I remember when I used to hunt for wild mushrooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I’d find nothing the first hour or so. But after spotting the first one, even if it wasn’t a candy cap or chanterelle or boletus, other mushrooms would practically pop into view. It was just a matter of focus and concentration. Likewise looking for pickpockets. “Watch their eyes,” our favorite New York subway cop, Lothel Crawford, used to tell us. The eyes—and the body language as well. With their ulterior motives, these interlopers belong to a crowd like an inchworm to a salad. A practiced eye will spot them.And what is the crowd doing? Enjoying the sights, as they should be. But too many travelers forget their good judgment when they pack their pajamas. High on excitement, relaxed after a beer or an unaccustomed lunchtime glass of wine, disoriented with jetlag, going with the flow—too many fall victim to the dreaded Tourist Suspension of Common Sense. I call it Holiday Headspace. It’s an easy-going, carefree attitude which gives us an unequivocal handicap in a city not our own. Or, even in our own backyard.
Like most Americans, I was raised to be kind, friendly, and open to strangers. Cynicism is an unnatural state for a traveler who has come far to experience a new land and unfamiliar customs. We’re prepared to accept our local hosts, however alien or exotic they seem to us. After all, it’s their country. We want to like them. Yet, we don’t know how to read these foreigners, even though they may seem just like us. We can’t always interpret their body language, their facial expressions, their gestures. We’re at a distinct disadvantage as tourists and travelers, due to our nature as much as our innocence.
Of all the victims we’ve spoken with, a couple robbed in Athens puzzled me most. The woman’s bag had been slit with a razor on the infamous green line train between the Parthenon and Omonia Square, the city center. Noticing the gash, we pointed it out to her as we exited the train. The couple was visiting Greece from Scotland, they told us as they inventoried the contents of the bag, and it was the last day of their stay. Their few remaining traveler’s checks were missing, but the woman’s cash was safe in a zippered compartment. The biggest loss was her passport, which would cost dearly in time and aggravation. They would miss their flight home the next morning, and have to purchase expensive, one-way, last-minute tickets, as well as an unplanned hotel night. The complications of a delayed return home were another factor, with work, childcare, and other obligations.
They suffered more inconvenience than financial loss, and perhaps that is why they didn’t seem as upset as most other victims we meet. Maybe they were secretly pleased to get another day away from the boredom or difficulties or sheer madness of their home routine—whatever it is they were escaping from.
In any case, we were amazed to hear them cheerily admit that they had been pickpocketed before. Bob and I tend to assume that an intimate encounter with a street thief bestows a sort of earned awareness on the victim, and he or she is thereafter unlikely to be had again. The Scottish couple, however, seemed almost to laugh it off, resigned to the fact that they were destined to be victims.
They had no concept of what made them so appealing as marks; and no idea that they had practically advertised their vulnerability. They were fascinated to learn that some pickpockets look out for a certain type of target, and that, even as tourists, they had a certain amount of control over their desirability toward pickpockets.
“Dress down,” Bob always tells his audiences. “Leave your jewelry at home. Don’t give off signals.” In other words, if you’re going to be in an unpredictable environment, try not to look like an affluent tourist. “Have pace in your face,” Bob says, meaning: know where you are and where you’re going. Try not to appear lost and bewildered. Lost and bewildered equals vulnerable.