Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Vanishing Art of the Dip
February 25, 2011 1:39 PM   Subscribe

The mark strolls along a city sidewalk, fresh out of the bank, his wallet in his back pocket, blithely unaware that he's stumbled into the clutches of a practiced jug troupe. Slate's Joe Keohane mourns the dying art of picking pockets.

Celebrated in song, story and film, pickpockets were once the most esteemed of thieves, with their own social structure, traditions, and lexicon. The advent of plastic money and the reluctance of young criminals to practice manual dexterity have greatly reduced their numbers in the U.S.; but they're still out there, if you know where to look. If you're interested in reviving the art form, you can find a Fagin, or take instruction on the web; and if you don't actually want to pick pockets yourself, or have your pocket picked, you can always find the trade preserved as entertainment.
posted by steambadger (58 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
You want to read a god damn amazing book about the old days of pickpockets and petty thieves in Manhattan? A Pickpocket's Tale. Unbelievable book that not only gives you insight into how a petty thief lived, but covers the prison system, police corruption, opium dens of lower manhattan. One of my fave books of all time.

Now, about mourning the disappearance of crime? Please get over yourself.
posted by spicynuts at 1:44 PM on February 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


> Now, about mourning the disappearance of crime? Please get over yourself.

The article is kind of obtuse, but he's not mourning the disappearance of crime, but the transference from sneaky crime like pickpocketing, to violent crime like being robbed at gunpoint.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:45 PM on February 25, 2011


Just the mention of crime brings to mind a Guthrie song about outlaws who rob you but are not as bad as bankers etc who rob with a pen.

Miss pickpockets? Try Naples, Italy.
posted by Postroad at 1:47 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shit, ok got to the end of the article and saw he recommended Pickpocket's Tale. So, my comment is more of an endorsement.
posted by spicynuts at 1:49 PM on February 25, 2011


Slate's Joe Keohane mourns the dying art of picking pockets.

Someone should buy him an all-day pass for the city buses of Napoli or Palermo.
posted by The World Famous at 1:52 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


In related news, the percentage chance for a U.S. criminal to hide in shadows and find/remove traps has dropped to a forty-year low.
posted by furiousthought at 1:54 PM on February 25, 2011 [33 favorites]


I've seen a pickpocket get caught in the Masjid Al Haram in Mecca and get lead away by the religious police. I still remember the extremely worried look on his face. I wonder if he still has his hands.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:57 PM on February 25, 2011


I was pickpocketed a couple weeks back. I was standing drunkenly outside a local bar when a young lady approached me. Usually when a young lady approaches me outside that bar at 3 am they want something, a cigarette or a few bucks for a joose or fourloko. This young lady wanted to accompany me to a local hotel. While trying to convince me that I would certainly be missing out if I turned her down she rubbed up against me. When I got back inside I ordered another drink, reached in to my pocket to pull out some cash and my money was gone. I announced to the bar "Holy shit, I was just pickpocketed, can you believe that?" and one guy laughed and and described her. He said "She gets everyone sooner or later."
posted by Ad hominem at 2:01 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


the transference from sneaky crime like pickpocketing, to violent crime like being robbed at gunpoint

There was a lot more violent mugging and rolling in the US during what he describes as the Golden Age of pickpocketing than there is today.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:01 PM on February 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was wondering he other day if anyone steals hub caps, or car batteries or siphons gass anymore.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:07 PM on February 25, 2011


I tried to teach myself how to pick pockets when I was a teenager. Never got very good at it, but it sure taught me about keeping my money in non-obvious places (and that if you are a back-pocket wallet-keeper, you shouldn't keep anything in there you wouldn't be OK with losing forever)
posted by jtron at 2:08 PM on February 25, 2011


Violent crime is on the wane. The reason pickpocketing is a dying art is that credit card fraud is being effectively fought by law enforcement and the card issuers, reducing their value to next to nil, and ATM cards are all but useless without the PIN. Most people just don't carry large bundles of cash anymore.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:14 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was wondering he other day if anyone steals hub caps, or car batteries or siphons gass anymore.

I bought my first house, about fifteen years ago, from the estate of a little old lady who'd owned if forever. The neighbors had a million stories to tell about her, and about her no-account grandson, who sponged off of her for several years. He was apparently the main suspect in a rash of battery thefts in the neighborhood; but nobody could ever catch him either stealing the batteries or selling them. My wife and I decided to renovate the basement, which had a rather oddly-placed wall making a little nook in one corner. We removed the plaster from the well. Guess what it was made of?
posted by steambadger at 2:14 PM on February 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Guess what it was made of?

