Bob Arno “Pickpocket King” National Geographic documentary—part 6

On buses and trains, Michele ditches his studio headset in order to monitor sound with something less obvious.
On buses and trains, Michele ditches his studio headset in order to monitor sound with something less obvious.

Thiefhunting, Day One, continued. As we synchronize our thiefhunting plans with the film crew, I’m newly appreciative of Michele, our London-based sound recordist, who is from this city. He’s a gentleman, a perfectionist, and an invaluable translator. We’ll need him in order to talk to the pickpockets. Assuming we find any. Assuming they agree to talk to us.

We’re all driven to a point near to where Bob and I want to board a bus. We disperse like a criminal gang, each ducking into various doorways to turn on our cameras.

Bob and I linger, loiter, choose a bus, and board. It’s not crowded, not promising, we see no “suspects.” But we decide to ride to another location. We stand near the middle door. The crew scatter throughout the bus. All of us wear a veneer of nonchalance. All of us are coiled like springs, hyper-alert. Bob and I have done this a million times, but it’s the first time for our team.

At the second stop, three men board the bus. They’re clean-cut, fresh-faced men—two in their fifties, one 30ish. Bob and I don’t suspect them until they move close, crowding us—unnecessarily—against the window. Bob gives me a little squeeze, so I know something’s happening. He concentrates on the feeling behind his butt pocket, then whispers to me “done.”

As the bus approaches its next stop, Bob blatantly feels for his wallet. The pickpocket, still behind him, points to the floor, where he’d dropped it after finding it empty. He picks it up, hands it to Bob, and smiles as if Bob must have dropped it himself.

The pickpocket and one accomplice get off the bus. We follow, and all our crew jump off too. One of the thieves stays on the bus. As the two thieves stroll away, Bob and I accost them. “I do the same as you,” Bob says. He repeats it in several languages. With friendly faces, the pickpockets try to pretend they don’t understand. Bob persists and makes himself understood to some degree. But he wants full communication.

“Does anyone speak English?” he calls to the crowd. The nearest woman says no, and walks past. One man rises from where he’s lying in the grass, and volunteers to translate. It’s Michele, our sound-man, jumping into his role of anonymous translator. “How about coffee, then?” the pickpocket pair suggests. Just what we’d hoped for! And off we went.

Later, Bob described how smoothly the pickpocket had extracted the wallet on the bus. Bob said that if he hadn’t been concentrating on it, he’d never have felt it. And our crew? They got the shot from every angle. But nobody knew that until much later. There was no time to look at footage.

Part one of this story. Next installment.

This is Part 6 of THE MAKING OF OUR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC DOCUMENTARY, PICKPOCKET KING. The film is about us, Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent. We are “thiefhunters in paradise.” The paradise we chose for the story is the warm and wild city of Naples, Italy, home to the world’s best pickpockets. The documentary premieres December 2 at 8pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.

Originally posted 9/14/10 and soon thereafter password-protected at the request of the producer.

© Copyright 2008-2011 Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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