In 1973, a Lebanese friend took me to a night club in Beirut. This was about six months before their long civil war broke out. The entertainment was a mix of Las Vegas style acts: bare breasted dancers, jugglers, singers and a magician.
The magician asked for a volunteer to come onstage. I did not volunteer but found myself up there anyway. I cannot recall how I participated in the tricks, except as a stooge. When done, he thanked me and I went to sit down. He said, “You forgot this!” and handed me my wallet. A few more steps and, “You forgot this!” and he returned my wristwatch. The final gag was my belt. How he had unbuckled it without me knowing astonished me.
How and why we can be tricked is one topic covered in the excellent and very entertaining series, Brain Games, on the National Geographic Channel. One fact: the human brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is impossible, although some people may be more adept at switching focus from one thing to another.
Magicians and pickpockets exploit this limitation by directing our focus where they want it. In January, the New Yorker profiled Apollo Robbins, a theatrical pickpocket who earns a living in Las Vegas. Robbins appears in some of the Brain Games episodes.
All this stopped being amusing and theoretical yesterday while I was at Costco. I took my iPad with me to confer with the Costco photo lab over some prints that didn’t turn out. (Note: Costco has high-end Noritsu printers and many professional photographers use them.)
While there I grabbed two items, checked out and decided to buy a churro. The snack bar is located inside this particular Costco with two service windows about 18″ apart. I went to the open window, but realized the man to my left hadn’t been served, so it was his turn.
My cart was at my side with the handles back behind me. In the spot where kids sit, I had put my photos in their envelopes and my iPad. Suddenly a tall guy behind me asks in an aggressive voice, “What line are you in?” He pointed at a sign that said form two lines. I asked him what difference it made. There were just the three of us. He said rules were rules and demanded to know what line I had chosen. By then, the server came to my window and took my churro order.
I paid and left. Customer number one was heading toward the exit alongside me and said, “What an asshole. I bet his wife isn’t giving him any.” I replied that we were both lucky: we could be him.
At this point, my brain was vacillating between three thoughts: 1) the asshole and what I should’ve said 2) whether to ditch my cart and just carry my stuff and 3) that tasty, warm churro. The iPad didn’t cross my mind.
In fact, I didn’t notice it missing for an hour after returning home when I went to use it. First a mad search, a call to Costco’s lost and found, then a recollection of what had transpired. I’ll never know for sure whether I was pickpocketed (or pick carted) but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The churro was tasty, but very expensive.