Honest Thieves

I once saw some Romanian thieves on a bus in Rome and I thought they're just bad publicity for us, but every cloud has its silver lining: maybe this way we'll get rid of them, maybe they'll go and steal from richer people. A cop confirmed that over the past few years there has been a decrease in the number of pickpockets in Bucharest, not because they fled to Western Europe, but because the police had managed to often "destroy the structure" of their gangs (or brigades, as the thieves call them). It seems that if at least part of a gang (they're usually formed out of 3, 4 or 5 people) is arrested, the ones that get away go through a pretty long inactive period before they manage to gather another "brigade". In the discussions I have with the cops I meet, they have come to admit frankly the eternal philosophy that characterizes the relationship between them and the thieves: "you are paid to catch me, while I have to 'work' to be able to survive". Although the policemen chasing them are dressed in civilians and look as common as possible, sometimes the thieves sense them, just like rabbits sense danger. Usually the one who suspects something fishy says "It's scratched" and then the others stop their "activity" and "the puller" (the one who actually puts his hand into your pocket) takes out his hands and puts them out on a bar where you can see them. The police say that the individuals are very much specialized, everybody knows his part perfectly. "The buffer" is the one who blocks the traveler when getting on the bus by asking him something or distracts him in various ways using appropriate formulas depending on the situation. "The bully" is the one who knows how to intimidate or even beat someone, if need be. "The flasher" keeps watch. Usually, the one who steals looks his victim in the eye at some point. The one in charge with taking off with the victim's wallet always has his back turned to the victim, and avoids any eye contact with the latter. There are a few veterans of pickpocketing in Bucharest, some going through a period of freedom, others through one of the times when they're "taken down". Among those "taken down" there's a pretty famous one now, nicknamed Puss. There are others, too: Gogu from the CFR (Romanian railway services), the eldest one, or the Little Romanian. All of them are real artists when it comes to filching and organizing "brigades". Once you find out about all these, you can't help thinking of old Bucharest, the time when a thief was one with tradition, coming from the failures of the rural proletariat, with an unpredictable behavior, and the policeman was a real cop, perhaps sometimes slightly corrupted, but certainly not a brainwashed member of the "militia" force. The situation is preferable, in its own way, both to the police state which may frighten thieves, but certainly terrorizes honest citizens, and the hazy beginnings of the transition period when, for instance, to be able to rob a bank all you had to do is become its manager. From that position you could pillage with no risks, no stress and without having special skills. You only had to make the right connections and know whom to share the booty with. Dilema veche, 17-23 June 2006 Translated by Daniela Oancea

by Andrei Manolescu