La Rambla, Barcelona—On one crowded summer Sunday, Bob and I patrolled the perimeters of the street performers’ audiences. Of all the thieves and con men we watched that day, and there were many, “Plaid Shirt” was the slickest. I locked onto him because of his smile.
A Spanish folksinger had attracted an audience of hundreds. Backpackers were camped long-term on the ground, and people stood four and five deep behind them in a giant circle, enjoying the free concert.
Plaid Shirt was neatly dressed and I almost eliminated him on the basis of the thick wallet in his back pocket. His gray plaid shirt tucked into dark blue jeans did not grab my attention. The windbreaker he carried over his arm was a tip-off, but not a dead giveaway. I had considered a sweater myself that morning, and wished for one in the evening.
Can you identify the pickpocket in the crowd?
What raised my antennas was his behavior. Plaid Shirt sidled up close into the back of the attentive audience. After a minute, a man beside him turned and glared at him. My suspect smiled in response and took half a step back. But that smile! It was the paradigm of shit-eating grin.
Plaid Shirt slowly and calmly relocated, pressing himself into another section of the crowd. He did this repeatedly, never staying more than two minutes in one spot. I tagged onto him, stepping right in behind or beside him. Whenever he turned to leave, I swiveled away or moved in the opposite direction.
Later Bob joined me with his camera. Plaid continued his pattern of getting close, then backing off. When he was glared at, he proffered his cat-ate-canary grin; but more often he was not noticed at all.
Round and round the periphery we went. After Bob got some footage of Plaid, I moved even closer and learned his secret specialty. With absolute stealth and fingers like feathers, Plaid lifted the flaps on men’s cargo pockets—those low-down side pants pockets—and unbuttoned them. Despite his use of a jacket for cover, I saw him unbutton three cargo pockets and one hip pocket, on four men. He probably opened many others I couldn’t see.
I did not, however, see him steal any wallets.
Why did he leave each mark after only opening the button? Did he sense the men had felt him? Was he just setting up for a later approach? Most of his targets seemed not to have sensed anything amiss.
Amazed that he hadn’t wisened to me, I began to think of Plaid as a hapless fool. We’d circled and circled the audience together, moving in, pausing, moving on. For forty-five minutes I followed the pickpocket’s balding head while he failed to notice me. With my bright white dress and big curly hair, it’s not as if I were totally inconspicuous. If he’d gotten anything, he would have left, at least long enough to dump the leather.
Meanwhile, Bob dared not get close, although he may as well have. Plaid was concentrating so intently he wouldn’t even have noticed a six-foot-five videographer hovering over him. But Bob hung back while Plaid and I traced a flower-petal design around the hand-clapping fans, curving in and out at irregular intervals.
Plaid moved in behind a man with a child balanced on his shoulders. The man swayed gently with the music and the child tapped her thigh. Plaid lowered his jacket and positioned his body, attempting to block sight lines. I snuck in closer, in time to watch Plaid lift the flap of the father’s cargo pocket, and slowly open the button. I motioned for Bob to come near. This was a good opportunity with enough of a view.
Plaid worked meticulously. Stealth was his main operative, with nerve and patience tied for second and a goofy smile his ace in the hole. He kept his face forward and head straight; only his eyes flicked down now and then. Father and child were oblivious. The music swelled.
Plaid took a half step away. No reaction from the mark. He moved back in and lowered his jacket again. Bob slipped up behind me and I edged away, letting him have the sightline. In the background now, I went crazy not knowing. Was Plaid extracting the wallet? Was Bob getting it on camera? What would we do afterward: alert the father or try to talk to Plaid? I crept up, trying to see.
Have I described La Rambla’s comical chair patrolman? He controls the rows of chairs on the upper end of the boulevard, collecting a few coins for the privilege of resting tired feet in prime people-watching seats. With his many-pocketed vest, visor cap, and change-purse at his waist, he looks like a circus clown’s imitation of a policeman. For years we’ve seen him waddling around his territory, a stern eye on his lucrative concession, quasi-defender of all he surveys.
—A shrill whistle blew, not far from our ears.
The superintendent of chairs marched toward us, pointing.
“Pick-pock-et!” he said, the whistle dropping from his mouth to his chest. “Attencione!”
The concert continued. The father and child still swayed to the music. Only three people reacted to the pretender-officer’s accusation, and we three rearranged ourselves into an eccentric perimeter parade.
Plaid beat it around the circle and we followed. He still didn’t seem to be aware of us, the witless dolt. Like Plaid, I dodged cars in the street where the crowd stretched to the curb, but Bob was slower with a heavy camera-bag on his shoulder. I waited for him, keeping an eye on Plaid who had abandoned the game and now stood at a closed lotto booth.
What was he doing there? He was facing an inward corner, a niche in the wall of the kiosk, very close, but looking away, toward me. He was doing something with his hands. I stared at him, not worried now about being noticed. As before, Plaid looked innocently away from his busy hands.
Bob reached me. “Where is he?”
“One o’clock. At the kiosk. I bet he’s dumping a wallet!”
Plaid finished and strode away. I ran to the kiosk and, raising my sunglasses, peered closely into the dark shadow of the niche.
Foul fumes hit me in the face.
“He was peeing! Disgusting!”
More on Plaid in the next post.
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Five: Rip-Offs: Introducing… the Opportunist