Grandma?
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:16 PM on February 25, 2011 [24 favorites]


Excellent post. I read the article yesterday but didn't think it had enough by itself to make a post. I'm glad to see somebody pulled enough together to have a go at it.
posted by scalefree at 2:19 PM on February 25, 2011


Also, pickpocketing story - I was in Jackson Square in New Orleans, when a very friendly guy came up to me, clapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand, and tried to get me to promise to go to his friend's restaurant.

My hand was in the pocket my wallet was in the same time his was, because while I was born during the day, it wasn't yesterday. I grabbed his hand, and blew him a kiss, and he thought this was the funniest thing he saw all week, and asked if we wanted to skip together. I declined, but yeah. He was pretty damn smooth, and if I didn't see it coming, there's no way I would have felt it. He also used humor and charm to defuse the situation, rather than violence or flight, either of which would probably see him rousted from such a public place in short order.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:21 PM on February 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Relatedly.

If someone stole my wallet on any given day, odds are decent they wouldn't actually make any money off the transaction. They'd basically have to go straight to a store which permits self check-out and swipe a credit card, because I rarely have cash on me. Contrast this with the days before credit/debit cards where people habitually carried around not-insignificant amounts of money. Hell, the parents of a friend of mine bought a car in Germany in the 1990s and actually carried about 20,000DM in cash from the bank to the dealer, because that's just how they did things. Even today, Europe is still more cash-based than the US, so it makes sense that the pick is holding on longer there.
posted by valkyryn at 2:24 PM on February 25, 2011


I quit carrying my wallet in my back pocket years ago due to sciatica, but it has also saved me from having to transfer my wallet around when I'm walking through an area which makes my spidey sense tingle.

It ruins any hope I have of displaying a quality basket, but it does mean I always know where my money is.
posted by hippybear at 2:25 PM on February 25, 2011


I quit carrying my wallet in my back pocket years ago due to sciatica

Hey, me too! It's actually prevented me from being picked on at least once occasion. Felt the guy reach in my back pocket and come up empty. I looked him right in the eye, and he gave me a dirty look and walked off.
posted by valkyryn at 2:33 PM on February 25, 2011


There was a lot more violent mugging and rolling in the US

What's meant by "rolling?" Because what I'm picturing doesn't sound very sinister.

On the subject of stolen batteries, I was going to say this just happened to me! But on second thought it was actually more than fifteen years ago. It happened twice within a few months. I was a poor college student and my car was a piece of crap, but apparently someone felt they needed the battery more than I did. The worst part was the second time around they damaged the hood closure, which eventually led to an incident on the freeway with the hood flying open and completely obstructing my view at 75mph. Whew. That was scary. When I finally navigated off the freeway and onto city streets (this was Oakland, and I ended up on Piedmont Ave), the first thing I did was park and get a latte to calm down (nowadays it would definitely be hard liquor), heh. Anyway, I remember holding my latte and trying to sit on the hood to smash it back down so I could make it home. A sweet man from across the street asked, "Is it gonna stay?" I was a bit embarrassed and shrugged my shoulders. He ran up to his apartment and came back with a wire coat-hanger, and proceeded to secure the hood closed. I definitely had to fight the tears of gratitude.
posted by JenMarie at 2:38 PM on February 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


FWIW the last time violent crime was lower then it is now was back in 1984
posted by edgeways at 2:54 PM on February 25, 2011


What's meant by "rolling?"

"Rolling" usually means robbing drunks while they're passed out, or at least incapacitated. It's like mugging, but with less effort and less chance of resistance.
posted by steambadger at 2:54 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks, steambadger! Learn something new everyday.

Also, I just remembered, someone did try to pickpocket me once. Well, not really my pocket, but my purse I was holding. This was in Prague six years ago, and my cousin and I had stopped to look at the goods at one of those tourist stands around the main plaza there. We were the only two, and then a group of young guys ran up, talking and laughing and surrounding us basically while pretending to look at the items for sale. I literally grabbed on of their hands from out of my bag, which I think was mainly luck I noticed it. They all ran off as quickly as they arrived.
posted by JenMarie at 3:10 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was wondering the other day if anyone steals hub caps, or car batteries or siphons gas anymore.

