Midnight at a bus stop, following a gallery event. Fatigue from hours of conversation. A man approaches, pipe in hand. A bit too close, then he’s out with it. “Hand over everything, please,” he says, in a firm but pleasant tone.
With such peaceful folk he easily achieves his objective. The norms are known, the gestures accepted. Mutual expectation requires each actor perform his role — thief or victim — then proceed on his way. Just as songs of the patria tend to begin with an ascending fourth, and the photographic rule-of-thirds advocates an off-center focus, so the well-executed crime possesses certain conventions. Rules are established with such clarity they even permit certain communications within their bounds. (One can always swap jokes with a traffic cop.)
Surprisingly, though, the thief doesn’t disappear immediately. In those few extra seconds the long-awaited 152 arrives. “Here it is,” he clarifies, pointing at the vehicle. Only once its doors slam shut does he vanish. If a robber goes beyond the nuts-and-bolts of monetary demand to offer helpful advice, is this a real instance of contact? Or is it simply a instinctive recourse to the set phrase, an unintentional lapse by a disoriented or inexperienced small-timer?
Let us dismantle the event, taking it by parts. To properly understand the anatomy of a hold-up, we must first understand the mentality of its perpetrator — the thief. Some thieves are pleasant in manner during their perpetration of a crime, others are unpleasant. Some are efficient in the amount they gather, others are not. We may therefore conclude at least four varieties of thief exist.
One can easily run through the permutations. There is the unpleasant and efficient thief — your garden standard who makes off with a television, what comes to mind when you think “thief”. There is the pleasant and efficient thief, the tech-savvy professional with nimble gloved fingers and a detached approach that evades messy human contact. There is the unpleasant and inefficient thief, who so quickly finds himself out of the game — either caught red-handed and jailed, or forced into legal work or mooching after he fails to collect sufficient sums.
An illustrative example of the last. A few weeks ago I was making my way through the plaza in front of Retiro station when a couple approached. The man and woman were visibly drunk. “Te pincho todo,” said the man. Something pointy was pressed in my back. The day was sunny and the people lying on the hill above looked down at the scene without moving. I, on the other hand, was forced into activity. The pair pursued, quick on my heels.
Escape, exhilaration. Recuperating with a glass of wine afterward, I analyzed events. These robbers would not stay in the game long, it was clear. Their broad daylight approach was not strategic. My money remained safely tucked away in my wallet; nothing had come of their risky play. They represented the variety of amateur thief disdained by professionals.
So much for these three categories. The enigma or “X” in our analysis is the category that remains — the pleasant and inefficient thief, such as the amiable minor leaguer at the bus stop. The type of theft he perpetrates is innocuous, the sum lifted negligible. The positive impression left by his friendliness outweighs the slight distaste left by his unwilling appropriation.
Activities like his are understandable. In fact, some argue they should even be encouraged. Face-to-face transactions are increasingly rare. Supermarket conversations rarely transcend banal acquisitions of dairy and veg, and despite what film sequences may portray, waiters usually prefer to serve up food not chat. Robberies themselves are now mostly virtual.
In a society in which freely-chosen talk so often reduces to cliché, forced or routine transactions retain the redemptive possibility of the unexpected. Pre-formulated structures like theft contain the potential for interaction and human connection.
As the robber didn’t board the bus, who knows how he spent his evening? The loot: a crumpled 20 peso note. Few restaurants remain open at that hour, and those which do offer limited options at that price. It’s not unlikely he stopped at a newsstand for cigarettes or a sandwich. Did he encounter a friendly vendor there, just as disposed to transcend the mechanical phrase by avoiding it or adopting a certain tone? Or was he unlucky, confronting only the mysterious glass wall that governs most conversations?
But here our dissection ends. This is an unknown only answerable by the kiosk vendor and his client, not the recent victim of a robbery, now disembarking at another stop.
Photograph by Jared Tarbell