“No, no, I won’t steal from you,” the little boy says. “You’re my brother! Family! Family!” He touches his heart, repeating “family, family.” He calls for a group photo.
It hadn’t begun so friendly. It was day three of our eight days of thiefhunting in Paris. Day one we watched the Bosnian pickpocket get arrested. Day two we found the Bosnian pickpocket by sheer coincidence, in all of Paris. Today, we ride the Metro into guaranteed pickpocket territory and find a large gang of Paris pickpockets lounging on the platform benches. They’re as good as waiting for us.
But they’re children! Spotting the kids, we hop off the train at Anvers, the subway stop for Sacré-Coeur, Montmartre, and the Dali museum. In other words, a gateway for tourists. We walk up and over the tracks to the platform for the opposite direction, and slowly saunter to a spot close to the kids. They look us up and down but don’t move. There are eight of them, and two others who come and go. They appear to be aged ten to 18.
When a train comes and they don’t budge, I do my usual pantomime: look at my watch, glance around fretfully as if waiting for someone. How else to indicate why we didn’t get on the train either?
When the next train comes the kids spring into action, splitting up to work different compartments and different doors of the train. Out of nowhere, an interloper appears—a competing pickpocket, a “lone wolf,” probably Moroccan.
Bob and I push onto the train, barely packing ourselves in against the crowd. None of the child thieves are near us, but the tall Moroccan (I have to call him something) is beside Bob, intently working on the man in front of him. His left hand probes pockets while his right grasps a ceiling strap in a manner that keeps his mark from turning.
At the next stop the Moroccan gets off and we follow. Bob calls to him politely, asking for a moment of his time. Just to talk. We’re not police, Bob shouts, there’s no problem, just talk! All this in French. The Moroccan bounds up the stairs. Bob follows. The Moroccan dashes through the exit turnstile and tears up another flight of stairs. Bob is close behind. The two of them pick up speed, Bob chasing the thief for a full block. “Age won out,” Bob says later.
We return to the Metro station, Pigalle, and encounter a distressed family who’d just been robbed. It was their first day in Paris and their stolen wallet had contained a lot of money. “A lot of money,” they reiterate. Welcome to Paris.
It’s good to meet these victims while we’re on the hunt. They remind us how devastating their losses are, how innocent their mistakes are, how easily their guard can fail them for just a moment, for example, making sure that their three small children get on the train safely. A pickpocket needs only that moment. That moment changes everything.
Descending to the platform at Pigalle, we see the whole gang. Bob speaks to the kids in English, French, a bit of Italian. They’re chattering in all those languages, and something else we don’t recognize. As Bob tries the different languages, the ten of them spread out on the platform to evade him, shouting No!, No!, Fuck you!. The youngest crosses in front of Bob, raises his hand and says “Going!” as he and the rest of them hop onto the departing train. Bob leans into the compartment, persisting, cajoling.
Suddenly one of the girls lights up. “You! you! you!,” she says. “The film! in Italy, you steal the belt, the tie, the watch… I know you!”
Now she’s laughing, hopping up and down. She jumps off the train and the other nine follow. She explains excitedly to the other kids who are still confused and dubious. Then Bob steals her watch and they all break up, high-fiving Bob and each other. The little pickpockets are thieves, but they’re also children. They’re delighted, and believe they have met a celebrity. Not just a celebrity the girl had seen on TV, in Pickpocket King, the documentary National Geographic made about us. But a celebrity pickpocket, someone who gave recognition and a measure of fame to her profession.
Bob’s behavior—laughing and playing with the thieves, has an ulterior motive. He appears to be best buddies with them, but he hasn’t forgotten the devastated Danes we ached for just minutes before. The little boy tries his sneakiest swipes on Bob, though he can barely reach the inside jacket pockets he’s boasting of. Meanwhile, Bob is wondering how he can prolong the conversation, how he can make a translator materialize out of thin air, how he can learn about the criminal organization of this child gang. His fun-and-games clowning around is self-serving. He’s hoodwinking the kids, deluding them, swindling the swindlers.
“I want to talk to you about your life!” Bob tells them.
“Okay, but not here,” they say. “Let’s go!” And like the Pied Piper, Bob Arno and the ten little pickpockets zig, zag, and bounce their way along the platform, up the stairs, through the turnstile, and up another flight into the bright sunlight, laughing all the way.
All the kids are wearing wide-strap messenger bags diagonally across their chests. If you’re a regular reader of this site or if you’ve read our book, you recognize the ominous messenger bag. Floppy, empty, the bag is a pickpocket tool. The thief lifts it into position to hide his thieving hands.
A few of the older pickpockets drift away. Perhaps they’ve gone back to work. Perhaps they’re lurking on the perimeter, keeping an eye on the younger ones. To the six who now surround him, Bob is a rock star.
The children want to show their slickest steals. They want to show off. They want attention from an adult as children always do. “Look at me! Watch!” They want attention as pickpockets always do, as if crying out: “look at me, I’m a person, not only a thief.” Living on the fringes of society, off the grid, they crave validation.
These seem like happy kids, especially the younger ones. The older ones are more somber, cracking smiles and goofing around, only to remember their dignity, it seems; then they straighten their shoulders and take a step back. We don’t know what kind of lives they live. They probably don’t attend school. After all, we found them on a Tuesday afternoon in October. Do they live in a tented camp on some remote outskirt? In crowded squalor among dozens crammed into a tenement tower? Squatting in a boarded-up building? Are they all related? Are they gypsy?
After another round of mock steals—this time they line up to experience Bob’s wallet steal—the little one calls for a group photo. They throw their arms around one another, around Bob, and mug for the camera.
Then there’s some fast chatter and the kids have had enough. They want to go back to work—or maybe they need to. Do they have quotas to make? We haven’t learned much about them but, as Bob always says, you have to try. You have to start somewhere and see where it goes.
The girl who initially recognized Bob calls the gang to order and they bound off to the subway, turning in the distance to wave goodbye before diving back underground.
5/27/17 edit: We met this girl again two and a half years later in May 2017. Read about how she’s saving up for a U.S. visa and why, in Hardworking Paris Pickpockets.