No, it wasn’t the principle of the thing. It was the bike.
It was a good New York bike – looked like crap, worked fine. I’d be terrified to leave a thousand-dollar bike on the street, even for five minutes, and what’s the use of that? I don’t use it just for exercise; I go places. And then I go back.
Had it seven years. Pretty well-used when I got it, from a friend trading up to a mountain bike. At first I thought it was an inch or two too high for me, and the seat, hard plastic, rough on my rear, but I got used to it. Knew its quirks; developed the responses to guide it through Times Square at rush hour, or jump from pavement to corduroy when a street was being resurfaced.
It was my bike. I felt like me on it.
Replaced the tires just a few months back. The seat (narrow, hard, a rip in it) could use replacing too. And there was the plastic remnant of an old lock holder that I never removed, still on the shaft.
Never put my name on it. Didn’t record the serial number. Until it was stolen and I went to the cops, I didn’t know bikes had serial numbers.
Knew it would be tough to replace. They don’t make them like that anymore – they make these fat-tired jobbies, sometimes with no gears at all. Didn’t want something that looked new – thief magnet. Didn’t want something that would fall apart at the first smash of a suddenly opened taxi door. And it would have to occupy a very narrow place on the road at those moments when the cab you didn’t see, the one whose driver earned his stripes in Katmandu or Abidjan, scorches by a quarter inch from your elbow. You have to be able to hold steady. You have to know your machine.
Tuesday I biked to the Mid-Manhattan library, collecting books to research an article, checking the half-price booth for theater tickets, flirting with cute foot traffic, and so down Fifth Avenue home. New metal hoops have been installed in the sidewalk, and I left it there, with my simple – too simple – hoop lock. It was about eight, and I figured I’d drop my loot then ride to the piers to watch the sunset. Instead, I fell on the bed; did not open my eyes till ten. Still a safe hour, wouldn’t you say? Very safe in my part of the South Village. So I went downstairs. No bike.
Well, it’s New York. Your bike will be stolen. No tears. (The last bike went that way.) Besides, I had an article to write.
When the writing was done, I called Cedric, who’d recently purchased a used bike, and asked him to recommend bike stores. He told me about a couple, but they were far away – Avenue C, Grand Street, the East River. No easy matter to get there – without a bike.
It was a week before I had time to explore. I took subways to Grand Street, E up to West Fourth, F down to Grand – no bikes, but I did find a kosher bakery with real prune danish. The nearest bus went up Avenue A, and I started across East Fifth Street for Avenue C. If I’d known the East Village well, I’d never have chosen Fifth – it’s a cul-de-sac. Some civic building - a police warehouse garage, I think (ironically) - runs from Fourth to Sixth on B.
So it’s a quiet afternoon on an unfamiliar street.
But one thing on the street is not unfamiliar.
I’d been staring at every red-brown bicycle in the West Village for a week, and each had characteristics that quickly revealed they could not be mine. So I studied this one. New yellow-wall tires? Yes. The name on the shaft in rusted flash-letter:
It was mine all right. Locked by a heavy padlock and a thick, rusty chain to one of those little square fences the city puts around spindly trees.
I ran about, frantic, for the nearest cop shop. Found one on Eighth and Avenue C. I explain: I found my bike. My bike. No, I haven’t got a receipt or the serial number; no, I never put my name on it. The cop is sympathetic but regretful. Nothing they can do. I recognize his problem, I sympathize with his predicament. But I’m boiling.
As I wait for a bus back across town – a bus I shouldn’t even have to take – I am boiling. I consume prune danish at a dangerous rate.
I’d feel easier if I hadn’t found it again – gone with the wind. But I have found it again. And it’s my bike.
Every person riding by me on a bike is doing it on purpose to make me feel lousy.
Every ache in my fallen arches is a grievance, with an identifiable culprit.
“So get a hacksaw.”
No, the cop didn’t say that. The guys in my local pub, Ty's, suggested it.
