From Alabama to Colombia: Lifting the Gringo

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From Alabama to Colombia: Lifting the Gringo

How do you guarantee getting pick-pocketed in Colombia? First, look like a gringo. For me, it’s easy. Red hair. Green eyes. Freckles on pale Celtic skin.

“They can tell by the way we walk,” my gringo friend Kendrick insists. He got this on good authority from Colombian buddies who confided the fact during a night on the town.

A night on the town is a second step in getting your pocket picked in Bogotá.

On October 20, Adela, my fiancée, and I marched in a big raucous crowd of Colombians supporting an endangered peace proposal that President—and new Nobel Peace Prize laureate—Juan Manuel Santos doggedly continues to pursue. The nation voted NO to the accord by a razor-thin margin in early October. Santos believes ending a 52-year civil war with leftist guerrillas that has cost 220,000 lives might be worth the time and trouble.

We joined a 3,000-person throng snailing its way along the Septima, Carrera 7, passing a dozen blocks of central city Bogotá. The demonstration began in daylight and ended by flashlight beams from smart phones lighting a path through the dark.

The Septima empties into the great Plaza de Bolivar, where stand the city’s most historic cathedral and monumental houses of government. Authorities close off the blocks nearest the plaza to automobiles, and free from the menace of scofflaw taxi drivers and swarms of motorcycles, an amazing assembly of street vendors and performers ply their trades here. Salted and buttered ears of corn roast over open coals. Bootleg CDs litter colorful blankets, these placed beside more blankets, then even more blankets. Vendors hawk jewelry, books, toys, bric-a-brac, you name it.

Among the vendors, a sequin-gloved Michael Jackson impersonator moonwalked to ‘Billie Jean.’ He drew an audience agog at a perfect step-by-step simulation of The King of Pop’s famous live performance at the Apollo Theater in 1983.

The faux Michael provided the third component for getting your pocket picked in Bogotá, distraction.

Like a clever magician who can pull a rabbit out of a hat, a skilled pickpocket can—pop!—pull a cell phone out of the most unexpected places.

Like—pop!—right out of a pocket.

Is there a certain romance associated with picking pockets?

I confess that I have in the past held this sort of crime a little separate, higher in respect, from, say, robbing a 7-11 or bribing public officials for sewage contracts. My attitude was shaped by Oliver Twist, where Fagin teaches those poor street urchins to survive by kipping a pocket fob from a fop without rustling so much as a top hat.

I found more glamorization in a short story by Roald Dahl, “The Hitch-Hiker.” Here, a man offers a ride to a pickpocket— a finger-smith—who in turn uses his gifted digits to save the driver from an unpleasant situation with a policeman.

An Irish prostitute named Chicago May achieved some turn-of-the-20th-century celebrity by relieving her customers of, well, let’s just say she relieved them. (Rare is the man who calls authorities to report a wallet he lost in a brothel.) Cutting Ball, a colorfully named Elizabethan cutpurse, enjoyed notoriety until caught, and hanged. (Picking pockets was a capital offense in jolly olde England.)

Pickpockets have even entertained us.

In the 1950s, Borra, a.k.a. The King of Pickpockets, earned the highest pay of any circus performer in the world. Traveling with the Swiss National Circus, he worked crowds under the big top, liberating watches from wrists, wallets from pockets, even eyeglasses from faces. (Borra would place a swiped pair of spectacles on his own nose while he calmly chatted with their rightful owner.) His obituary in the United Kingdom newspaper The Independent reported Borra made enough money picking circus-goer pockets to “to buy a whole street of houses in Austria, which was named after him, the Borraweg.”

Finally, according to Wikipedia: “Professional illusionist David Avadon featured pickpocketing as his trademark act for more than 30 years and promoted himself as ‘a daring pickpocket with dashing finesse’ and ‘the country’s premier exhibition pickpocket, one of the few masters in the world of this underground art.’”

Daring. Dashing. Underground art. See what I mean?

The skill of picking pockets, finely done, has an allure, some kind of mystique. Until it’s your own pocket that’s picked. Believe me, then the thrill is gone.

It happened on the Septima, among small groups and couples headed home after the peace march.

The evening felt finished, consummated. What bad could happen? Tired couples drifted, arm in arm. Students passed, exhilarated by their roles in Something Historic, voices hoarse, faces flushed. Music came from storefronts. A young man appeared, longish blonde hair, a part in the middle. He knew his target: that gringo.

The young man aggressively pushed some brightly printed pages into my face, something he insisted I buy. He acted urgent, like he could actually save my life if I just bought what he sold. He helped me read the Spanish by waving the pages wildly. His right shoulder bump me hard. He continued pressing with his chest, shaking the papers, making his passionate sales pitch.


That was the moment, I feel sure, when his goddamned clever hand slipped into my left outside jacket pocket. He irritated, intimidated. To make him go away, I fished pesos from my jeans and dropped those in his palm … buying freedom, I thought.

Oh, how disappointed the young man looked at those few coins. And then, how disappointed I felt mere minutes later, realizing I’d just given a pickpocket a tip for stealing my cell phone. Any bubble of romanticism about pickpockets burst that moment.

One feels very foolish reaching for a phone to summon an Uber, only to find a flat, empty pocket. It feels even more foolish to search other pockets—windbreaker, shirt, pants—looking for a phone and not finding it. And it feels still more foolish to search those pockets over and over only never find a missing phone.

The Motorola was new, nothing too valuable stored yet in its little brain or photo archive … at least nothing that couldn’t be replaced next morning for, oh, several hundred U.S. dollars.

So, good reader. Do you want to get your pocket picked in Bogotá? Look like a gringo. Go to a crowded public place. Get distracted. You’ll get your pocket picked.

The up side? My wonderful friend Rosanne Cash wrote an essay a few years back for Never Say Goodbye, a collection of remembrances about New York City. She wrote of a peculiar NYC christening ceremony: “One of the few times I actually went inside the deli (Jack and Jill, on Carmine Street), a junkie bumped up against me and took my wallet. I was shocked but oddly relieved. I’d been living in New York less than a year. I was glad to get that particular initiation over with … it was the initial skin-thickening crime imprimatur that every new city dweller needs.”

Here I stand, Bogotá. Fully initiated. Skin thicker. New phone in hand.

Image: Kyle M Lease, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.