By Charles Layton
All of this recent crime news in Ocean Grove puts me in mind of an encounter I had some years ago in a subway in Madrid.
I was traveling in Spain with my wife and my daughter, and at that time small bands of teenage thieves — “wolf packs” I believe they were called — were prowling the streets of Madrid, taking advantage of the unwary, including tourists like us. The way they worked was, one of these boys would do something to distract the victim while another sneaked up from behind and snatched a purse or wallet — standard pickpocket procedure.
I must have seemed like a good mark (I have an out-to-lunch look much of the time), because two of these wolf packs targeted me in a single day. The first attempt was on a busy sidewalk, but I saw them coming and brushed them away. No hay problema. The second group made their move against me on a crowded escalator in the subway. More complicated situation.
One boy had squeezed in directly in front of me on the escalator, while another had moved in behind. I was paying no notice to either of them. Just as we all reached the top of the escalator, the boy in front stopped suddenly and blocked my way by bending over as if to pick something up off the floor. Then, from behind me, almost immediately, I felt a hand going for the wallet in my hip pocket.
Before he could remove the wallet I spun around and confronted him. He was very young, and he stood frozen, facing me there on the crowded landing. Now I was yelling at this kid, first in Spanish, which I spoke pretty well at that time, but as my anger rose, my curses turned to English.
The situation became cinematic. The boy and I were surrounded by a crowd of people. When they heard me scream the word “thief,” I could feel their sympathies gravitating my way. But, to complete this picture, the other thing you should visualize is that I had assumed a martial arts pose — slight crouch, sideways to my adversary, left foot forward, right foot back, hands raised for combat. This was something I had learned from two or three weeks of karate instruction some years previously, but I had never actually assumed that stance in anger before. (Those who know me may find this little scene hard to picture, but that’s how it was.)
The young Spanish pickpocket stood in silence, stupified, I suppose, by my near-apoplectic rage. “You’re a thief!” I was yelling. “I’ll smash you through this [expletive] floor.”
Then the kid said something I don’t think I will ever forget. In calm and perfect English, barely accented, he said, “What’s your problem?”
Maybe in karate classes more advanced than the one I took they teach you what to do when an opponent says that. But I was just speechless. And I’m not sure of this, but at that moment I think what I did was, I laughed.
MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT: This song, “Meeting Across the River” by Bruce Springsteen, is about a crime in the making. It’s all rather mysterious, but you get the impression that this scheme, whatever it is, might not work out so well.