I’m not a hacksaw kind of guy. Visions: passing cops enquiring politely what it is I am up to with that hacksaw? “Well, it’s my bike.” “I see. You can prove this?”
Cat suggests, “Oh officer, I’m such a ditz! I locked my bike here and then lost the key to the lock.” She might get away with that – but I’m no actor.
Bunny says, “Get some liquid freon. Tell them you have a chain on an old trunk and you’ve lost the key. Pour it on the locks, then hit them with a hammer. Wear protective goggles.” But the hardware guys don’t stock freon. And another guy at the pub says it doesn’t always work.
And what do I say if the owner – no, I won’t use that word – the person in current possession – shows up in the middle of the operation? I imagine him: taller than I, younger, well muscled, martial arts belts of various hues. Someone to reason with.
A stratagem: Get another lock and put it on the bike. To this attach a note: “This bike was stolen from me last Tuesday. Please call this number and let’s discuss who you got it from, and so track the thief. Or tell me how much you’d let me have it back for.”
This could work, if he’s a reasonable guy, and we meet in a public place where he can’t beat the crap out of me.
Or, he’ll just get a hacksaw and cut my lock off, and move the bike someplace I’ll never find it. Such as indoors.
Then he (or a cop) knows how to find me.
Alternate scheme: I get a nameplate and glue it beneath the seat, then tell the cops I knew it was mine because it has my name on it. Would they detect that this was a recent addition? Would they be amused if my fraud came to light?
“Why not keep an eye on it until someone uses it?” – say many people who have not thought the thing through. How many hours do they expect me to commit to this? How much of their lives would they devote to an unpaid stakeout?
“So forget it. You can get a cheap Chinese-made bike at K-Mart,” says Judy, who has, in fact, bought one. It’s all shiny and inviting – to thieves. She lives in New Jersey and can keep it in her garage.
I can’t forget it. I feel my manhood has been challenged. I want my bike.
The thing that drove me into fits was the sight of it, sitting there, unridden yet unavailable. I know because I went back, again and again, to make sure it had not been moved.
It never budged!
It appeared to be sinking, like a triceratops at LaBrea, into the mud of the little square in the pavement. The bastard was leaving it out in the rain. And it only occupied one side of the square fence because the other sides are occupied by other bicycles. None of them ever moved either.
This has the earmarks of a depot. Someone is stealing the bikes of New York and leaving them here, a quiet area because it’s not a through street, and barely policed (that I can see). Here they sit until he gets a customer, or until some truck drives up and hauls them off to Belgrade. Okay, Newark. The principle is the same.
The police should be aware of this. Won’t they be pleased I have uncovered a multi-hundred-dollar bike-fencing ring? Doubtful. And I do not want my bike impounded and held as evidence; I want it ridden. By me – and nobody else but me. I just want it rid by me alone.
However, by revisiting the crime, I have discovered that the heavy, rusted chain around the fence behind my bike … isn’t attached to my bike at all. It’s just curled on the fence, waiting for some worthier candidate. The only thing holding my bike is the padlock attached to the bike chain. Not to the body of the bike – just the chain.
The sonofabitch is tossing my helplessness in my teeth.
Quite a little nest he’s got here – not only chains and various padlocks, and a number of bikes, but a club from a stolen car is attached to this fence.
If I’m going to do something vaguely illegal (okay, it’s not vaguely illegal; it’s illegal), I’ll have to do it very quickly, when no one’s around. Midnight or four a.m. are out – just when he might come by to inspect his stock. And on weekends people fill the streets unpredictably. Weekdays are emptiest, mid morning or mid afternoon.
“Do you have clippers – heavy ones – the sort that cut through chain? The sort that cut through padlock even better?” – I ask everyone.
Nobody has. Not a regular utility item, is it? I’ve seen them on Canal Street for $80, but it’s unthrifty to buy a tool to use only once – unless I go into bike theft as a profession. Not a bad idea – the police pay no attention. Think of it as unregulated capitalism.
