feeling even more guilty that the tour guide -- or someone I thought was the tour guide -- had felt obliged to go after the pickpocket while I'd stood there stunned. Well, I thought, trying to justify my lack of action, I had pushed the guy down, big though he was.

I told my wife what I was thinking.

"Are you crazy?" she said. Then she proceeded to give me reasons I should not have gone after the guy, a few of which hadn't yet dawned on me. Like the possibility the guy had a knife or gun. Or maybe he had an accomplice. Or maybe the cops, if any were around, were paid off and would be on his side.

My wife was right, of course. She's always right. Sometimes I'm a dummy. But every once in a while common sense takes over and I do the right thing. Besides, I'd kept my wallet, and I'd pushed the guy down.

Macho enough for me...


Chester Campbell said...

My trips are never that exciting. We encountered a pickpocket in a Vatican gift shop once, but he was a small guy and he took off when he was discovered.

Anonymous said...

A scary encounter, and twice as scary when you're a foreigner who doesn't speak the language.

Thank goodness I was never alone on my foreign travels, either with my small tour group or with escorts or personal guides. I do remember, though, in Morocco our tour guides warned us to be on guard against "long fingers."

You were wise not to pursue that thug. He could have carried a knife.

In Split, I admit, I wandered downtown by myself. I felt safe. But that was years ago, when Tito was still alive, holding Yugoslavia together.

The sad truth is, with freedom comes crime.

Pat Browning