Scooter-riding bandits

Bob Arno in Quartieri Spagnoli, Naples, Italy.
Bob Arno in Quartieri Spagnoli, Naples, Italy.

Stung by a Wasp: Scooter-Riding Bandits
Buzz Bob and Bambi

I didn’t think it could happen to me.

There was no forewarning. One moment Bambi and I were walking down a narrow, cobblestone alley in Naples’ Centro Storico, having just looked back at an empty street. The next moment I was grabbed from behind, like a Heimlich maneuver—except I wasn’t choking on chicken. I was being mugged and there were three of them.

There was nothing slick about it; they were just fast and singularly focused on my 30-year-old Rolex. Without finesse, it was merely a crude attempt to break the metal strap. What these amateurs didn’t know was that they had selected a mark who had himself lifted hundreds of thousands of watches in his career as an honest crook.

Until now, I had never been on the receiving end of my game, even though I’d strolled often through ultimate pocket-picking grounds in Cartegena, the souks in Cairo, and La Rambla in Barcelona. I’d been pushed and shoved using public transportation like the Star Ferry in Hong Kong and rush-hour subways in Tokyo, London, and New York; yet I’d never been a victim.

A typical street in Naples\' Quartieri Spagnoli.
A typical street in Naples' Quartieri Spagnoli.

Finally my luck turned—I’m not sure for the good or bad—during a visit to Naples, Italy. Though I hadn’t been there in some fifteen years, I knew full well about its slick pickpockets, and particularly about the infamous scippatori. This latter is a unique style of rip-off which involves speeding scooters and short Italians with long arms. Little did I know that I would finally become a statistic in what must be one of the world’s highest concentrations of muggings and pickpocketings in an area of less than a square mile: Quartieri Spagnoli, a district even the police avoid.

Scippatori are marauding teams of pirates on motor scooters. The scooter of choice is the Vespa, a nimble machine with a plaintive buzz which, when carrying a pair of highway bandits, delivers a surprising sting. Scippatori ply their vicious bag snatching chicanery on unsuspecting tourists in Italy, and in Naples particularly. Handbags and gold chains are plucked as easily as ripe oranges by backseat riders in daring dash-and-grab capers.

It was therefore with extreme caution that Bambi and I walked these streets, popular with tourists primarily as a gateway city. It’s the starting point for ferry trips to Capri, bus tours to Pompeii, and drives along the spectacular Amalfi-Sorrento Coast. Let me emphasize starting point. Even Naples’ car rental companies urge tourists to drive directly out of town.

Though it hardly matches the beauty or historical magnitude of Rome, Venice, or Florence, Bambi wanted to photograph the colorful Quartieri Spagnoli. Its old section, the Centro Storico, has a seedy, rustic, old-world fascination, with its dismal balconied apartments stacked on minuscule dreary shops. As we walked, I reminded my wife that this was the birthplace of pickpocketing, and I scrutinized every scooter that buzzed by, making sure we were out of reach.

Shot from the back of a moving Vespa.
Shot from the back of a moving Vespa.

It was mid-afternoon, siesta time, as Bambi and I strolled the deserted lanes. Little light filtered down through the seven or eight stories of laundry hanging above the narrow alleys. Almost all the shops were shut, their steel shutters rolled down and padlocked, and it was quiet except for the snarl of traffic on Via Toledo, the perimeter street. A lone shellfish monger remained, amid shallow dishes of live cockles, clams, snails, and cigalo glittering in water. Though we were practically alone in the area, we frequently glanced behind us.

Still, they caught us completely off-guard. With silence their foil, they rolled down a hill: three young thugs on a Vespa scooter, its engine off. One guy remained on the scooter, ready to bolt; another held me with my arms pinned to my sides, and the third tried to tear the watch off my wrist. It was sudden, quick, and silent. No shouts or vulgar threats.

It‘s a joke, I thought that first crucial instant, expecting a friend or fan to say “Gottcha!” I’m quite often grabbed by people who’ve seen me perform; they like to make me faux-victim as a sort of role-reversing prank. Although this vice-grip felt deadly serious, my thought process, instant and automatic, cost me several seconds. I didn’t fight back with a sharp elbow or kick. And because my reflexes never got into gear, I didn’t have a chance to coil my muscles into a protective stance.

Decorative street marking in Quartieri Spagnoli.
Decorative street marking in Quartieri Spagnoli.

Fortunately, pickpockets are generally petty criminals who can easily be scared off. They prefer stealth, diversion, and speed to violence as their modus operandi. Bambi reacted a moment before I did, bravely smashing my captor on the head with her umbrella. Other than breaking the umbrella, this had no effect at all.

As soon as my adrenaline kicked in, I yelled at the top of my voice “Polizia, polizia.” Years of stage speaking enabled me to project my voice throughout the neighborhood. Instant reaction! They scrambled away as fast as they had appeared.

We walked away, lucky but shaken. My steel watchband didn’t give despite considerable force applied in attempting to snap its pin. All I had lost was my own track record. I could no longer claim that pickpockets had never tried to steal from me.

Bambi still tenses at the buzz of a motorcycle behind her—not a bad legacy, perhaps. And both of us now strip down to skin and cloth when visiting this most colorful district. The proof of my own stupidity, namely, wearing a Rolex in Naples, was a scratched up wrist. I should have known better.

Scippatori in training?
Scippatori in training?

First rule for avoiding pickpockets: don’t attract them. Don’t signal you’re worth their while. Second rule: acknowledge that it can happen to anyone. Whether you’re strong, confident, aware, or careful, you are not immune. Even a veteran pickpocket can become a victim.

Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Two (part-e): Research Before You Go

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