Retired in Rome Journal: Pickpockets have turned Rome into a city of thieves


I’ve started a new parlor game here in Rome. It starts with a simple question. It pinwheels into a dozen stories, with everyone hoping they don’t have the worst one. No, it’s not, “Tell me your date from hell.” That actually produces laughter. This game does not.

Have you ever been pickpocketed?

I live in Rome so it’s a moot question. Lots of people here have been victimized. The ensuing question is, What happened? I had some Roman friends over Saturday night for my little birthday celebration. Over a table full of cheese, prosciutto, olives and Italian meatballs, I heard some real sad tales. I’ve known Giovanna for more than a month. A week ago she had someone on a bus open her zippered purse and lift her wallet. It was that fast. That simple. I’ve seen women on subways and buses hold onto their purses as if they were holding in their lower intestine. I’m sure she did, too. Yet she lost 200 euros, her credit cards, her bus pass and her driver’s license. If you know the tortoise-like bureaucracy of Italy, you know the real nightmare begins when you try to replace it all. It’s such a part of normal life here that she didn’t even bother to call me when it happened.

Sergio lost his wallet on a bus. It wasn’t even No. 64, the one that goes from the central Termini train station to the Vatican, so famous for pickpockets it’s tabbed “The Wallet Express.” I met an Italian on my Mussolini bunker tour. He said he rode a Rome subway and had a firm grip on his wallet as he stood inside. Somehow, when he got off, he was grabbing his leg. The wallet was gone. “I didn’t feel a thing,” he said.

When I lived here from 2001-03, my girlfriend at the time and I were at Castroni, a big grocery store specializing in foreign food. It was just before Christmas and we wanted our friends part of our Christmas tradition and make them chocolate-chip cookies. Nancy’s arms were full of ingredients as we approached the register. Suddenly, she dropped the flour and it spilled all over the floor.

“John, what did you hit me for?”

“I didn’t touch you. I …” Oh-oh.

Yep. While we were on the floor picking up the flour, they had lifted her wallet. It was $400 worth of lire fresh from the cash machine. The feeling of helplessness is defined by how long and hard you hold a crying woman who can’t afford to lose $400.

Pickpocketing in Rome has a thousand stories. In actuality, you have at least 300 a day. According to Bob Arno, the self-proclaimed “Pickpocket King” who has gone from thief to victims advocate, that’s the number that is allegedly reported to police in Rome. According to the Huffington Post, Rome has the second most pickpocket incidents in the world, just behind Barcelona and just ahead of Prague. In 2006 I wrote a book about my previous life in Rome, “American Gladiator in Rome.” In my chapter, “Fast Hands and Empty Pockets: The Means Streets of Rome,” I interviewed a spokesman in the Rome police department. In 2003 his office reported 16,029 pickpockets. That was up from 15,277 the year before. Considering the number of tourists to Rome has jumped from 6 million in 2003 to 12.6 million in 2013, it’s obvious pickpocket statistics are way up, even too high to chart.

The cop told me all kinds of slick methods. I was nearly a victim of one a few years before. It came in what has become the Yankee Stadium of pickpockets, a virtual training ground for thieves. The Porto Portese Flea Market is a narrow, mile-long street on the gritty, scruffy south end of Trastevere, the neighborhood that has gone from communist stronghold to a trendy nightspot crawling with tourists, students and Roman yuppies. Porto Portese has been around since just after World War II and it is the Grand Bazaar of Rome. You can find anything you want, from wine openers to used clothes to cheap sound boxes to leather jackets to pirated CDs. I keep thinking I’d come across a used Ferrari dealership. Everything is there.

So are pickpockets.

In 1998 I had not walked five steps through the walled gateway when two gypsy girls approached. They couldn’t have been more than 16. One held up a copy of Il Messaggero, Rome’s biggest newspaper, right to my face. The other grabbed my left hand with both of hers and puckered up as if to kiss me. Unlike Nancy, I knew what was happening. They were trying to distract me. Their first mistake was thinking I’d want to kiss a 16-year-old girl wearing a dress made from the upholstery of a 1967 Volkswagen bus. Their second mistake was they didn’t grab my other arm. I took my right hand and immediately placed it on my wallet in my right back pocket. There wasn’t much in there. As always, I only had a few lire and my Colorado driver’s license. But I still didn’t want to buy a new wallet. The wallet remained. Soon, the gypsies weren’t.

