Stop. Thief.

On Sunday, I arrived in Vienna from Brno with one bar of mobile phone charge, met wife and kid at other kid’s apartment and went to the Donauinselfest at the Donauinsel, a long, artificial island in the Danube that protects Vienna from flooding and serves as a recreational area and, this weekend, free music festival; we walked from one end to the other, which was surprisingly exhausting in the hot sun, especially if you were tired to begin with or, as the kid said, ‘restfett’ (Austrian teen slang for residually alcoholized), as the hot sun beat down and we laughed at the bands and each other. Then I left for home because I had work to do, on a Sunday, and the kid was meeting friends and this is where our ways parted, as my wife was leaving on a business trip the following day, although the actual parting was tougher than we had imagined, as the festival was crowded, as usual, and the kid was supposed to be meeting people, but had lost her phone so was using ours to communicate via facebook, and no one was showing up, and although we didn’t want to helicopter we also didn’t want to throw her to the wolves so we hemmed and hawwed and peeked around cornersĀ  and so on until my wife gave up and sat with our daughter until her friends arrived, there in the crowd, and I drifted homewards, trying not to fall asleep on the subway and miss a stop.

Eventually I arrived at Vienna’s Westbahnhof (train station), more crowded on a Sunday evening than I had expected, and riding a crowded, long escalator up to the main floor from the subway level below, heard a distant

“stop. thief.”

It was the first time I had heard such a thing, and it did not sound the way I had expected it would sound. The speaker did not sound very excited, and with the ambient noise and my own tinnitus I talked myself out of thinking that I had really heard it.

But then a guy ran past, up the escalator, into the main hall of the train station. I suffered yet another brief spell of disorientation as I wondered whether I really had heard “stop, thief” after all and if so whether that was the thief or the other party. The runner was a middle-aged man, thin, grey hair, denim jeans, sneakers and a denim jacket. He glanced over his shoulders once or twice, though, and otherwise watched the floor in front of him; he also ran bent-over and seemed to be hiding something under his jacket; all in all he ran the way one might imagine a thief would run and not the person trying to catch the thief, but I still wasn’t sure.

I was, in fact, deep in the throes of skepticism.

Imagine, there you are in a crowd, yelling “stop, thief” and all the bystanders suffer existential crises, going, “is any of this even real?”

Then the second guy, the one yelling, ran up the escalator too, finally. He was younger, and larger and looked as if he would catch the guy pronto, except for the fact that he ran like he yelled, without passion.

He was running really slowly.

But so was the first guy.

When I finally reached the top of the escalator, I got off and followed them at a normal, strolling pace, and they weren’t really vanishing quickly or anything. They were sort of jogging along the sidewalk towards the street, the one in front skulking and the one in back not catching up.

I asked myself all sorts of things. Should I have grabbed the first guy? I couldn’t have grabbed him, as I had not yet realized what was going on at the time he passed me. Even had I been sure I had heard ‘stop thief’, how was I supposed to know he was the thief? You can’t just grab anyone when you hear ‘stop. thief.’, it has to be the right person.

Should I have chased him? Even if that weren’t to give me a heart attack, and assuming I actually manage to catch him somehow, then what? Punish him? Teach him a lesson? Hold him until the police come? Hand him over to the guy chasing him? Show compassion and let him go with a warning?

Then I said the hell with it and got on my train. Now I’m wondering if it were some sort of psychological study, or a candid-camera type thing, due to the unexpected way the two were acting, how slowly they ran. And I’m also wondering if wondering those things is just a defense mechanism so I don’t feel bad about having done nothing. When you pick pockets in train stations and run away, or when you chase pickpockets, how do you run?

3 responses to “Stop. Thief.

  1. b

    Or what if the guy wasn’t a thief, and the other guy was a bad guy trying to catch him and he called out ‘Stop, thief!’ to try and get people to help him catch the innocent guy who was really just running away from some Nazis. You know. Like we all do.

  2. joeri

    I once was waiting in the car at a crossing as I witnessed a young thug snatching a womans purse. In a reflex I put the accelerator to the floor and drove after the running thief. I drove two streets and then had to stop because he turned into a one way street which I couldn’t. He just looked at me and smiled. It was over in maybe 30 seconds, afterwards I was shaking because I realised that I chased him by reflex and didn’t have a realistic plan to halt him anyway (because I would have had to run him over to stop him, or leave the car and risk it being stolen as well) or he could have had a knife or something… You won’t know how you’ll react until you witnessed an event like that I guess.

  3. mig

    oh, yeah that all went through my mind: he probably has a knife; what if the first guy is not a thief, and the second guy means him harm, etc.
    i was on the subway once when a guy got on who was, it seemed, itching to do someone violence. he bumped into everyone, stomped on my toes as he went past, and had a dangerous air about him. he was not very big, but no one wanted to fuck with him. then a big guy told him to behave and we all rejoiced inside. the smaller guy wrapped his leather jacket around his left arm, as i have heard one does in a knife fight, for example, then went over and punched the big guy in the nose and the guy went down on his knees and began to scream. we all got off at the next stop. i probably posted about that here, it was years ago.