The Lung Brothers

Hanging out at the extreme end of the long tail ...

Monday, June 19, 2006

Forced Nonchalance

Lung the Elder is in Paris this weekend reading in cafés, smoking baguettes, putting up with waiter abuse and generally trying to blend in with the locals by being extra-froofy. I warned him before he went that he might experience a certain inexplicable sense of paranoia while breezing down the boulevards. He won’t know why, but something in his Spidey senses will cause him to glance nervously over his shoulder every five minutes or so. The reason for this is very simple but before getting into it, here’s a bit of a prologue…..

After living more then 10 years in Barcelona, both LtE and I like to consider ourselves somewhat of an authority on local pickpockets. Being tall, pale-skinned and having straight white teeth, there is no mistaking that we are ‘guiris’ (a derogatory expression for tourists/foreigners) and thus the legions of cutpurses that roam the Bario Gótico are naturally drawn to us.

Don’t get me wrong, Barcelona is in no way a violent city. I feel far safer here than I would on any London high street at closing time. Nonetheless, I’ve lost count of how often some light-fingered entrepreneur has cast his hook at by back pocket. So far, I’ve yet to lose anything and by now we’ve learned to spot the scallywags before they act. It also helps that they keep using the same old worn-out tricks to distract their prey. Here is a useful rundown of their standard techniques:

A man you’ve never met walks up to you on the street, says hello and extends his hand to shake. If you do choose to shake his hand, he will not let go but instead will smile and ask you where you’re from. It doesn’t matter which country you say, he’ll suddenly start raving about your wonderful national football and start pretending to tackle you with his feet, WITHOUT LETTING GO OF YOUR HAND.

Explanation: In short, he’s keeping your hand from obstructing access to the front and back pockets on the right side of your body, distracting you with the foot play and lifting the wallet with his left hand. This all takes about 5 seconds.

Going up the escalators in the metro the gentleman in front of you suddenly pretends to have dropped something. He opens his arms wide and pushes backward to prevent people from stepping on whatever it is that he has apparently let fall. Naturally, given that you are lined up on moving mechanical stairs, there’s a bit of a crush.

Explanation: There were two or three of them sitting apart inside your metro wagon. One of them singled you out as a suitable mark (usually you’re a tourist with an innocent, bunny-in-the-headlights look on your face) and then discreetly signaled to his pal or pals. Then one of the team gets off the train in front of you and his companion(s) sneak in right behind you just before boarding the escalator. When the crush occurs, the necessary body contact is made and the boys behind help themselves to the contents of your pockets, bags, bodily orifices etc.

Much to my chagrin, I’ve never seen this one live nor has it ever been tried on me. It involves a crowded bus, metro or what have you. The scoundrel who is standing behind you surreptitiously squirts a little toothpaste or some other muck onto the back of your jacket. He then warns you that you’ve got some crap on your shoulder and starts to slap the coat in a noble attempt to help you brush off the offending gunk.

Explanation: Fairly obvious. Like any decent pickpocket his goal is to provoke some sort of casual body contact with his unsuspecting victim. This skilled craftsman is using the helpful slaps to probe every one of your pockets while you like a dunce, are thanking him for his assistance.

It really riles me to see the same thing happening over and over again, especially during the holiday months when ingenuous tourists flock through the streets like herds of gazelles and the predators stalk them from the side alleys like big cats from the long grass. With the polite, naive Japanese leaving their bags hanging on the backs of café chairs and the high-minded Scandinavians flaunting their bulging wallets from buttonless pockets, summer is high season for felonious sleight-of-hand. I have seen teams of these reptilian thugs queue up and take their turns to get on the train at the Passeig de Gracia metro station on the line that runs down to the city beach. Each group waiting patiently for their turn to get on the wagons that are so stuffed with witless beachgoing cattle. Because you know it just wouldn’t do to have two criminal teams working the same train now, would it?

