KING OF THE PICKPOCKETS
Los Angeles, 1983
At the end of Arizona Street on top of the Santa Monica cliffs stands an office building with an outdoor cafe. It's a good place to be on a warm spring late afternoon. Also on this Street is an open air produce market. The same street has these two things.
Walter and I went to the outdoor cafe that day. He is an attorney with an office in the area and a precious friend. We sat there, with our coffee, in the sunshine overlooking the ocean. The conversation was animated as usual.
It was a hot afternoon. The sun was shining directly on me so I took off my sweater - my favorite sweater, soft, with the high collar, tan and white. I took it off and lay it over the seat backrest behind me. In the midst of our conversation - because we were talking about India or England - I remembered that I wanted to introduce Walter to a book by Ruth Jhabvala.
"Let's go find a bookstore."
Up we get. We grabbed our things and off we went. In my exuberance I took my briefcase but failed to take my sweater. It was too hot for a sweater so I forgot about it. I left the sweater on the seat behind me. We walked off, in a bubble of conversation, to look for a book shop. On the way we came upon the open air street market.
Once a week - on Wednesdays - Arizona Street is closed to traffic for a few blocks. The street is lined, instead, with stands and small trucks loaded with the produce of the season - oranges, lettuce, almonds, carrots etc.
This is the Santa Monica Produce Market. Supposedly one gets bargains here. I don't know that there are, in fact, bargains but everything looks fresh and nice anyway.
"Elfriede would appreciate something from this market," thought I. Elfi is my wife. I call her by her given name, Elfriede, by way of endearment. So I bought some carrots. I bought them because they looked gnarled. The carrots you get in the supermarket look so straight and uniform. They have no character. These carrots had character. They were gnarled so I bought a bunch of them.
I was looking for something like nuts or dried fruit. "That would be nice to bring home." And sure enough I came to this vendor who offered figs. He had figs and dates.
Thrusting past me a robust little woman said to the vendor, "What are these?" She pointed to a carton full of little orange-yellow spheres. They were about the size of small apricots but much firmer to the touch. The vendor said, "Those are bar-mir dates. They're the only kind that can be eaten before they're ripe. Here. Try one."
Now this fellow looked different from the other vendors. The others looked like farmers or poor field workers - many were Mexican - trying to scrape a few dollars together by bringing produce to this market. But this guy was tall and blond with a firm, yet boyish, build. He looked like a Rock Star. He wasn't dressed like a Rock Star. He was neat but wore clothes fit for hauling crates - jeans and a flannel shirt. So here's this tall thin guy standing there saying these are a special kind of date, bar-met or something, which one may taste. "Well, OK, let me try one," think I to myself.
I tried one. It tasted terrible. It was not exactly bitter but it was not appealing either. It was sweet but not sweet in the right way. The skin was leathery and there wasn't much fruit; mostly stone.
"Sometimes the skin is bitter," says the Rock Star Produce Vendor.
"Well," I reason to myself, "maybe I should take off the skin and try another bite."
"It grows on you," he says.
I took another bite. Bad. But the day was so beautiful and I was feeling so good that I said, "How much are they?"
"They're a dollar twenty-five a pound."
I considered that to be rather a lot. But I said, "OK, I'll take half a pound." I was thinking that I might very well throw them into the nearest garbage can. What passed my lips, though was, "They do have a nutty flavor." I was at peace with myself and ready to comfort the world around me. A euphoric state makes easy prey in the market place. I decided to buy some of these bar-mal, or whatever, dates.
To pay for the purchase I pulled out my money and peeled a dollar bill off the wad of bills that I had. I keep all my bills laid out one against the other, folded in half, lieing naked in my trouser pocket. The whole wad, in this case, could have been as much as forty or forty-five dollars. I peeled off a one-dollar bill, gave it to him, took the little sack of dates and then my change - thirty-five cents or so - and continued on my way.
The scene was lively. I was drawn immediately to the next attraction. Walking on with Walter I came upon a man selling, of all things, salamis.
"Here, have a taste."
I tasted. It tasted alright. Not bad. It was a bit spicey. Four dollars for a salami.
"Is this homemade," I ask. "Do you personally make this?"
"No, but it's made with our stock."
Their cows -- it was an all-beef salami -- their cows were in that salami. I thought, "Wonderful, I'll buy one."
I reached into my pocket to pay. All my money was gone. No wad of bills are lying snug and cozy in my pocket. No bills at all. Just some change." No money. Wow! Forty-five dollars gone."
I looked around. I looked for the money. Walter suggested this and that. "Did you check your other pocket? Did you look over there on the ground?"
I knew I had just had it in my hand at the last purchase. Either it fell down or somebody, very deftly, lifted it from my pocket.
Now I remembered the sign I had seen. Posted on a tree, just next to the Rock Star's date stand was a sign. It read, "Welcome to the Santa Monica Produce Market. BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS." That's what it said, "BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS."
"Aha, I've been pickpocketed," I couldn't remember anybody bumping into me,though. Nobody had sideswiped me. "Well, that's it. Forty-five dollars gone. No use fretting about it." But I could no longer enjoy the market. I forgot all about the bookshop we were looking for. The money loss dampened my spirits. I decided to call an end to this adventure.
"Let's go back to my car, Walter. I'd just as soon leave Santa Monica and continue on my way home." I lived about 20 miles north; up the coast and then a few miles into the mountains to Malibu Lake. Walter and I walked to the parking lot. He gave me a dollar for emergency money. We talked briefly and I left for home -- another forty-five minutes of driving for me.
The drive is a beautiful one. I enjoy it. I drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway. The sun was beginning to set. The ocean, calm and magnificent, stretched out on my left. The top on my convertible was down. And the air was fresh. Lumbering along at forty miles an hour it began to get too fresh. It got a bit chilly. "It's getting cold; time to put on my sweater."