Their plot foiled, they turned on their beat-up sandals and disappeared into the crowd. I followed slowly, with a huge, cocky smile on my face having defeated the enemy. About 30 minutes later, I stopped at an opening in the mass of humanity and saw a guy working the shell game. It’s the classic con game where people bet on which of three shells the quick-handed magician hides a seed. No one but the con ever wins and I always admired anyone whose hands were faster than the eye. The irony was lost on me. I’d seen the shell game all over America but never in Europe and reached into my left front pants pocket of my cargo pants to grab the little 50-cent notepad I use to jot down street notes. It was gone. It was also worthless, even to me. They are notes that I transfer into a journal every night. The gypsies had gone into the one available pocket and took whatever was free. While I was bothered that my pickpocket defense left a hole, I took quiet satisfaction knowing the only thing they had were barely legible notes about the price of Barolo at a wine bar near Piazza Navona.

These girls are a major source problems in Rome. They were gypsies. In Italy they’re called Zingari. The Rome cop told me the Zingari pass through generations their tricks of the trade, training kids from their pre-teens to provide their major sources of income. Sometimes gypsies will hand you a baby. While you look around trying to find where to put it or give it back, a companion has rifled through your pockets. Or a pack of children will simply perform a full-out assault on you, twirling around you like whirling dervishes of thieves. One will grab your wallet, hand it to another who hands it to another. It’s like a fire drill of wallets. Then they scatter in all directions. You don’t know who to chase.

There’s a way to combat this. Don’t give back the baby. Someone has to come and get it. However, that doesn’t work anymore. Gypsies got smart and are handing over dolls. If you see a young gypsy girl with a baby, notice it’s not crying.

Gypsies were named for the mistaken belief they came from Egypt. Actually, they came from India and settled in Eastern Europe. They slipped through the cracks in various communist societies, particularly Romania. They began migrating in the 20th century and when the Iron Curtain fell, they scattered. Many settled in Italy where the Italian language has the same Latin roots as Romanian. But their assimilation into Italian society ends with language.

They are not the only pickpockets in Rome. The mass immigration that Romans complain about gets much of the blame. But Italians have been known for slick hands, too, particularly when they ride along on their Vespas and slice purses off pedestrians necks with the quickness and accuracy of Zorro. When I first visited here in 1978, there were signs that said, in English, “Beware of pickpockets.” Well, when you read that, what’s the first thing you do? That’s right. You reach for your wallet. Once a pickpocket sees that you might as well just hand it to him. Pickpockets were known to carry those signs and place them on street corners. Then they’d just sit back and wait.

Yesterday, I threw myself back into the fray. With a new apartment, I need a whole list of odds and ends, from bookends to towels. Back I went to Porto Portese. This time I took no chances. I didn’t even bring an empty wallet. The notepad I lost was the only time I’ve ever been ripped off in more than 35 years of international travel through 91 countries. Well, I had a souvenir Wimbledon T-shirt stolen from a youth hostel. Where? Rome, of course. But the reason I never get robbed is this: I wear a money belt. It’s a long piece of cloth that wraps around your waist just inside the waistline of your pants. It’s just wide enough for a passport, credit cards, plane tickets and cash, thinks you can not afford to lose. To take it off me you have to knock me out and strip me. Only in Rio, where thieves have guns and knives and know where money belts are, have I left a money belt in a hotel safe when I went out.

Yesterday, I put 45 euros in my money belt and left my credit cards at home. I even put my keys in my money belt. All I had in my pockets were a shopping list and a pen.

As I wandered past the stalls, the vast majority run by Bangladeshis, I noticed something. I couldn’t find a single gypsy. Maybe they’d updated their tecno wardrobe or stopped using curtains for clothes. But I saw no one approach me or jostle me. What I saw were cops. Lots of them. They stood at corners of stalls, their eyes moving side to side like robots. The closest thing I got to getting ripped off was a Bangladeshi trying to sell me a clock that didn’t work for 10 euros.

But I got spit out of the back end of the flea market with a clock, three pairs of gym socks and two towels. I spent 22 euros and lost nothing. But you notice I have no pictures accompanying this blog. There’s a reason.

I didn’t want to lose my cell phone camera.