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The bus was crowded, a lurching, lumbering microcosm of China itself.
Actually, I should clarify: the bottom half of the bus was crowded. The top part, where my neck was craning to keep my head from hitting the roof, was all mine. And from this vantage point overtop the sea of black hair stretching to the back, I could see all. Women taking children to school, other women and men heading to work, someone in coveralls coming home from work, and my wife next to me, heading to Tiennanmen Square.
Suddenly there was yelling, shouting and, Exodus-like, the sea of black hair parted in the middle. Bodies wriggled their way into tiny spaces, and in the new openness a muscular man in a black t-shirt and shorts had a smaller, slighter man in a deadly chokehold.
"Hey!" I yelled. "Hey!" This was the only way I could come up with to communicate my abhorrence. Nobody paid any attention to me. Another man, wearing a pale blue, collared shirt, joined the fray, and the muscular man yanked a bag from the hand of the man he had just been choking. The man in the collared shirt, I then noticed, also had someone collared. It was a mugging, and no one was doing anything to stop it.
But a strange mugging. Where were the attackers planning to go? The bus was still moving, jerking in stop-start fashion with the traffic. The muscular man let go of his victim and reached into the bag. He held up four wallets.
One of them was mine.
"Hey, that's ours!" Mary shouted. And before I knew how to overcome my ineffectual response to the crisis, Mary had lunged through the crowd and taken hold of my wallet.
But the strong man wasn't letting go.
He shouted something at her in Chinese, to which she responed, "No! This is ours!" Again, he said something, and she replied, "No! Give it back!" And in this fashion the wallet was tugged back and forth, back and forth in the middle of the bus.
Finally the man turned his head to the back of the bus—still not letting go—and yelled something to the passengers, to which a distant voice answered, "Police." He repeated the word to us with a nod.
The bus stopped and we were beckoned off with the two undercover officers and their two prisoners and a shoulder bag full of wallets. I was too busy admiring the delicate fingerwork of these professional thieves to feel upset or violated; the pickpocket himself, however, scowled at me like I were his little sister and he an eight-year-old boy recently tattled upon.
The police hailed two cabs, one for us and one for the thieves. There is some curious relationship between police and taxi drivers in China, which I still haven't figured out. Needless to say, when we got to the police station no payment was made to the cabbie that I could see.
The station itself was a small, cinder-block building, thick with generations of glossy white paint. The flourescent lights and brown, tiled floor gave it an almost Abu-Ghraib-like feel. I was glad I wasn't going to have to stay long. We waited in one room with two uniformed officers who, because they knew no English, only talked to each other, and occasionally smiled and nodded to us. We did the same for them. It was very congenial.
After perhaps an hour, another uniformed officer entered. The arresting officers, it seemed, had gone back out onto "the beat." He led us to a second room in which my wallet and its contents had been laid out upon a small teatowel on the floor. A few worthless paper fen in denominations of one and two—so worthless that merchants would give them as change, but wouldn't take them as payment—a used stub from some tourist attraction or other, and the wallet itself were all arranged like a fan. I was almost sad that the thieves hadn't gotten away with it. It would have been satisfying knowing that I'd outsmarted them by keeping everything of value tucked away in my moneybelt. Oh well, this was fun, too.
On the table was paper in triplicate, filled top to bottom in Chinese script.
"Please," said the officer, handing me a pen.
"I can't sign this," I said, incredulous. "I don't know what it says." For all I knew I was about to confess to being the kingpin of some international fen-smuggling ring. They insisted, and despite my very reasonable requests for a translator, no one was present who could translate my request for a translator. So I signed.
My fears were groundless, I suppose, for as soon as I signed, they scooped up my belongings and escorted Mary and me to the door.
We caught the next bus.