I try to rent clippers from my bike store, claiming I’ve lost the key to my lock. They look at me funny and refuse. What do they think I’m going to do – steal a bike?
I am a very law abiding person. But the laws are said to frown on bike theft. Well, I haven’t looked them up lately.
I put it off on the weekend – street patterns are unpredictable on weekends. I put it off during the week – I have my own work to do. But I can’t focus on it, or on anything. I’m having dreams about it. I’m overreacting. It’s the principle of the thing. One has one’s principles. But one doesn’t have one’s bike.
Inspecting the corpus delecti, I sit in the Café Gamin across the street for two hours, seething. No one comes by looking suspicious. Or rather, everyone looks suspicious.
Before I leave, I attach an old bike lock to the shaft and the fence. If he sells it or wants to ship it out, he’ll have a tougher time moving it. On the other hand, if he ever looks at it closely (the evidence implies he never does), he’ll know someone is on to him.
Finally: Hank has a hacksaw. It looks frail, but I’m desperate.
Tomorrow. This thing will be resolved tomorrow.
Hermes, god of thieves (and commerce), be my aid! (Peter has made me a little statuette of him for my altar; I libate to it before major travels.)
The moon is full, omens are everywhere. I will shave my skull to look tough, wear a ripped flannel shirt and a bandanna around my head; if spotted by witnesses, I will look nothing like myself. But then I do none of this. Looking like myself, I put the hacksaw in a backpack, and head for the bus. Just missed a #21 – bad omen. I will take a cab – I want this thing over with. But no – here comes another #21. Good omen.
Avenue C and East Fourth. Everyone has a bike, all insecurely fastened to this, that or the other part of the streetscape. I could have them off in no time, if it weren’t for witnesses.
Heading down East Fourth, I pass a yard full of police and police vehicles, but East Fifth is empty as usual.
I study the problem. I pull out the hacksaw. I look as though I know just what I’m doing. The saw makes not a dent in the padlock.
Well then – Plan B.
I want this situation resolved.
I begin to saw at the bike’s own chain. (What’s the crime? It’s my property, isn’t it?) The chain spirals around a large wheel and a small one, through a mechanism. Between the mechanism and the padlock is an open space. Half a link cuts right through, but the other half, because of my awkward angle, is harder to bear down on.
A passing fellow (shaved skull, bandanna) eyes me. I look up, not resentful, just … looking. “Having a nice day?”
“Pretty good, thanks,” I reply, with bland cheer.
He wanders off. Does he look back suspiciously? I don’t know. I am at my task. If you do not look as if you thought people were looking at you suspiciously, no one will think you look suspicious. I feel no stage fright – there was near-hysteria in anticipation, but now that I’m in action, I feel good – the workman at his trade, the job no one could do for me. I feel righteous. I could kill, rob, perform an act of terrorism, sing Turiddu on the Met stage - it is beforehand and afterwards that terrify.
Free at last. The chain comes out of the padlock, and then I remove my own lock from where I’d left it the day before. Simple.
Of course, it cannot be ridden in its chainless state.
I walk it to a bike store and say, truthfully, “Someone took a hacksaw to my bike chain.” He says it will cost $5.95 to repair it, and to come back before 7. He urges me not to replace the chain with a new one.
At 7, I'm back. I buy a $30 lock and head home, graceful as a loping centaur. Centaurs are graceful; trust me. Doored by a cab on Houston Street. The cabbie asks if I’m okay. Now, that’s a good omen.
There is a hiccup as I ride, as if something in the gear mechanism is catching. It requires an overhaul, but hey – I’ve just saved $150 on a new bike.
Before anything else, I turn it upside down and copy the serial number. Proof!
It’s no happier for 17 days at the mercy of the streets and the elements, and a certain element in the streets. And now the chain hiccups.
Perhaps it’s time for an upgrade. (This time, keep the receipt!)