Monday, August 03, 2015

Chasing A Bike Thief

On Saturday I did something stupid, but now that it's over, upon reflection, I'm feeling proud of myself.

I often joke that after my family and job, my bike is the most important thing in my life. I bought it about three years ago with a generous holiday bonus from the families at our school. It was an inexpensive fixed gear bike, orange and gun metal gray, which I've been slowly upgrading one part at a time ever since. I normally take long rides on the weekends, but it's been so incredibly hot this summer that I decided to just ride down to King Street Station in Pioneer Square for a special "Out of Sight" weekend exhibit of local contemporary artists, some of whose work illustrate this post. While there, I ran into my friend and brilliant fiber artist Cameron Mason who invited me to a wine and cheese open house later in the day at the Foster White Gallery, where she had a couple of new pieces for sale.

It was really a perfect Seattle afternoon of light cycling and art.

I'd locked my bike to a rack just outside the gallery doors. As I started to leave, I saw a guy just starting to ride off on my bike. I shouted, "Hey!" and started to run. As I burst out onto the sidewalk, I shouted again, "Hey!" I emerged to find my bike lying on the sidewalk and a man running off up the hill.

A bystander said to me, "I wondered why he was cutting the lock." (Most of the quotes in this post are reconstructed from an imperfect memory, but this is a direct quote.)

I said, "He fell down didn't he?"


My bike is a fixed gear style bike, single speed with clip-in pedals. Everybody falls down the first time they try to ride my bike. When I first got it, I let a couple of friends try it out, and they both fell, which is why I don't let other people ride it anymore. Now that a third person has fallen, I can even more confidently say that everybody falls.

As I watched the failed bike thief run up the steep hill in the heat, I took note of his clothing and general appearance. I spotted his cable cutters on the ground where he had dropped them and picked them up. I then noticed that in his efforts to cut the lock, he had also managed to cut my rear wheel brake cable. I grumbled, "He cut my brake cables" to the small crowd that my shouts had drawn around me.

This "carpet" is made entirely from baking flour.

That's when I did the stupid thing -- I started following the failed bike thief.

I had no plan. I had no rationale. I only knew that after running up that hill in the heat he would be exhausted and therefore easy to catch up to. I also knew that he was headed for City Hall Park at the top of the hill, a place known locally for being the year-round loitering place for Seattle's sketchiest street people. I figured he would try to blend in there.

Walking my bike and carrying his cutting tool, I achieved the top of the hill, where I spied him right away on the far side of the park walking quickly with his head down. I tracked him from across the park, paralleling his course. Then suddenly, he turned, backtracking the way he'd come. I had him.

I angled across the lawn. When I got within a dozen feet, I shouted, "Hey!" then I used a swear word, which I regret. I had expected him to run, but instead he stopped and faced me, droop-shouldered. I shouted, "You tried to steal my bike!"

He started to tell me a stammering story about how some guy had put a gun to his head. Really. I interrupted him, saying, "I don't believe you. You tried to steal my bike. Here's your tool," and I held it up for him to see.

That's when I noticed his forehead was bleeding and there was another fresh abrasion on his left cheek. I said, "You fell, didn't you? You couldn't ride my bike." He was about my size and I judged him to be 15-20 years my junior. This was a very stupid thing I was doing, but it didn't feel stupid as I was doing it. He looked sad. I thought maybe he was going to start crying. I felt a bit like a mad dad scolding a kid, and he seemed to take it that way. He asked, "Are you going to call the cops?"

Without hesitating, I answered angrily, "No, I'm going to give you your tool back." I held it out to him, but he wouldn't take it, so I dropped it on the ground. It looked brand new. Comically, a guy in a yellow vest on litter patrol came over, picked it up with his long grabber tool, and dropped it in the trash, almost as if he didn't notice the conflict taking place right in front of him. I said, "Now you don't even have your tool."

I showed him my bike. I said, "And you cut my brake cable. Now I have to walk my bike all the way home. I'm mad at you." With that I started walking away, calling back over my shoulder, inexplicably, "You tried to steal my bike. Come on, man, get with the times!" Yes, that's what I said.

As I passed a group of about a dozen guys sitting on the benches, I saw they were nodding. A couple were smiling. A woman called out to me, "You wanna come to my house?" I laughed, "No thank you, but that's a nice offer!" It was probably just a run-of-the-mill solicitation, but I choose to think I'd impressed her. It was a lighthearted end to a strange incident.

As I rode home (he had only cut one of the two brake cables), I felt a sense of power and pride, even while my heart fluttered at my stupidity. I mean, had I left it alone, I would have had my bike and a nice new pair of cable cutters in exchange for a brake cable and bike lock. I had taken a stupid risk, but had been rewarded with this powerful feeling that came from standing up for myself. And I'm proud that, except for that swear word (and perhaps a couple more that I've edited out), I had told him how he made me feel. I had even tried to return his belonging even as he had tried to take mine.

It doesn't take a cynic to doubt that mine is the last bike he'll try to steal, and I recognize that being a middle aged white male gives me a lot of advantages, but this experience was quite life affirming. I mean, I practiced what I preach and it worked! This is what we try to teach the children to do when they have a conflict with another person: tell them what they did and how it made you feel. Most of the time, that's enough. In my case, there was really no restitution possible, so listening to me, I guess, was his "natural consequence." It worked because I walked away feeling lightheartedly good about myself, when I could have felt weak and victimized.

I'll work on the swear words for next time, but otherwise, I'm quite happy with the result.

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Lindi Wood said...

Well done, Tom! Thanks for sharing.

Quacko said...

WGlad you got your bike back. I am childcare person as are you- my bike is an old Schwinn 3 speed and my main form of transportation. I read your story today and laud your behavior. I felt that the best moment was the tool going in the trash. You showed kindness and ethics in a lousy situation- he made his choices. He will steal bikes again, but a story to think about of someone taking a stand against his behavior. This is the best modeling we can do for all other human beings.

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