Does a pickpocket keep his appointments? Bob and I loitered on a corner with our interpreter. We were a unanimously doubtful trio already considering alternative plans for the day.
We’d found Kharem a week ago, almost a year after we first met him.
“Kharem!” I’d said, and his jaw dropped.
“Nice lady. You remember my name. I am honored.” He swept his thumbtip against his forehead, fingers fisted, in a quick, subtle gesture.
Absolutely punctual, Kharem approached now with a smile and the thumbthing, that curious salute of his. He was immaculately dressed in a short-sleeved button-down shirt, white pants, suede loafers, and the inevitable tool over his arm: the jacket. We introduced him to our friend Ana, our interpreter for the day, and teased him about his punctuality.
“I wasn’t working today; I came straight from home. That’s why.”
We settled around the same table we used the week before and reminded ourselves and Ana to keep our voices down.
“What happens when you’re caught, Kharem?”
“When I’m caught, the police usually beat me up and take my money. It’s not bad because I won’t have to go to jail. Jail is like death. One hour of being there and I feel dead.” He signaled for a waiter.
“How long have you spent in jail?”
“But how much time altogether?”
Kharem smiled with his mouth but not his eyes. He raised both index fingers and gestured as if conducting an orchestra.
“He won’t say,” said Ana. “I think he means let’s move on to something else.”
“Do you think the police recognize your face?”
“Yes, they do. But they know I never hurt any one. My crime is small. I’m not getting millions of euros. I’m not rich. I don’t have a drug habit to support…” He went on in Arabic-tinged Spanish.
“He seems to feel almost justified in what he’s doing,” Ana said, amazed. “He’s talking about the police who take his money, the politicians who get away with so much and never go to jail. And other financial… what do you call it?”
“White collar crime?”
“Yes, and that he never hurts people.”
Our drinks arrived: espresso for Bob and me, a beer for Kharem, a soda for Ana. Kharem passed the sugar and distributed napkins to each of us from an overpacked dispenser.
“How are you treated in jail?”
“It’s not pleasant. Look at my finger.” Kharem showed the mangled third finger of his right hand. “A guard did this to me. He handed me some papers and when I reached for them, he slammed shut the cell door. It was clearly intentional.”
He brightened. “Last Sunday, after we parted, I got a wallet with 1,000 euros. I used the postcards to do it.”
“Ah, no wonder you’re not working today. You took the whole week off!” I joked.
“No, I used that money to pay some fines. When I’ve paid them all, my record will be clear.”
“Do you save any money?”
“No. When I get enough, I pay my fines.”
“How will you ever get ahead?” Bob asked. “What about your future? What will you do when you’re old?”
“Who knows about the future. No one knows what will be tomorrow, anything could happen.” He reached to move a strand of windblown hair from my face, a gesture I found overly familiar, almost forward. “I live only for today. I live like a bird.” Thumb salute. “I am free.”
“What is this thing you do with your thumb?” I asked, copying the move.
“It means ‘good.’”
“I’ve never seen it before. Is it Algerian? Or Lebanese?”
“Combination,” he said dismissively, so I gave up.
“Did you go to school?”
“I can read and I can write. What more do I need of education?”
“What do you do when you’re not working,” I asked. “Do you have a passion for something?”
“I write poetry.”
“Freedom. Love. Family. Living like a bird.”
“Will you recite one for us?”
“They are in Arabic. I cannot.”
“Do you have family here in Barcelona?”
“No, I have no one. I have no friends. I am not allowed in France, where my daughter is. I haven’t seen my mother and father in 17 years and my brothers are dead. These are the people I love. If I cannot see my family, why should I see anyone? They are my friends. They are the ones I love.”
He did the thumbthing and smiled with his mouth but not his eyes.
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Seven: Scams—By the Devious Strategist