Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Petty crime

One stormy evening, a thirty-something woman climbed into an air-conditioned bus, relieved that she was on the last leg of her trip north from the office. She noted with relief that it was not raining again – not yet. She figured she could be home in 45 minutes, max. She wondered whether the weather would improve the next day.

As she made her way to the vacant seats at the back, she noticed that a man in a white shirt and with a bulging black backpack was closely trailing her – no, almost pushing her to the back rows. She stopped on her tracks and refused to budge.

Suddenly she became aware that the music playing through her ears had stopped. She felt for her headset at the outside pocket of her faux-leather bag. The cell phone it had been attached to – nothing fancy, just a white-and-beige Nokia C3 in a neat denim case – was not there.

Another man, this one in a black shirt, asked her to move to the back. Again she refused to move. She could faintly hear John Mayer singing “City Love” somewhere -- the phone automatically goes into loudspeaker mode if the headset is removed. Where was it? Was this a bad dream?

She looked around. She was still standing at the middle of the bus and a few other passengers were climbing in. The man in white had sat down but she did not take his eyes off him and that suspicious bulging bag. This as she rummaged through her bag to make sure she was indeed missing her phone.

“You took my cell phone,” she told him in Tagalog, pointing to his jeans pocket. If she were wearing a theft detector, she was sure the sirens would be screaming by now. She knew he took it. It was in his pocket, or his bag, or with his companion. People had started staring at them.

He fished out a phone from his pocket. “Hey, I have a phone, I did not take yours,” White said as he showed her a beaten-down unit, his own.

Black came nearer from where he was standing at the back and pointed out that there was a bottleneck already caused by her standing beside White’s seat. White told her: “Don’t go around accusing people of taking your things. It’s embarrassing.” Black then looked at his friend and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Black and White alighted even though they had climbed in at the same stop – at the corner of Edsa and Quezon Avenue just below the MRT station -- where the woman did.

The woman was sidetracked by White’s comment that she was unfairly accusing him. What if he were right? What if it was just inside her bag? It would really be unfair to publicly accuse somebody of doing something he did not do.

As soon as the two men were out of the bus, however, a wave of enlightenment through hindsight and regret at not having stopped them overcame the woman. And then she knew what she would have done had she not been sidetracked.

She would have stood at the door of the bus and refused to let them alight. She would have asked them to open their bags in front of all the other passengers. She would have had the others’ support. She would have asked one of the passengers to call her number and watch out for the ring tone.

But they were gone. The dark and the drizzle that had begun had swallowed them already. Were they reading her messages now? Sending prank texts to her contacts, viewing her photos, listening to the songs she had stored?

The woman took her seat as other passengers started talking to her, consoling her, telling her that they thought those two guys did it, too. “What was your cell phone unit?” the girl on her left asked. “Oh good thing it was not an iPhone or something that expensive.”

This was little consolation. By this time, the bus had started cruising along Edsa, picking up more passengers as though nothing had happened. The woman found herself shaking – not really in fear, or a sense of loss, but in anger and indignation.
Those guys must have been congratulating each other by then, for escaping such a close call. “She almost had us, but in the end we had her,” they must be saying.

Her seatmate continued to comfort her even as she tried to maintain a cool exterior amid her shaking. “There’s the law of karma,” the girl reminded her. “Be thankful you did not lose anything else and that they did not hurt you.” When the girl alighted, she said: “Just take even more care next time.” The kindness of strangers!

But some strangers are vicious and shameless, too.

To all those in my phone book, please disregard my number right away. I will get back to you once I have obtained a new unit and a new number. And, rain or shine, at whatever time of day, don’t let your guard down. Sometimes people are just waiting for the opportunity to do you wrong, in big or little ways.

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