Thursday, 08 November 2007

It's criminal! (or is it?)

It's no surprise that South Africa is home to so many urban legends about crime. Yet, many of these legends have their origins elsewhere. But there is a category of crime urban legend that tends not to translate too well in this country - mainly because they are legends of crimes that never were.

Behind the legends of crimes that never were

Urban legends, like prime time TV, thrive on crime stories. Everyone has a fear of being mugged, burgled, or otherwise becoming the victim of crime, and most people have a secret fantasy of fighting crime as a vigilante.

Fictional crime fighters like Batman are popular precisely for that reason. But breaking the law for the sake of justice is fraught with peril, so it is little wonder that people readily believe urban legends both about criminals getting their comeuppance, and about amateur crime-fighters getting it all wrong.

This urban legend about retaliation gone wrong seems to have happened to a friend of a friend of every second person in New York. It is the legend of ...

The Middle-Class Mugger

A businessman is strolling through Central Park in New York City during his lunch break when he sees a jogger running towards him. The walkways are pretty crowded, and the jogger veers out of the way of a pram, knocking hard against the businessman.

He apologises as he runs off, and the businssman, being a naturally suspicious New Yorker, quickly checks his pockets. His wallet is missing!

He runs after the jogger and, with sweat pouring down his face, grabs the runner's arm.

"Give me that wallet!" he shouts. The jogger, intimidated by the shouting, heavy-breathing, sweating man, hands over the wallet, and runs away.

The businessman arrives back at the office looking much the worse for wear, but with a great story to tell his colleagues. With his co-directors and secretaries gathered in his office, he repeats the tale and, as he reaches the climax, he waves the wallet in triumph.

Just then his personal assistant points to the corner of his desk: "So whose wallet is that one then?"

He had left his own wallet in the office, and mugged the jogger for his.

They don't all end like that. If New Yorkers are in a good mood, they'll probably tell you the one with the happy ending, like the tale of the ...

Fair Exchange

A woman riding the subway to work in New York City moves to the door as the train pulls into the station just before her stop. As the doors start closing for the train to pull out, she feels her gold neck-chain snapping loose. In the same instant that she whirls round and sees her attacker about to leap from the train, without thinking, she grabs at him, manages to hook a chain that is swinging round his own neck, and snaps it off. He disappears out of the door and up the stairs.

She is shocked, but not too distressed, as her chain was an inexpensive fake. But when she takes the mugger's chain to a jeweller to have it repaired, he informs her it is ... pure gold.

The flip side of the Fair Exchange is the story that "legendary" American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand calls ...

The Misguided Good Deed

From the New York Times "Metropolitan Diary" column:

A woman on a subway sees an expensive-looking leather glove lying on the floor just as a well-dressed man is leaving the train. She snatches it up and throws it onto the platofrm before the train doors close. Then other passengers all stare at her, and then one of them, a mild-looking man, asks plaintively, "Why did you toss my glove out the door?"

As with all good urban legends, these are cautionary tales with a strong moral and a warning on appropriate behaviour. The bottom line is, never make assumptions about people you don't know, and especially don't act rashly on those assumptions.

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