Pickpocket | Our Town | Chicago Reader


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Don't let them kid you. It's called getting old. Here's how it works.

Imagine a January when the sun hasn't shown itself for a week. Imagine yourself with white hair, social security, that kind of stuff. Let's say you used to be a cop, that's a nice macho occupation; if anybody knows how to take care of himself it sure ought to be a cop.

And you decide to take a little trip downtown, ride the el, visit the library, maybe stop at Rose Records, Crown Books--spend a little money, cheer yourself up.

Sure, spending money cheers you up. But that doesn't mean you got a lot of it. If you're like every other old geezer in this country, you've learned to think twice before you reach for that wallet. It's called being responsible.

So it's not a big decision but it is a decision--10 bucks for records, 25 for a book. You don't really need these things, do you? You even put the book back and start for the door before you decide, oh hell, if I can't buy a book I might as well die. It's called being self-indulgent.

Maybe they spot you on the el train, you with your white hair and your packages and your preoccupied look. They do that, stake out the chump in advance. No matter how sharp you think you are, they're always a step and a half ahead.

And they get you on the escalator at the Logan Square stop, just a couple of blocks from home. You're behind a young man in a tan topcoat; suddenly he stumbles and cries out in pain. "My foot! My foot!" How could anyone catch his foot in the escalator?

The whole thing takes about six seconds. A lot can happen in six seconds. Ask Michael Jordan. You can tie the game, send it into overtime, slam dunk, even steal. And that's exactly what our friend with the foot is doing, stealing our wallet. It takes six seconds to go from I must help a fellow human in distress to That sonofabitch got my wallet!

Even before you pat your pocket you know what has happened because it's happened before, the main difference being last time you were a bit quicker and caught that hand before it got out of your pocket. That had been on the train itself, right in the doorway, and the owner of that hand had stepped back on the platform just as if nothing at all had happened and you, feeling pretty good about yourself, almost did not regret your failure to smash him across the face.

This time the wallet's gone. Now, stupid, what are you going to do about it? The mope is three steps ahead, pretending to ask some other fool directions. No, sir! he's not going to get away with this! You take three long steps and grab him by the collar. "All right, give it back!"

"I ain't got your wallet! There it is!"

And he points back toward the escalator where--you'd recognize it anywhere--your wallet has been dropped. You let the mope go. First things first. That wallet contains Visa, Master, and all those other things that are such a hassle to replace. They're still in it, thank God, but not the money. You turn back to the skunk and say, "All right, let's have the rest," but that's going too far, you know from all your experience with the law and the courts that one 20 dollar bill looks pretty much like the other; the best you can hope for is that this snake will be temporarily inconvenienced while he's signing the personal-recognizance bond. The worst could be a sharp lawyer who will wind up suing you.

And that's how the game is played in urban America. The dirtbag's friends are standing on the stairs now, pointing toward the trains. "The man who took your wallet went that way!"

Come on, guys. Give me a little credit.

"You want to call the police?" the ticket agent says. Hell, you're thinking. A year ago, I was the police. And what am I now?

Glad to have my wallet back.

Later on I read my book and play my records. It's almost like they are free. If I hadn't bought them the money I spent on them would be gone anyway. Too bad I didn't buy more.

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