When I glanced the flat-head screwdriver in his hand, time stopped. The shouting stopped. The shellack-coated handlebars gripped in my fingers stopped shaking and pulling away from me. For just one second, I focused so hard on that screwdriver that time froze.
And for that second, only one thought was on my mind: I am a very stupid person.
Let’s rewind. Early today, my good friend Danny popped into Zeitgeist Coffee in Pioneer Square. He had forgotten his keys, but he looked through the window and saw there was no line. Luck was in his favor, it seemed, so he leaned his bike against the bike rack and went inside to get a pre-work cup of coffee. He kept an eye on his bike as he ordered. He turned to the cashier to pay, made a bit of small talk, and when he turned around, it was gone.
He got outside in time to see someone else pedaling away on his ride. After he gave up chasing on foot, he called police to file a report and then called me. I tweeted this:
— Seattle Bike Blog (@seabikeblog) February 11, 2013
Then I followed that up with this:
Bike thieves suck.
— Seattle Bike Blog (@seabikeblog) February 11, 2013
Knowing how much time and care Danny put into every detail of this bike, I immediately set up an alert through ifttt.com so that I would receive a text message whenever anyone posted a Soma bike on Craigslist in Seattle, Portland or Vancouver BC. But I was actually surprised when, less than 12 hours after it was stolen, I got a text pointing to this ad:
I sent it to Danny and he made contact with the guy. Though it was listed in Olympia, he was actually in White Center.
Danny called the police. After trying to navigate the phone tree and finding no relevant option, he decided to do things the old fashioned way and went to the East Precinct to speak to someone in person and get advice on how to proceed.
But that’s where his hopes of a quick and painless return of his bike ended. Officers told him that they could not help him. Even though he has detailed knowledge about every single detail of the bike—from the name of every part, the shellack he used on the cloth handlebar tape, to the number of layers of beer can he used to shim the front derailer—and was in contact with the person who had it, he was turned away with the vague and unhelpful advice that once he sees the bike and the suspect, he could call 911.
After hearing Matt Goyer’s story, we knew that was not a very dependable option. Matt delayed the guy with his stolen bike for a very long, awkward period of time waiting for SPD to show up, but they never did. So what? We’re supposed to go meet with someone of unknown mental state and level of danger and then…do nothing?
Knowing this might be the last chance we would ever have to see the bike again, we went with a plan B.
We packed a crappy backpack full of junk—a moldy Dead Baby Downhill water bottle that has not been cleaned since that summer ride, a blank notebook with all but four pages torn from it and an over-sized pair of pants—and set off for White Center with a third member of our crew, Karl.
The plan was simple: Fearing he may recognize Danny from the morning, I would pose as Danny and meet the guy in an active strip of White Center in front of Proletariat Pizza and the King County Sheriff’s storefront. Danny and Karl hung around, but acted like they did not know me. When he showed up, they would call the police. In the meantime, I would take a test ride and never return. If he wanted collateral, I would leave my backpack full of “work stuff” and, if he persisted, my nearly empty wallet. After all, nobody is expected to buy a bike without trying it, right?
Seemed like a surefire plan. As I was walking to meet him, I recorded this video on Danny’s phone:
When I saw him, everything seemed to go fine at first. We shook hands—his was wet from the sweat of the open tallboy in his pocket—and I started ogling the bike like I was just some sucker. I also tried to read him. He was wearing a ragged hoodie with a black beanie and nervous eyes. He took cautious sips of his beer as we made small talk about how the pedals do, in fact, turn and the gears do, in fact, shift when you move the shifters. But when I asked to take it for a test ride, he said, “No.”
We hadn’t planned on that.
I offered my bag as collateral, but he refused because he was afraid I would ride away with it. I took my emptied wallet from my pocked and put that in the bag, but then he said he wanted to see the money.
Now, before you think that our idea was complete crap, let me just say that we had a lot of worse ideas. One of those bad ideas included a stack of stage money Karl had, but we decided against bringing it because we weren’t sure about how counterfeit currency laws work. We also figured that having a stack of fake cash wouldn’t make us look so great when the cops showed up. So needless to say, I did not have any money to show him.
Somehow, I convinced him that we could go somewhere like a parking lot where I could ride it but he could make sure I wouldn’t just ride off. We walked about for a bit until we found the world’s shadiest alley. When the guy saw it, he knew that was the place and wouldn’t have it any other way.
At this point, I have had my hands on my friend’s bike. I have felt his shellacked handlebars, and I have spun the cranks that I watched him purchase at the Bike Works warehouse sale just weeks earlier. There is no way I am going to get this close and then just let it go. So, noting Karl standing nearby watching and firing up his phone’s video camera, I go into the alley.
I know! I know! One of the worst ideas of my life. Just pitifully horrid. As a journalist, I have read so many police reports you would think I would have just let it go right there. I can’t fully explain why, but giving up did not even cross my mind.
Once in the alley, I hopped on the bike, felt the leather saddle under my body, shifted through the gears nervously and did a couple short loops around the alley to get the feel of the bike, then I went for it.
