Tourists and thieves: a collision course

Gypsy pickpockets in RomeYoshi Sugohara stood stoic and penniless in a phone booth, using our phone card. He called a number given him by the Rome police, where he could report all his stolen credit cards at once. A Japanese-speaking operator was put on the line for him. Next, he called the Japanese embassy.

Mr. Sugohara owned a small chain of sushi restaurants in Osaka, Japan. He was in Italy to design a sleek new amalgam of Japanese and Italian decor for the three new restaurants he was about to open. He had traveled to Milan for business, then Rome for pleasure. He had granted himself two extra days away from his family in which to see the splendors of the ancient city.

We first saw him in a little triangular park between the Coliseum and the Trajan Column, while everything was still all right. Bob and I stood behind a low fence on Via Cavour, steadying our video camera on a stone column. We were observing a pair of young girls on the far side of the park as they drank at a fountain and splashed their faces.

Maritza, we later learned from the police, was about 16 years old. Her sister Ravenna was about 13. The two girls looked like any ordinary children, except for a few subtle details. They weren’t dressed with the inbred Italian flair for style and color. And they seemed directionless, loitering in a tourist area where children had little reason to roam.

The girls cooled themselves in the punishing August heat, then turned toward Via Alessandrina. Maritza carried a telltale newspaper.

Mr. Sugohara had just rested on a shady bench. Now he, too, headed for Via Alessandrina. He wore a bright white cap and held a telltale map.

With their props displayed, both players advertised their roles in the game. The girls recognized the Japanese as a tourist; but a tourist couldn’t possibly recognize the girls as thieves. The two parties were on a converging course.

Maritza and Ravenna swiftly caught up with Sugohara. They skittered around him as if he were daddy just home from a business trip. Walking backwards, Maritza extended her hand as if begging. She had laid the folded newspaper over her forearm and hand, so only her fingers were visible. Ravenna trotted along beside Sugohara.

One of the girls must have made physical contact immediately. In our viewfinder from across the park, Sugohara leapt right out of the frame. He ran a few steps backwards, then turned and hurried off. It was a very brief encounter.

The girls skipped away ahead of Sugohara, quickly putting space between them. Bob and I, still on the far side of the park, picked up the camera and hurried to catch up. As we came around the corner, Sugohara was groping his front pants pocket, just realizing his wallet was gone. He looked ahead at the two girls and ran after them.

Maritza and Ravenna did not run away. In fact, they stopped and turned to face their accuser. Sugohara, who didn’t speak English or Italian, nevertheless made his charges quite clear. There was shouting and confusion. A group of British tourists got mixed into the melee. Their concern was for the girls.

“The child will not be injured!” one woman kept insisting.

“They’re pickpockets,” I explained while Bob filmed.

“I don’t care what they are, the child is not to be hurt.”

“That girl just stole the man’s wallet, that’s why he’s angry.”

“Jeez, Sally, they’re pickpockets, can’t you see?” someone in her group said with disgust.
Gypsy pickpockets in RomeSugohara was surprisingly aggressive; not what one might expect of a Japanese victim. The girls could have run away. Instead, they faced him, yelling back in their own language. Then, without warning, Maritza lifted her t-shirt over her head, revealing enormous breasts in a purple bra. She brought her shirt back down, and Ravenna followed suit, showing her bare little breasts.

Then both girls pulled down their pants and did a quick pirouette. Sugohara was dumbstruck. The girls then strutted off jauntily, having proved their innocence. They looked back again as they walked away, and pulled down their pants once more for good measure. Then they turned off the sidewalk onto a narrow path through the ruins of Augustus’ Forum and into the labyrinth of old Rome.

Where had the wallet gone? The girls had clearly taken it. By their comprehension of the Japanese accusation, by their practiced reaction to it, one could suppose that they’d been accused before.

To my mind, they’re guilty without a trial. So where was the evidence? Was the victim so bamboozled by bare breasts that he never thought to look in their pants pockets? Could the children be that brazen? Or had they tossed the wallet down into the excavation site of Nerva’s Forum to be later retrieved?

In any case, the girls scurried off, and Sugohara stood alone, high and dry.

“Would you like to go to police?” we asked him.

“You police?” said Sugohara. He appeared more sad than angry.

“No, we take you. We help.” I hate pidgin. “Suri,” we added, Japanese for pickpocket.
Sugohara looked mournfully at the Trajan Column as we hurried him past it on our way to the central Rome police station. He mopped his brow and followed us obediently.

Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter One (part-i): High and Dry on the Streets of Elsewhere

©copyright 2000-2008. All rights reserved. Bambi Vincent

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