It doesn’t help that Spanish law is completely ineffectual when it comes to petty theft. Every pickpocket knows that getting busted on a Tuesday means being back on the street on Wednesday, sticky fingers ready to resume their happy work and with no threat of a trial for months due to an already saturated judicial system. And given that practically none of these characters have legal ID or residence papers, they can disappear into the cracks of society almost at will. (I realize that the last statement is not very politically correct, but then again, the truth often isn’t. After ten years of living here and dozens of attempts at my wallet, I can honestly say that not one of the offenders was Spanish)

'Why not do something about it yourself?' I hear you cry. Does this Lung have no spine? Believe me, I’ve spoiled a fair share of thefts by warning the docile holidaymakers that their vacation is about to take a turn for the worst, but it’s a dangerous game. Pickpockets do not like civilians messing with their livelihood and they've come after me on more than one occasion. Luckily enough in both cases the delinquents were a pair of titchy rogues and being big, I turned around to them, puffed myself up like a blowfish and tried to look as tough and mean as possible, naturally all the while inwardly soiling myself with fear. Amazingly, it worked. Although trying it a third time might be pushing my luck.

However, what is most incredible is how easy it is to spot these guys after so many years. Of course there are the obvious outward signs - they're usually lean and wear wear light/loose clothing, sneakers and never carry bags in case they have to sprint – often a baseball cap is included in the ensemble to make security camera identification more difficult. And yet it’s not these external clues that give them away, but something that’s much harder to define. It’s not the way they look but the way they look ‘at’ people – a particular expression, a certain body language that sets off alarms in those who get to witness it every day. They are scoping, scanning and sizing up everyone around them with a feline intensity but at the same time straining to appear completely casual. To the experienced eye, a person who is busting a nut trying to blend in with the background actually stands out like a flashing siren. This my friends, is what LtE and I call ‘forced nonchalance’ and it’s the reason why I was so nervous the last time I was in Paris.

You see there are basically two types of people who strongly subscribe to forced nonchalance – Barcelona pickpockets because they’re desperately trying to observe without being observed – and Parisians because …… well ……. because they are pretentious arseholes.


Blogger Lung the Elder said...

You are the wind beneath my wings ...

3:05 pm  
Anonymous gregor samsa said...

Wait a second, you were in Paris and didn't visit I****D and I? BUSTED BUSTER!

12:30 am  
Anonymous gregor samsa said...

By 'you' I meant LtE, of course.

Does LtE post here any more? It remains a matter of much speculation and consternation.

12:38 am  
Anonymous Gregor Samsa said...

Lively place this here blog...

10:56 am  
Anonymous Davezilla said...

The whole concept of pickpockets seems almost quaint these days. We have a horrendous crime rate in Detroit, but the methods used here tend to involve more technology and less direct contact.

The pickpocket here will use an insidious method involving an ATM. While someone is at the machine, the crook will pretend to be patiently waiting their turn, two metres back, and deep in conversation on his mobile phone. He will keep his back turned to the person at the ATM, seemingly out of respect to their privacy. What he is in fact doing, is using the cell phone's camera to video record their entry code (PIN). He will then lift their wallet when they finish, using his newfound code to withdraw their remaining funds.

1:09 pm  
Blogger Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm said...

Thank you. Brilliant and insightful. Been a while since I visited, glad to see you in business.

5:10 am  
Blogger Nelson D. said...

I was once on a bus in London, and had my backpack nicked from the luggage platform. There were four people in my group standing directly around the backpack, most of them local Londoners. I was tapped on the shoulder by two or three guys who said something to me; before I could comprehend that they weren't speaking English, they had walked off the bus. Turning, I saw that the back pack was (miraculously) gone, and the bus doors closing. We chased after them, but they escaped into some doorway, and later the Metropolitan police sent me one of those pamphlets: "We are still working on your case. Meanwhile, welcome to being a victim of crime...etc."

9:03 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home