But getting up to speed on a bike does not happen in an instant. I rushed toward Roxbury Street where street lamps lit the pavement, but he caught me from behind and grabbed my sweater, my pedals slowed and got heavy as I pushed harder against them, certain they just needed a little more pressure to break free from his hold, but he brought me to a stop, screaming about his bike and how I was stealing it and wouldn’t get off and I just held on, silent for some reason that I can’t explain, but not willing to let go of those handlebars until I saw the screwdriver.
I’m very stupid.
How did I get here? Why am I still on this bike, holding these handlebars? What’s a little steel really worth to me? I would never fight someone for a bike, let alone pull a screwdriver on them. Why was I still holding on?
I let go. He hopped on the bike and said, “You’re fucking crazy, dude.” And he was right.
He grabbed his bag, tossed it over his shoulder, put his foot on the pedal, and started cruising down the alleyway. Seeing him get away, emotion-packed blood rushed back into me. It’s getting away. The thing I’ve worked all this time for is right in front of me. I touched it, I may have risked some disgusting screwdriver-induced injury over it. I had been stressing about it all day long. I ran after it. I got my voice back and yelled, “That’s a stolen bike!” as I ran and, just as he had moments earlier, caught up with him. But I didn’t grab his hoodie. I didn’t knock him off and wrestle him to the ground. In fact, I wasn’t even focused on him. I pulled my leg back and, as hard as I could, kicked the rear wheel of the bike for which I had risked so much. My foot entered the spokes and the force knocked the rear of the bike up into the air for just a moment before bouncing back to the ground, continuing on the its cruise down the alley.
I cursed, and shoved my phone back in pocket (when had I started taking video?) but seeing him get away was the first bit of relief I had felt since that text message popped up on my phone telling me that we had a chance to get it back.
I walked to the Walgreens parking lot where Seattle Police still had not shown up. I didn’t even want to stay and talk to police. Let’s just go. This was all a huge mistake. I just wanted to drink a beer and forget it.
But we waited, and a couple cigarettes later SPD finally pulled into the parking lot. We told officers what happened, gesturing to the alleyway across the street where I for some reason made a stand. But that alley is not in Seattle. Roxbury Street is the city limit, and we would need to call the King County Sheriff. Great.
When the sheriff showed, we began to tell the tale all over again. Only this time, I began to piece together all the stupid mistakes the guy had made: Listing on the same day it was stolen, meeting in the same city, going to the meet alone…he was desperate and was willing to take a lot of risks for relatively little cash.
That’s when it hit me. We had been talking and texting from Danny’s phone. I pulled my phone and texted him and asked him if he still had the bike. My phone lit up almost immediately: He was calling me.
I alerted the sheriff who told me to answer it and put it on speaker phone. I posed as a completely new buyer. “You don’t have a beard, do you?” the guy asked. “No, clean shaven,” I lied. “Good, cause there was this crazy guy with a beard who just tried to take my bike,” he said. I laughed, though quietly enough that he wouldn’t hear it over the constant rush of traffic nearby.
We set up a new meeting spot a few blocks away, and the King County officer hopped in his cruiser and told us to sit still and wait for his call. That was exactly what we wanted to hear all along. So he left and we went to Walgreens.
The elevator music inside seemed so foreign. Life moved at a shockingly normal pace. I grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, fished my credit card from the loose wallet contents floating in my pocket, and charged one dollar to it.
Outside, I smoked another cigarette, a habit I kicked years ago, but not on nights like this one. The sweat from the bottle was cool, but it felt good even in the chilly air. I had been thirsty for hours, it felt, and I couldn’t get enough to drink. I could almost feel the water seeping through the skin of my fingers, hydrating the blood inside them.
My phone buzzed and I looked at the number: An unrecognized 206 number. I wasn’t sure if it was the guy or the police. And I’m not sure I really cared.
The officer on the line told us to show up at a booze shop on Delridge. They had him.
As we pulled into the parking lot, he was sitting on the curb. But when he saw me, he pulled his arms close to his body and shifted away, turning his head away, almost wincing. He was scared of me. I wasn’t expecting that because I was scared of him (I probably don’t need to remind you of the screwdriver). He’s clearly troubled, and I can’t begin to understand what his life is like. And the fact that he’s a afraid of me shows that he doesn’t understand me. I might be tenacious, but tonight was the closest I’ve ever been to fighting someone. And I didn’t care for it at all.
As we turned the corner to the parking strip on the other side of the building, there was Danny’s bike leaning against the wall. The chain was covered in gunk from many months of city riding. The cream frame was dirty and scratched. The saddle was scuffed. The front derailer was held in place with the help of strips of beer can. It was almost exactly how he had left it. Cool. We had Danny’s bike back. High five. We took photos, I sent a tweet, we talked to police, then we threw it in the back of the pickup truck and started for home.
Victory. Story in the morning. twitter.com/seabikeblog/st…
— Seattle Bike Blog (@seabikeblog) February 12, 2013
I’ve been drinking all evening as I write this story. My friends have been sending texts telling me that they love me and that I’m stupid. Endless what-ifs run through my head, and small details—specks of rust on the screwdriver, the disgusting way I laughed and called him “dumb as rocks” as soon as I hung up the phone call that set up that second meeting—flash in my mind. And then some are gone, but some get stuck and replay.
Things could have gone a lot worse. But is anybody really any better off now than they were this morning, when in just a flash, Danny’s bike was gone?