Barcelona, Spain—We found Kharem again on La Rambla. He passed us head-on, with a huge smile. He didn’t notice us, but I recognized him. We swiveled on our heels and followed.
He skipped along the outdoor restaurants, waving to an individual in almost every group, as if he knew them. He walked fast but paused frequently to touch someone, say a word, greet a stranger like a friend. He kept moving. Walked almost to the bottom of Ramblas, where he stopped for a full minute to chat with a driver at the wheel of a delivery truck. Then he continued in the same style back up La Rambla.
At one point I asked a woman he had spoken to, what did he say? Oh, just something about a restaurant, she said. She wasn’t sure what it was about. Then Kharem made a right, into the side street where we’ve had coffee with him many times. Bob wanted to go say hello. I wanted to lie low and continue filming him. Bob moved toward Kharem and I followed. The thief lit up and gave us hugs. (mi amigos!), touching his chest, grinning.
But Kharem is in a bad mood because the day before yesterday, he was out—not stealing!—when the police stopped him. They said they wanted to take him to the police station, but instead, they drove him up to Montjuïc. There on the mountain, they beat him up. He points out the scabs around his mouth. They took over €500 from him. Then they left him on the mountain. It took him three hours to walk down. He’s angry.
Kharem wants to talk in relative privacy, so he leads us through a labyrinth of narrow alleys to a bar he knows, where we won’t pay tourist prices. I was nervous when he led us through similar iffy streets in 2001, when we first met him. Less worried in the following years. Now, after meeting Kharem two or three times almost every summer, I feel comfortable enough to follow him. As he feels comfortable enough to talk to us, and to allow us to film him.
He leads us into a tiny bar and we order two beers. The woman bartender gives us three and we feel stuck with three. We don’t want to make a scene. After fighting Kharem for the right to pay, we fork over €9 for them—$15—which feels a bit touristic to me.
Kharem immediately gets into an Arabic shouting match with another patron, then simultaneously a loud Spanish argument with the bartender. Bob and I are in the literal middle.
The Arab starts to leave and Kharem offers him our extra beer, but he rejects it. Then we get kicked out and are not allowed to even take the beers.
We walk to Plaça de George Orwell, and Kharem seems pleased to remind us that we took a photo here long ago. We catch up on the year’s news as best we can. Kharem’s English is better than our Spanish, but we do best in French. Still, we’re missing too much. We phone Terry, who drops everything and zips over on his bike.
Meanwhile, Kharem and Bob demonstrate wallet steals on each other. First Bob takes Kharem’s wallet. Then Kharem shows his style, which is the same one he demonstrated in 2001, pulling on the bottom of the pant leg. Kharem shows us his wallet. “American,” he says. Meaning: he got it from an American.
Kharem points to a couple sitting at a table in the square. “See her camera?” he asks. “I’ll go steal it. You can film me.”
“No, Kharem, you know we can’t do that.” I remember he had told us years ago I want to be in your movies.
Now that Terry has arrived, we can ask pointed questions, like, why all the happy greetings on Las Ramblas? What were you doing?
“I make them feel comfortable around me, I make them relax,” Kharem says. He takes out a handful of restaurant brochures from his back pocket and explains that he distributes them, and walks away. Then he comes back to collect them. “I’m like a vacuum cleaner,” he grins.
Ah, I realize that Kharem has fine-tuned his old technique, the “postcard steal” that he demonstrated back in 2002. In it, he fans out some postcards and pretends to offer them to people at tables who have a valuable item sitting on the table. He holds the postcards close over the item, and when he walks away, the item goes with him under the postcards.
In his 2002 demo, we were in an alley without a table, so we had to pretend. You get the idea, though.
This happy, in-your-face style Kharem has developed busts yet another myth of pickpocketdom. That a pickpocket wants as little face-time as possible. If Bob and I hadn’t already known and recognized this thief, we would never have tagged onto him. Sure, we’d catch his behavior in step two of his modus operandi; but we wouldn’t suspect him as he walked about greeting people. It’s brilliant.
Kharem’s new M.O. raises him from a simple thief to a con man. He now preps his marks with a premeditated encounter designed to establish acceptance of his presence.
“If you’re like a vacuum cleaner, how come you have no money?” Bob asks.
“I told you, the police took €500 and something from me day before yesterday, that I was going to use to pay the rent, but now—”
Terry says it’s possible that the police, knowing that these guys have to pay rent at the end of the month, pick them up late in the month. There are people who prey on cleaning women who don’t have papers, and they rob them at the end of the month, when it’s likely they’ll be carrying cash. He knows a woman it happened to.
“The police are caca, caca, caca” Kharem says, his finger in front of my lens again. “If I had a gun I would shoot them. When I have extra money, I give it to people who don’t have money, people who are hungry. But now I’m looking for a gun to kill the police.”
“You don’t have the heart,” I say.
“No, I don’t have the heart. But I want to.”
“Tell me about the man in the video,” Bob says. Earlier, he had shown Kharem a video of the “pigeon poop perp,” and Kharem had a lot to say—more than we could understand without Terry’s translation. Now he explained again. He knows the man, claims his name is Miemou, that he owns a bar and is also a pickpocket. This sounds unlikely to me, but Kharem explains his theory of corruption.
“Now I’m going to do you a favor. Watch me,” Kharem says. “I’m going to go among the tables in the plaza, among the people dining there. But for you, I will not steal anything. Watch.”
Kharem goes from table to table distributing the brochures he’s been carrying and returns to us. Empty handed. “I need to go back to work. I have no money and I have to pay the rent today.”
This is a follow-up to my recent overview Barcelona Street Crime Today.