I had heard about the legendary pickpockets of Buenos Aires before I even left Florida. Supposedly they are some of the most skilled in the world, and indeed I was told they even held conventions and trade shows in Buenos Aires for their craft where they display and share the latest and best techniques for lifting purses and snatching cameras.On my third day I took a walking tour of San Telmo, and as I whipped out my $85.00 Blue-Light KMart Special camera to snap a shot, the guide quietly cautioned me to wrap my hand through the camera strap if I wanted to keep it. He said the pickpockets were known to drive by and snatch cameras loosely held right from your hand and drive quickly on.
Arlean, a 78-year-old expat, and the first I met on arrival in Buenos Aires, told me how she had her wallet and passport lifted from her purse on the subway shortly after her arrival, and it had cost her $100 to get her passport replaced. I was regaled with the story of how on the sidewalks one will come up behind you and drop bird poop on you and another accomplice will rush up to help you clean it up, while the first one beats a hasty retreat in the ensuing confusion–with your wallet in hand. I was told they often work in pairs and one will distract you, perhaps bumping into you on a crowded subway while another makes their move. Any purse, camera, or other valuable not firmly grasped by both hands, or with your arm firmly looped through the shoulder strap is at risk.
Determined not to be a victim to such predators, I quickly made an executive decision to leave my good Canon in its new case locked up in the hostel locker. If they were going to get my camera, they weren’t going to get my good one. I practiced holding my backpack on my back and then on the front of me, clutching it with both hands, with my arms crisscrossed over it in front of me. I watched other subway travelers and studied how they held their purses and bags and even cell phones. I had been told that electronic gadgetry fetched high prices on the street in Argentina and I fully expected to see pickpockets patrolling every subway car looking for careless passengers holding their smart phones loosely by open subway doors, making themselves targets for a grab-and-run.
I began to wonder what a typical pickpocket would look like? Would he be short, small, quick and nimble on his feet? And speaking of feet, I wondered what kind of sneakers he would wear. Would they be shabby, and his clothes likewise labeling him as part of Argentina’s underclass? Or would the really successful pickpockets be dressed to the nines, wearing designer jeans making a pointed statement about their many successes?
I wondered what an appropriate response would be if I felt a pickpocket’s hand in my pocket. Would I feel it at all, or were they so slick they could practically lift your underwear without your noticing? What would I do if I caught one in the act? Should I yell? Should I grab him? What if it ended in a struggle, a subway brawl? How could I accuse them of anything without proof? Surely they could say that they had innocently bumped into me on the subway, which at rush hour is really packed tight with people. If they worked in teams, would I ever know who their accomplices had been? Would they be scarred and scruffy looking? Would they look normal? Maybe a normal look would be the most effective disguise of all. But what did a normal Argentinian look like? I began taking inventory of my fellow subway passengers, wondering which ones of them were the pickpockets. As a writer, I even wondered if it would make a good story to go to the local police headquarters and ask them if they could direct me to a top-flight pickpocket that I could interview anonymously for an article containing useful tips how to avoid becoming a victim. Who better qualified to instruct us?
Whenever I asked about pickpockets I was calmly reassured that the best defense was mindfulness. So I practiced focusing on my wallet and valuables. Which pockets were the best, the most inaccessible? I opted for shirts with velcro strips on the pockets, preferably worn under a light coat, carefully zipped up to within a couple inches of my chin. My back pockets were always empty. My self-confidence grew. I could handle this. I started to relax on the subway. After all, no one else seemed really on edge. Why should I be?
And then today, the inevitable happened. The subway was crowded as usual. I was standing, facing into the interior of the car, with my back to a subway door. My back pockets were empty. People were standing all around me, and to my right was a long bench jammed with people and others standing in front of them clutching overhead grab handles. We had just pulled away from the last station and everyone in sight was doing the usual–avoiding eye contact with anyone else. I don’t know the exact second that I realized there was a small hand in my right pants pocket. It was soft and so subtle I could easily have missed it. It was clearly exploratory, undoubtedly looking for what I knew wasn’t there. My passport or money. My heart raced. This was the moment I had expected and feared. Furtively glancing down I saw the hand retreating from my pocket. My eyes locked on his. Ink black hair, his eyes inscrutable dark pools in an expressionless face. There was no frenzied reaction, no attempt to turn and run. Just a steady gaze. In that moment he and I were the only people on that subway car. Then as we pulled into the next station, his entourage made themselves evident and hastily made their exit, he backing his way to the door on the other side, his eyes never leaving mine.
About four months old, he was the cutest little boy I have seen in Argentina. He was riding on the shoulder of his father, and accompanied by his grandmother. His serious eyes never left mine until incoming passengers obscured our gaze.
As the train lurched forward again, I double checked for my passport. Just in case.