NAPLES, ITALY, the week before christmas. Leaving our hotel at 12:30 to meet Michele for our 1:30 appointment with Luciano, we pass by the San Carlo bus stop; it’s unavoidably on the way to where we’re going. As we approach the bus stop, a bus pulls in and off jumps Franco. We give him a subtle greeting. He’s friendly, polite, but also subtle, just pointing to his watch to indicate our 4:30 meeting time. Clearly, he does not want to linger with us. We keep walking, barely breaking stride. It feels a little like we’re undercover colleagues exchanging a mumbled secret in a black-and-white spy film, pretending we don’t know each other. It really is an odd coincidence though: we and Franco converging unplanned on a single point in this large city.
We continue around a few corners and there at Maritime we run into another team of pacco men, a pair we’ve never seen before. They offer an iPad, quickly adding “no bandito,” only €250. When that doesn’t work they flash an iPhone 5. Both devices are in slim black cases. Bob tells the pair that his friends are pacco men. He pantomimes a few switchy-moves. The duo’s faces go blank, then they smile and say their names: Antonio and Enzo. “No—Francesco!” the one called Enzo corrects quickly. Was it an honest mistake by his pal? An alias? Did Antonio use his partner’s real name by accident? Or did the partner want to forgo aliases?
Antonio suggests coffee; we don’t have time, though we’d have loved to linger with these men. Lacking time to finesse it, Bob just flat-out asks how they do their switch and, to our surprise, they show us, amid much nervous laughter. It’s now basically a one-man job. The seller drops the iPad, in its black cover, into a messenger bag he carries low, in front. Immediately, he pulls out the dummy which is in an identical black cover. The cover’s zipper has been glued shut, which buys the thieves precious minutes to get away after a sale.
Antonio and Enzo-Francesco are apologetic about their work, explaining that they don’t like it but there are no jobs in Naples. Unemployment among young people is almost 50%. The pacco men ask if we’d like to go eat with them. We point to our watches and to the nearby tram. It’s a shame we don’t have time. We leave them and dash to the tram. Bob has had his glasses camera running.
This is Part 6. Read Part 7, in which a lifelong pickpocket now reformed, lives by selling cigarets—until his stand is confiscated. We visit his home, meet his family, perform magic.
Read Part 1.