Apparently so. (Local news blog, comments often inane/batshit/offensive.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:14 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's a story about Nixon's trip to China, and when his delegates were being shown around, they went to a facility that bred some kind of super-duper rice. One of the guests ran his hand through a tray of rice, and the Chinese were convinced that he stole a grain or two in the folds of his fingers. They arranged for him to attend a banquet and during this time his room was throughly searched, coming up empty. They knew then that he must have it on him, so they called in the Elite Government Pickpocket Brigade, who took the rice, wrapped in a scarp of paper, from his pocket at the banquet.

A Chinese national told me that the story was shown on television as a point of Communist pride.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:16 PM on February 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


I was pickpocketed, I think, recently in center city Philadelphia. I was in a coffee shop, paid for my coffee, and sat down. Meanwhile someone acquired my wallet (maybe I left it on the counter?) and ran over to Macy's, where they spent close to $1,000. Then off to a furniture store to spend $1,000 more on my debit card. Lastly they bought $50 McDonalds and DunkinDonuts gift cards. The bank and credit card refunded me the money, but don't think plastic is useless to thieves.

I'd much rather be pickpocketed than mugged, though.
posted by sepviva at 3:25 PM on February 25, 2011


While carrying cash in the States might be out of fashion, it's still pretty common here. We made the downpayment on our house in cash, and it's pretty common for people to carry several hundred dollars worth of yen. For pickpocketing, I've only really heard about certain areas in Osaka being particularly bad, though. There has been an increase in bags being snatched by people on scooters, though.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:26 PM on February 25, 2011


A friend of mine had his business credit card stolen. The thief ordered several hundred dollars worth of flowers, delivered to various addresses, and was never heard from again.
posted by steambadger at 3:29 PM on February 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


steambadger: "What's meant by "rolling?"

"Rolling" usually means robbing drunks while they're passed out, or at least incapacitated. It's like mugging, but with less effort and less chance of resistance.
"

See also the trick roll made famous by CSI. (Although their writers tend to prefer roofies to violence. Either works.)
posted by DarlingBri at 3:37 PM on February 25, 2011


"back-pocket wallet-keeper"

I'm confounded by the notion that people would choose to keep their wallet in their back pocket.

Security reasons aside... isn't that where your butt protrudes? What do you do when you sit down? Do you tilt slightly to one side? Is my incredulousness down to living in countries with lots of coins for small tender rather than a slim wad of notes?
posted by panaceanot at 3:37 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


What do you do when you sit down?

I often wondered this before I became a back-pocketer. Nowadays, I leave my wallet/keys/phone on my desk at work and don't carry them around at home, but outside of that, yes, it can sometimes be uncomfortable, even if you keep the cards, etc. to a bare minimum.

I have to ask, what is the alternative? My wallet is square and only really fits well in my back pocket, and both front pockets are occupied by keys and cellphone as it is.
posted by indubitable at 4:00 PM on February 25, 2011


Ditto panaceanot, Who keeps their wallet in their back pocket? I don't think I ever did except maybe as a kid for whom a wallet didn't actually hold much thus no thickness. Bus seriously back pockets are mostly useless unless you are constantly standing.

One front pocket has the cell phone, the other pocket has the wallet. Keys clip to the belt loop, shoulder strap or in a bag.
posted by MrBobaFett at 4:03 PM on February 25, 2011


FTA: "In a 2001 story, the New York Times reported that there were 23,068 reported pickpocketing incidents in the city in 1990, amounting to nearly $10 million in losses."

I find it somewhat hard to believe that the average NY'er had a whopping $433.50 on them. I mean, I understand that everything costs an arm and a leg in NYC (hell, the ATMs give out $50s and $100s rather than $10s and $20s), but c'mon, who the hell randomly carries around $400 on them?
posted by pla at 4:07 PM on February 25, 2011


Who keeps their wallet in their back pocket?

I do.
posted by everichon at 4:19 PM on February 25, 2011


There is a really good desription of the business of rolling drunks in Junkie by William S. Burroughs. When in danger of being caught he would just pretend to be a pervert trying to dry hump the mark.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:27 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you tilt slightly to one side?

You got too much crap in your wallet.

Are you guys telling me you keep money in a wallet?

Your money goes in your right front pocket, hundred on the outside, money clip is optional.
I personally used one till it got bent to shit, now I use a document clip.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:31 PM on February 25, 2011


Yeah count me in as being mystified that anyone would pack all of their most important cards and such into one holder and then place the holder in the place in their clothing where they are least likely to notice its absence.

