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An estimated 1.5 million bicycles are stolen each year in the U.S., and behind each of those is a sad face and a story. Perhaps you chased down a thief who nabbed your Trek from outside your Results gym. Maybe your vintage-inspired Specialized frame disappeared in the crowd of Eastern Market, never to be seen again. City Desk will document the world of local bike theft through regular reader-submitted narratives (and if we run yours, we’ll pay you). Send us your tales about that elaborate sting you arranged to catch the guy who nabbed your Cannondale to Jonathan L. Fischer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was supposed to be a story about justice. That’s the blog post I had already written in my head when I went to meet my bike thief. It would have featured photos of my citizen sting squad, and trumpeted honesty over deception, action over complacence.
Instead there was a cold walk home with a lonely blue helmet and an empty spot under the Bob Marley poster in my closet, where my bike should be.
I left work on a Tuesday afternoon in April, dreading the bike ride home after a rare set of squats I’d done at the gym. But when I stepped into the sunlight a few blocks from Metro Center, Lemon was no longer locked to the black bike post, waiting for my ungrateful taking.
Lemon is a bright yellow Fuji Newest 4.0—a beginners roadbike, by most measures, but a fairly expensive and loyal companion. I bought it five years ago near my parents’ home in Tarpon Springs, Fla., at a combination bar and bike store named Neptune Cyclery.
I’d started biking every day to work since last summer when I’d moved to D.C. The 6:30 a.m. ride was my favorite part of the day—the sun might be rising, the roads were quiet. It woke me up more than a cup of coffee.
As I stood on the sidewalk that day, I was hardly in shock. In 2010, the FBI reported that 4.4 percent of all larceny-thefts in the northeast U.S. were bicycle thefts, much higher than pick-pocketing. And anyone who has owned a bike during college knows they might never see it again.
Within minutes, I filed a police report, asked the staff at the bank next door to consult their security tapes, and posted on Facebook and Twitter. I half-heartedly searched Craigslist and wondered whether I should post an ad or just start looking for a new bike.
And then there it was: Lemon—being sold for a paltry $130, my lights still attached to the frame. The thief deemed her appropriate for anyone between 5’4” and 6’3”, which was laughable: I’m 5’2”.
I gave a full report to a disgruntled police officer when he showed up an hour later. He chided me for not using a U-Lock, which I had vetoed after seeing my friend saw through his own in broad daylight. Instead I used a heavy-duty metal lock looped through both wheels.
The disapproving officer left me less than confident. So I decide to become a vigilante.
Pretending to be a buyer, I sent an email expressing interest in the bike, asking casually about the year and cost. I checked my phone all day, and the next morning. Nothing. So I posted on Craigslist that anyone trying to buy my stolen yellow Fuji should let me know.
Before noon I had two responses, and one had a phone number. Bingo.
After a futile phone call to the police to hatch a plan, I asked my co-worker Alvin to call the thief, pretending to be the man who had emailed me his Craigslist correspondence. Alvin set up a time and place to meet—the Whole Foods by the Foggy Bottom Metro, where there would be a crowd to stop a quick getaway and campus police in case of danger.
I spent the next hour cooking up a scenario with Alvin and some friends who, thanks to shared Facebook outrage, wanted to help. We discussed different options: I could be honest and confront the thief, or I could ride away while pretending to take a test ride. I could also wait for the police.
We decided on the first plan. (A note about me: I am sometimes deluded by optimism). I figured that if I spoke with my thief, who called himself Matt, showed him a police report, and offered a clean getaway, I would get my bike back. I also thought this would teach him a lesson about biker ethics.
My three friends and I got to Whole Foods early and sat at an outside table with our plan. When we saw someone coming up with a bike we would split up. Simon, a tall British graduate student, and I would confront. Alvin and another friend we’ll call Sherry would take photos and standby if police needed to be called. I realized that day I had no fear-inducing friends. The British accent would have to work.
A few minutes later a young black guy sat behind us, kicking out his legs and crossing one mustard-colored Nike sneaker over the other. I noticed him immediately because he was a bit attractive and made a big deal about sitting next to a girl he didn’t know. I saw his eyes dart, as if searching.
Then I got a text from the number: “I’m here.”
Seeing nobody else nearby, Simon approached the guy and asked if he was selling a bike. The guy shook his head no, and said he was waiting for his girlfriend.
We texted the number back to let the bike thief know our location. He texted back vague answers. Meanwhile, the guy behind us was texting and chatting on his Blackberry, putting on a thinly veiled show of talking casually with friends. But I saw him check his phone each time we called or texted, and when I called him from inside the store, looking at him through the glass, “Matt” briefly picked up before realizing his mistake.
After half an hour of playing games, after my squad refused to let me confront the thief, I decided we should get up and split up. Alvin and I would head to the Metro, where we thought the bike thief would have to go eventually, and Simon and Sherry would head down the block. Before we split, Sherry took a clear photo of “Matt” with her phone.
I started to walk slowly away from the table, turning back every few feet. Sure enough, seconds later, our pal was jogging down the street. I started running after him, far enough away that he didn’t notice, and then called Simon to turn around. But the thief had a two-block advantage and was considerably faster.
Seconds later “Matt” was peeling around the corner on a yellow bike. My yellow bike. I followed him across the road, where cars and taxis were barreling south. I yelled and cursed, screaming, “That asshole has my bike!”
He passed by me, maybe 10 feet away, surprised and then laughing in my face. I tripped over myself in painful slow motion—my boots too big in the ankle—and landed on the side of the road, the glass bottle of kombucha in my hand shattering dramatically as passersby looked on. Spectators looked at me, a sad sight I’m sure, and then walked on, nonplussed.
As “Matt” disappeared out of sight, the four of us slowed down to a walk. I called the police immediately, but they were only concerned that I wasn’t chasing my bike thief. They promised to send an officer immediately. I was so adrenaline-pumped that I didn’t notice my hands were covered in blood until I looked down at the police report I was clutching.
In our state of defeat, Simon helped me find a place to wash up. Then Sherry and Alvin called my phone and told us the bike thief had called them, laughing about our “obvious” sting operation. He told them he was a career thief and that this was how he makes his living while he studies acting at Howard. He mentioned he had been “looking at that bike for weeks”, and named the street corner where I work.
In my irrational state, I needed to talk to him, too, so I called him back. We spoke like passive-aggressive roommates. I told him my police-free plan, which could have set him free. I told him we had his photo and his number. I asked him how hardworking citizens like me should deal with people like him, who wouldn’t let them ride in peace.
Instead of defending himself, he gave me a long, surreal tutorial on how to lock my bike with two locks, carefully detailing how to loop them through the wheel and frame.
A few minutes later, “Matt” had things to do. “All right, girl, I gotta get going,” he said.
“OK sweetheart, see you soon,” I spat.
The police never showed up, and I walked home that evening, feeling every step consciously, toting helmet, looking at every biker with love and envy. I went over all the mistakes we made in my head—too many people, not enough aggression, missing our moment. A complete and obvious lack of street smarts.
I also thought of how lucky I was to have friends like Simon, who was already revving up for another try; Sherry, who had taken a clear photo of the thief and watched my purse; and Alvin, who arrived despite battling the flu.
The next morning, I woke up 10 minutes earlier so I could catch the bus to work.
Graphic by Carey Jordan