Our crew had four: the spotter, the bump, the actual pickpocket and the hand-off. The hand-off was the guy who wound up with the wallet three seconds after the scoop happened. I was the bump. I would walk into the mark, say I’m sorry and be on my way. The mark couldn’t feel Shakespeare in his pocket taking away what belonged to us.
People are surprised to find that pickpockets are a crew. Of course there were solo pickers, which was fine by us, because they were the one to get caught. If you want to be successful in this stage, you got to have partners. Success is collaborative.
We worked two hours a day: noon and five o’clock. We would have loved to do the theater crowd, but we were a new crew and the more established outfits had that area sewn shut. We played uptown by the museums or by the department stores.
It goes without saying that Shakespeare was good. He wouldn’t have been our picker if he wasn’t, but really, picking wasn’t that hard. All of us in the crew could do the job well, which meant doing the job without getting caught. Shakespeare didn’t care; we told him what to do and he did it.
Shakespeare didn’t speak. He wasn’t dumb, wasn’t mute, he could speak I guess. I just never can recall him talking, but I’m sure once or twice he did. He just nodded and did the plan. Talking wasn’t necessary if you knew what needed to be achieved.
He was good. We all were. From two hours of work a day we paid rent, ate out, bought drugs, wore clothes that made us feel like mannequins in the windows of Bloomingdales. It was low fidelity fine living.
Things changed, like they do. I was getting take out from a Thai joint when two guys stopped me. They were shoulders and bared heads and I knew they weren’t to be messed with. They did the messing. They were these kind of guys.
The one with the designated tongue said, “Someone you associate with embarrassed someone we associate with.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I don’t know what you are on about.”
The guy who spoke said, “I’ll be plain. Last night, outside of Julia’s, your picker, the dumb one, left with the wallet of someone who should have known better.”
“The hell you talking?” I said, “Julia’s? That’s the Bowery. We don’t work down there and we don’t work at night. We are strictly daylight and tourists.”
The guy said, “The money in the wallet is an unfortunate loss, which we are willing to accept. But there were other items in the wallet. Keepsakes.”
The other guy, the big one who didn’t speak, found language and said, “A memento mori, if you will.”
The first one smiled, though he seemed off stride for being interrupted. “It’s things that your picker needs to return. He can put it through the mail slot next to Julia’s. As simple as that.”
I shook my head and said, “We don’t work there, it’s not us.”
“I didn’t say it was your crew. It was Shakespeare,” the first guy said.
The second one stepped towards me, becoming my only view of the world. “Your dinner is getting cold. You should go home and eat. You should do the things you ought to do.”
That’s what I did. I know how to follow orders dressed up as friendly advice.
At 11:30 the next morning, when the crew met up, I had at Shakespeare. I told him what happened. Told him that it cut all of us by freelancing and freelancing at such a bad place. The hell was he thinking?
I told him it was best to do what the muscle said, to return the wallet. Shakespeare could speak, but he didn’t then. We all knew he couldn’t return the wallet. It was down a sewer two minutes after it was taken. So much drowned evidence.
Shakespeare looked at his watch, which read noon. He put up his hands asking, we working or what? And so we did. We made what we expected.
Shakespeare didn’t show at five that evening. He didn’t show the next day. We were okay. We could work the grift with three, a little riskier, but still viable.
A week or so later I was stopped hard leaving a restaurant with a bag of barbeque. It was the two pair of shoulders, the immovable mountains from before. The talking one tossed a box at me. I caught it with my free hand. He said, “This is something you can build a collection around.”
The box was small, something rattled inside its guts. The second guy broke a grind and said, “A memento mori.” And they were gone.
I opened the box and saw a well-cleaned knucklebone. A knucklebone from someone who didn’t need it no more. I put it in my pocket. It jingled compatibly with my keys and spare change. It was going to be my talisman to stop me from doing stupid things in bad places. But it was only a few days before I lost it. Pockets are like that. No matter, nothing awful or untoward has happened to me much.
The crew broke up a few weeks later. Our team existed for six months, which is a typical life span for something like that. I don’t see any of the crew. We are all on the missing list.
David Macpherson lives in Central Massachusetts with his wife Heather and son George.