The train pulled in before too long, and I went to stand in front of one of the doors. When they finally slid open, I noticed a group of five or six youths waiting to get off. I kindly stepped back to let them pass, but they didn't move. They just stood in the doorway. After a confused second or two, I finally decided they weren't leaving, and started to maneuver my way through the pack. Only then did they start moving. One of them dropped to his knees in front of me, grabbed hold of the cuffs of my pants and started lightly shaking them, while his friends began to jostle me as they hurried out of the train.
Though I was surrounded, all I could do was stare down at the young man shaking my pant legs, and think, Well, that's certainly an odd thing to do. (I'd just stepped off a cross-country flight, it was late, and I was weary.) A moment later, he and his friends had vanished?vamoosed, even?out the door, down the platform and into the terminal.
It was only after the doors had closed again and the train had pulled out of the station that I realized I was traveling a bit lighter than I had been. They had, to much of nobody's surprise, nabbed my wallet. Funny thing, though, is that after the initial shock and dismay, the humiliation, the panicked mental listing and relisting of everything I'd just lost, I thought back on the whole scene. And I thought back on the whole scene with some admiration.
That was really quite a move they had there, I thought. And it was. It was weird as hell?but very smooth. A lucrative form of semantic interference?provide the dupe with behavior and information that makes no sense, simply doesn't add up, confusing him into immobility for just a sec, then lift his wallet while he's busy trying to work his brain around what he's seeing. Nope, not a bad move at all.
In the end, I hadn't really lost that much?a few bucks, a credit card, a driver's license and a student ID, all replaced within a week.
Despite my admiration, though, I kept a much closer eye on my wallet after that.
That's why, after having seen such a raucous, but strangely elegant, professional job, that it was almost funny to run into the fumbling, bumbling Clouseau of a pickpocket on a rush-hour F train last Tuesday night.
Despite the crowd, I'd been lucky enough to nab the last seat in the car. I'd just had one of those unpleasant little encounters on the street above?an inconsequential run-in, but one that still left me feeling dirty, unpleasant and exhausted, desiring nothing more than to sit and stare for the half-hour ride home.
I pulled a book out of my bag, opened it and pretended to read. The words on the page were little more than a dim gray blur. I'd tried to use a magnifying glass to read on the train a couple of times, but it simply didn't work. Now I just tried to guess at what the words might be from their outlines. That didn't work well, either. Somehow, though, sitting with an open book?even if I can't read it?makes the trip go faster. Plus it keeps people from bothering me. I'll even turn the page occasionally to maintain the illusion.
The small Asian lady who'd been squeezed in next to me got up and left the train at Delancey. I didn't look up when her spot was almost immediately filled again. All I knew was that whoever her replacement was was male, and much larger than the small Asian lady had been. I found myself pressed tight against the side of the bench. I kept pretending to read.
As the train rolled on, this man next to me kept pressing his leg against mine, and I kept moving my leg away. Every time I moved my leg away, he moved closer and pressed his leg against mine again.
Being one to generally give people the benefit of the doubt whenever I can, I just figured he was a large fellow, and needed as much room as he could get. He was just trying to get comfortable, is all?to hell with the other passengers. I held on to that thought for almost a minute before letting it dissolve into the ether with all my other stupid notions.
As the train headed under the river, my new friend shifted up on a haunch and dropped a hand between his leg and mine.
Okay, well, maybe he has an itch, I thought at first. Either that or he's a pervert. Whatever it was, the scene was making me increasingly uncomfortable.
Then it became clear. He didn't have an itch. He wasn't such a large fellow, either, that he needed as much space as he was claiming. He wasn't even trying to feel me up. Nope, he was after my wallet. That was pretty fucking obvious.
When I first started thinking that way, I thought I was just being paranoid. So instead of screaming, or saying anything to him, or getting up and moving, I decided, just for kicks, that I'd sit there and test my new theory, try to see how he'd attempt to do this. My wallet was wedged in my pocket pretty damned tight. I knew it wasn't going anywhere. Let's see what he can do.
I kept pretending to be oblivious, lost in my book, but I tensed my muscles, ready to grab his arm and pounce on him should he decide to make a grab and run for it at the next stop. I focused all my awareness on my wallet. If he really did go for it, I would know.
I didn't know if anyone else was paying attention to what was going on in my corner of the train. Probably not?they were all too wrapped up in their own troubles and their own potential pickpockets.
I saw his strategy?there was nothing slick or smooth or clever about it. He'd pressed his leg against mine first, to determine if the wallet was there at all, then to figure out where exactly it was. Then the stupid move with the hand was, I guess, his subtle way of angling in to start inching the wallet out of the pocket?if only a teeny bit?so he'd be able to yank it out and flee at whatever stop he chose.
But I was ready. Ready and curious.
Sure enough, every few seconds, that hand of his, nestled so snugly between his leg and mine. slid up a notch, pretending to scratch an itch while nudging against the bottom of the wallet, trying to force it closer to the opening of the pocket.
He did it once, then he did it again, then a third time.
This was just getting stupid. Worse, not being the most dexterous or athletic man on Earth, I was beginning to worry?what if I failed, and he got away with it? Then I'd just look more foolish than I already did. I couldn't have that.
Finally, as the train squealed above ground and approached the Smith/9th St. station, I reached down, grabbed his index finger, pulled his hand out from between us, placed it in his own damn lap, and went back to pretending to read. I never looked at him.
Apparently that did the trick. Without saying a word, when the doors opened, he stood up and stepped off the train. So far as I could tell, he never looked back.
As soon as he left, I tapped my pockets. First to make sure everything was still there?and to make sure that his muddleheaded moves on my wallet weren't simply a cover for some extra-sly move that I remained completely unaware of.
No, everything was there. Everything was fine.
But as I dwelled on that scene over the next few hours, I started to think that he wasn't after the wallet at all. Nope, I was right in the second or third place?he was just a pervert. And if that was indeed the case, maybe he got away with everything he wanted.