Anyway, I have been pickpocketed but only in London. Someone walked off with an Oystercard which had a single ride left on it. I never noticed, but that is fine, as I like to work with professionals.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:33 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm a back wallet person. My pants tend to be snug (perils of the large butted sloth) in the back, and I can almost always feel my wallet. I keep most of my paper money and coins in my front pocket. I tend to dress in layers that hang over my pocket in the winter, and tend to wear shorts that have buttons over the back pocket in summer. It's just something I'm accustomed to.

Now, people who put coins in their wallets mystify me. I mean, coin purse. Seriously. When you live in a place that has coins up to the $5 point, it's a freaking neccessity. Ninja can't sneak up on anyone when they've got a handfull of loose coins in their pocket.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:38 PM on February 25, 2011


hell, the ATMs give out $50s and $100s rather than $10s and $20sM

Nah the ATMs give out 20s

People tend to carry alot of cash here because to a large extent it is still a cash city. Lots of little stores that don't tend to take credit cards.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:41 PM on February 25, 2011


I find it somewhat hard to believe that the average NY'er had a whopping $433.50 on them.

It didn't say they had that much on them. It said that was how much was lost. I assume that includes losses due to identity theft, credit card theft, and the costs of recovering the lost info, getting new cards, etc.
posted by The World Famous at 4:43 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I once took a video recorder to the nearby repair shop inside a rucksack. It didn't quite fit and a corner poked out of the top of the bag. Just before I got there, a small car pulled up, someone leaned out of the side window and neatly pulled the video recorder out of the bag without touching me or ripping the bag and the car drove off.

I was annoyed but also deeply impressed by their skill. Although the troupe would surely have made more money in the circus than in ripping off cheap electronic goods.
posted by grapefruitzzz at 5:15 PM on February 25, 2011


I keep my wallet in my back pocket as a general matter of course, though it sits on my desk or table when I'm at work or home. And hell, sometimes, on the table, when I'm at a restaurant, if it's bothering me. I'll also move it to the front if I'm in a sketch area, but I rarely have any cash at all. (Though I have $200 from the casino a few weeks ago I haven't deposited yet...)
posted by disillusioned at 5:38 PM on February 25, 2011


panaceanot: ""back-pocket wallet-keeper"

I'm confounded by the notion that people would choose to keep their wallet in their back pocket.

What do you do when you sit down? Do you tilt slightly to one side?
"

You do so thats why you take a pile of napkins fold them over and stick them in your other pocket to even you out.
posted by lilkeith07 at 6:59 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Relevant to the tangent:

Zen Pockets

"Empty Thoughts, or Do Zen Monk Robes Have Pockets?"
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:54 PM on February 25, 2011


Wallet in the back pocket. Country with lots of heavy coins. Still makes sense to me
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:50 PM on February 25, 2011


I was the target of possibly the two most inept pickpockets in the city of Rome. I was on the bus, and as it neared my destination I moved towards the steps by the middle exit. (On Roman buses you get on at the front or back, off in the middle). Two guys got on the bus at the back, came straight to the middle, and flanked me, just far enough back that I couldn't see them. That was enough to put me seriously on alert, but then I heard one ask the other (in Italian), "At the next stop?" "Yeah, at the next stop." I guess they assumed I couldn't speak Italian? Or maybe their incompetence was even greater than I thought.
As it happens, the next stop was my exit. I had given no indication I was going (someone else pushed the button to request a stop, saving me the trouble), and as the doors opened I stepped quickly down onto the street -- and felt a hand brushing my hip, groping for the front pocket that was already out of reach.
Oddly, this was in a totally non-touristy area. I'm grateful to have escaped wallet intact, if only because the shame of having been bested by those two incompetents would have stung worse than losing the 50,000 lire (at best) that I was carrying around.
posted by katemonster at 12:23 AM on February 26, 2011


who the hell randomly carries around $400 on them?

I usually keep a minimum of around £200 ($300) and often more.

There was some discussion on the economics blogs a while back about why people carry so little cash around with, since when you factor in the cost of the time spent at cash machines it's more expensive to carry small amounts. Greg Mankiw reckoned the optimum amount to carry was around $600. It seems to be an example of people being irrationally risk-averse.