Then the recollection jolted me. No sweater. I remembered that when I got into the car I didn't have my sweater. My favorite sweater in the world. "What a day of misfortune! Here I lost forty-five dollars for a bunch of dates that you do -- or don't -- eat while they ripen and which I will probably throw away anyhow. And now I've lost my favorite sweater."
Continuing the drive I thought about it. "Now where did I leave that sweater? Could I have left it in Walter's office?" I let my mind wander over the course of events during the day. And I realized that I left my sweater in the cafe on that very street where I got pickpocketed. I debated with myself, "Should I return to look for it?"
Now, I am not addicted to material things. But this sweater was a special case. I have had innumerable sweaters. I wear sweaters. But never have I encountered another sweater that was so perfect. The fit was superb. It had a high collar which I particularly like. It was light-weight, soft and luxurious to the touch. It even looked good on me. Had I ever encountered another I would have bought it even though I had one already. That's how I felt about that sweater. The loss of that sweater was not a mere matter of money. Even with the money it would not have been easy to replace it. "Imagine the time one can consume in just looking for another such sweater. Better to spend time now to look for the one I lost."
Logic prevailed. So at the first opportunity I turned around to head back down the coast to Santa Monica. "Let us see if we can retrieve the sweater," whispered my mind soothingly. "It would be nice to get the sweater back."
In a short while I reached Arizona Street. I found a parking place.
"Be very careful, Marvin. This is your street of ill fortune."
I parked quite legally. I paid the meter for a full half-hour. And then I moved slowly and deliberately through my parking ritual so as to forestall any further evil.
It requires an elaborate ritual for me to park my car. The reason is that the car is old and failing. It is an eighteen year old convertible. The top is a hand operated one. It is prone to collapse if not treated with care. And parts, once broken, are not easy to replace. They are no longer manufactured. I put the top up over the car when parking it simply to preserve the interior as much as possible against weather -- rain, but mostly intense sunshine. I try to avoid having to sit down on a grilled seat half melted by the hot sun. It is not a question of locking the car. The locks don't work and I have no door keys anyway. I don't bolt the convertible top down over the interior. I just let it lie there to keep direct sunlight off the seats. And because the interior of my car is always open to the public, I must stow anything of value in the trunk. This means my briefcase and my portable tape recorder. My sound system goes into the trunk when I park; I take it out for any journey. And I go through all of this ritual every time I begin or finish a journey: top repositioned and trunk loaded or unloaded. There is a lot of opportunity for misfortune. I had had enough for one day so I went through the ritual slowly and carefully. It takes me a long time to get on the road and a long time to get off it. I got the car in shape and went off to the cafe.
I staged my entrance. Having a definite goal makes good theater. I marched in with concentrated determination and proceded directly to where I had been sitting. Naturally, by the time I got there, all eyes were on me. I enjoyed it.
I arrived at my seat and there was my sweater. It was right where I had left it something like three hours earlier. A young man was sitting at the table but in the other seat. He had been careful not to sit in the seat with the sweater. A gentleman of sensitivity.
I said, "Hello" and "Thanks." I took my sweater and went off. This stroke of luck raised my spirits. Returning to my car on the street I felt bouyant.
I was again on Arizona Street. "Well, here I am. Why not go back to the produce market and investigate. I'll speak to the date man, the one who sold me the dates that you don't let ripen."
That date story now seemed like a confidence scheme. Why would a Rock Star be selling dates? Maybe that guy was putting me on. Could he be the chief of the pickpockets? I'll bet that he had that sign there behind him, "BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS," as a decoy. The man has a sense of humor. And there he was selling dates to be eaten before they're ripe when, in fact, they're inedible before or after. He did take rather a long time to scoop up that mere half-pound of dates. The date-scoop-up time allowed his accomplice to position himself to take my money. Was this guy the culprit?
"Then again the man might have been innocent." I didn't know. "Let me, at least, ask him about the money. Why didn't I do it before?"
So I walked down the street to find him. The market was closing. The vendors were packing up what they hadn't sold. Some stragglers were still buying things. I saw the date man. And the image was right. The other vendors just didn't look like him. Besides, they had trucks. He had a little VW Bug into which he was stacking his crates.
I went up to him and I said, "Just after I bought those dates from you that you eat before they're ripe.." "Yea", says he, "the barquats."
"Those are the ones," I continued. "Just after I bought them from you I lost a wad of money: I think forty to fifty dollars. Do you know anything about it? Did I leave it anywhere?"
He examined the sky, reflecting earnestly for a long time, and then answered slowly, "You know, it did happen, earlier, that a lady found some money. A little lady. She found this money and she asked me who dropped it. And I said that it might have been you. I told her which way you went. You went down that way, didn't you?"
"Yes," I answered, "I went that way."
"Well, she waited around," continued the date man. "I think she waited about twenty minutes. And you didn't come back. Nobody claimed the money so, I guess, she just went off."
I thought to myself, "Well, I'm glad the forty dollars found such a nice lady -- who waited twenty minutes."
The date man stood there. He looked like he had more to say. I waited. And he said, "Maybe she'll come back next market day. If you're here maybe I can put you two together."
That was nice, I thought. "Thank you," I said, "but I'm happy that the forty dollars went, at least, to such a nice lady -- who waited twenty minutes to return it. "I went on my way.
But the idea refuses to leave me that the Rock Star Date-Man was a thief. He was the king of the pickpockets. He, alone, could stand beside a sign which read, "BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS." He was such a master that when somebody's pocket was picked who came back to investigate, he would say that a little old lady, who well deserved it, got the money.
© mchester, 1983
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