Pickpockets

The first time I actually saw a pocket picking take place was on the downtown IRT, the 1 train. It’s not crowded in the car, but most of the seats are full. A tall white guy, harried, carelessly dressed in better than average clothes climbs aboard at 79th Street. He grabs the pole and we travel to the next stop, 72nd Street. An old couple boards. Now, it is spring. The weather is warm, though not hot, and most people are in short-sleeved shirts and a few are in shorts. So the old pair catch my eye because they’re still in winter clothes. That’s odd. Dark coats, moth-eaten, maybe smoke-stained. Gloves, knit hats, scarves. The clothes look like the clothes bums, beggars, transients wear, but they don’t smell like it. That’s odd, too. They don’t have bags: no handbags, shopping bags, paper bags, plastic bags, no bags at all. Odd. They’re matched like salt and pepper shakers. Very short, perhaps under five feet. No obvious maladies. Maybe in their late sixties. Odder still: They envelop the tall white guy, who is still grasping the vertical pole. They behave as if there is not enough room in the car, as if it is tightly packed, and they merge around him. There is plenty of room, however. They face him, one in the front and one at his back, and sidle to the only two empty seats in the car, full-body brushing him all the while. They are not talking. The white guy is tall. As they’re doing this, he lifts his hands above his head, a satchel hanging off one shoulder, in the same way you would raise your hands when wading a creek. He looks confused. He looks at the old people, now sitting, staring straight ahead. The tall white guy is befuddled. The old man gets up and stands away from the woman. I say to the white guy, You might check for your wallet. It’s gone, or rather, he doesn’t have it. It’s one of those moments: Did I forget it at home or did someone take it? Our man decides his wallet has been taken. “Do you have it? Where is it?” to the old couple. They say nothing. The appear deaf. If anything, their wrinkles become more wrinkled and their postures become more hunched. White guy looks confused. His stop is coming up. We’re approaching 50th Street. What is he to do? Do they have it, or do they not? He begins frisking them. This, apparently, is unprecedented, and it proves the old couple guilty: they do nothing. As he checks their pockets and sleeves and coat linings, they say nothing, they do not resist. They are inanimate. They do not protest in any way, and they still stare straight ahead. Everybody else in the car watches with curiosity but no intention of interference. Until this point, I was worried. I didn’t know the man’s wallet had been taken. I was pleased, a little, to find out it had been.

Posted January 14, 2000

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