It does bug me a bit when I go out for a quick lunch with someone reasonably well-off and we have to lose 10 minutes while they find a cashpoint to get a replacement £20 note...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:03 AM on February 26, 2011


It's not just on the streets that pickpocketing has disappeared. It used to be big business as a circus act: obituary of The King of Pickpockets, Borra.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:27 AM on February 26, 2011


My friend got pickpocketed on the el in Chicago just a couple weeks ago. I keep my wallet in my back pocket, you just get used to it. I do not keep it there when I am in any larger city. I am moving to one in May, I will not carry it in my back pocket there. It's always just depended on where I am. I spent a summer in St. Louis and never carried it in the back pocket. Where I live now, it's not an issue.
posted by IvoShandor at 5:07 AM on February 26, 2011


I was thinking about how there must be a dearth of pickpockets in the US when I was being repeatedly bashed into by an over-stuffed backpack with a wallet loosely tucked into the outermost mesh pocket while riding on the crowded subway. I'm pretty much the least subtle person ever and I could have easily lightened this wallet, so I can only assume that no one out there was even trying to do so.
posted by fermezporte at 6:02 AM on February 26, 2011


I keep my wallet in my back pocket, but with the understanding that it may disappear for any of a number of reasons. including pickpockets, my own general klutziness, freak weather occurrences, etc. I imagine if a pickpocket "lifted" my wallet while "rolling" me as I lay "drunk" on the comfy park bench, he, wearing knit cap and black mock turtleneck, would riffle through it, sneer, and toss it at my head.

I'm confounded that so many people in this thread are confounded that people carry their wallets in their back pockets. Really?? Holy Jeez, I thought everybody carried their wallet in their back pocket. Am I living in some bizarro world?
posted by Cookiebastard at 6:11 AM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


TheophileEscargot : it's more expensive to carry small amounts. Greg Mankiw reckoned the optimum amount to carry was around $600. It seems to be an example of people being irrationally risk-averse.

I haven't stopped at an ATM in probably close to a year - I find that simply by cashing (rather than depositing) the small number of live checks I receive, I usually have more than enough cash on me to deal with the increasingly rare merchants that don't take plastic. And when I encounter such a cash-only merchant*, I go out of my way to avoid them (if at all possible) in the future.

True story, I've had a hundred in my wallet for almost six months now because I simply haven't had any reason to use it. I think next time I do visit the bank, I'll deposit it and trade down for a pair of $20s (which will still last me a few months).

* That said, I'd rather pay cash to a local merchant than use plastic at a Big Box - But fortunately, I don't really need to make that call, because everyone takes plastic nowadays - Hell, even the guy selling scallops out of the back of his pickup down by the beach has a cell-connected card reader.
posted by pla at 7:26 AM on February 26, 2011


Cookiebastard : I'm confounded that so many people in this thread are confounded that people carry their wallets in their back pockets. Really?? Holy Jeez, I thought everybody carried their wallet in their back pocket. Am I living in some bizarro world?

I've heard keeping your wallet in your back pocked causes more stress on your back... But mostly, I just find it uncomfortable to keep it in a back pocket.

More interestingly - What do you keep in your front pockets? Keys in one, okay, but the other?
posted by pla at 7:28 AM on February 26, 2011


Holy Jeez, I thought everybody carried their wallet in their back pocket. Am I living in some bizarro world?

No, you're not alone. My dad grew up a Navy brat, living on bases in the Far East where pickpocketing was a constant threat. He taught me how to brush my arm unobtrusively across my wallet to check if it was still secure & in place.

More interestingly - What do you keep in your front pockets? Keys in one, okay, but the other?

Keys in left, coins in right.
posted by scalefree at 7:31 AM on February 26, 2011


Pickpockets are alive and well in Madrid and Barcelona. Thriving, even. The motherless fucks.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:40 AM on February 26, 2011


What do you keep in your front pockets?

phone, screwdriver, flashlight, wads of paper towel, receipts, change, another screwdriver, pens, tape measure, someone's business card, a post-it-note, um, that's about it.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:43 AM on February 26, 2011


What do you keep in your front pockets?

Ninja stars. Smoke bombs. Untraceable poisons.
posted by steambadger at 9:10 AM on February 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


Apart from the fact that, as mentioned in the article, the art of picking pockets is still alive and well here in Europe, I've the impression that pickpocket gangs are responding to plastic money by evolving into skimming, using very similar psychological devices, as well as technology, to obtain both your debit/credit cards and their PINs.
posted by Skeptic at 4:24 PM on February 26, 2011


« Older Streetview Zombie Apocalypse!...  |  The stories and pictures of th... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments