A tale of bike theft hysteria, first appearances, and trust

A tale of bike theft hysteria, first appearances, and trust

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A sight almost no one likes to see.
(Photos: Shonn Preston/Facebook)

This is a story about bike theft that’s not really about bike theft at all.

It started yesterday morning when I saw a tweet showing a photo of two suspicious men waltzing calmly down East Burnside with a bike and pair of bolt-cutters.

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@stolenbikereg @PPBBikeTheft walking down Burnside between east 17th and 16th bolt cutters. pic.twitter.com/zAv7Jwj9J6

— RyanCoons (@coonsrc) December 3, 2015

Then a few hours later I got a Facebook message from a friend. “Did you see this shit?” he asked, and linked to a status update and photos. The images were of two u-locks that had been cut and were lying on the ground near a blue, city-issued staple rack. The rack was outside Sizzle Pie on east Burnside and 6th. Here’s what the person posted along with the photos:

“My double u-lock method is now debatable at best. Looks like an angle grinder or quickie saws-all cut. Like pets, bikes deserve indoor homing at night whenever possible.”

In the comments that followed people offered the usual horrors and laments at the state of bike theft in Portland and offered tips on how to prevent it. After I saw the post, I connected it to the earlier tweet of the guys with the bolt-cutters and started turning some wheels in my head about how we might do a story about it. I didn’t do a story right away because, sad but true, this type of thing isn’t even big news in Portland anymore.

Then a few hours later, our News Editor Michael Andersen came into the office. I asked him how he’d been doing. Not great, he said. I assumed it was the sorry state of politics and national events that was weighing him down. It was, but there was something else.

Michael then told me a completely unexpected story. It involved bolt-cutters and broken u-locks on East Burnside.

It gradually became clear that nobody was going to confront me about the bolt cutters. One man, waiting with me at a crosswalk near my house, did at least comment on them. ‘If you need an alibi, I’m in,’ he said.

It all started on Sunday when Michael wanted to catch the Timbers match at Mad Greek Deli on Burnside and 18th. After we talked on Thursday Michael wrote down what happened…

When I walked out of my house on Sunday afternoon, I discovered that my bike had a flat tire. I didn’t want to miss the game. My wife works nights. So I decided to borrow her bike. What could go wrong?

An hour later, walking jubilantly out of the celebration (Timbers won!), I pulled out the key to unlock her bike and head home. But it didn’t open — I could only get it to turn halfway. Only after I’d jiggled it furiously did I realize that I was trying to use my key to unlock Mo’s bike lock. And then it was too late.

My key was hopelessly stuck in the wrong lock.

After tracking down some oil and failing to unjiggle the key, I headed home.

Michael returned to the bike on Monday and tried to pry his key out of the lock with a pair of pliers. He succeeded. But only half-way: A fragment of the key remained inside and the lock was jammed.

He wasn’t able to get back to the bike again until yesterday (amazingly it was still there and in one piece). With proof of ownership of the bike in one hand and a pair of bolt-cutters in the other, he set out to retrieve his wife’s bike:

It gradually became clear that nobody was going to confront me about the bolt cutters. One man, waiting with me at a crosswalk near my house, did at least comment on them. ‘If you need an alibi, I’m in,’ he said.

Once in front of the deli, Michael went to work. Still no one stopped him:

It was lunchtime; the deli was busy, people coming in and out. Nobody asked me what was going on as I walked up to Mo’s bike, braced the bolt cutters against the ground and started cutting through its lock.

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Then another twist to the story. Someone finally approached Michael. It was a man, we’ll call him “B”:

He looked at me and the bolt cutters and asked “Did you just have them lying around?”

“Nah, I got them from a tool library,” I said. “It’s my wife’s bike. I jammed my key in the lock.”

I finally expected to be questioned. Instead he said, “I’m in the same boat.” And walked on.

Then he turned back. “Do you want some help?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”

So B walked back and together we leaned on the bolt cutters, while more people walked past us. SNAP! The lock broke.

Even if this guy could get a pair of bolt cutters, he could probably never do what I just did. If he pulls something like that without a white person with him, somebody calls the cops for sure.

Michael and his new friend shook hands and B started to walk away. Then he turned around and things got even stranger:

Say,” he asked. “Do you think you could do the same for me? My bike is stuck down outside Sizzle Pie.” He pointed west on Burnside.

OK, this was weird.

Did I mention that B is black, and that I am white? I did the social math. Refuse to help this guy after he trusted you and you’re being a total dick. And also: Even if this guy could get a pair of bolt cutters, he could probably never do what I just did. If he pulls something like that without a white person with him, somebody calls the cops for sure.

“I guess so, yeah,” I said carefully. “But I gotta ask. I brought along an email saying that this is mine. Do you have any way to prove it’s yours? I don’t want to be a dick, but you know.”

“No, that’s fine,” B said. He puzzled for a moment and took a pair of bike keys out of his pocket. “These are my keys. The lock rusted shut. Can I prove…? Not really.”

I made a decision.

“It’s fine,” I said. “Can you wheel this bike?”

So here’s that photo from Twitter again, with some helpful labels…

mastolen2

Michael and B got to know each other a bit more as they strolled down Burnside carrying bolt-cutters and wheeling a woman’s bike by their side:

We got to his bike. We snapped his lock open. No one said a word.

They left both locks on the sidewalk, where they were later photographed by someone else and posted to Facebook (see above).

As for Michael and B. Here’s how their strange day together ended up:

As we thanked each other one more time, he said, “Hold on, I’m going to give you something.” He reached into his backpack and pulled out a small red trade-bound paperback.

“It’s a literary collection,” he said.

B’s name was on the inside cover. He’d co-edited it.

“Thanks for trusting me,” he said.

I picked up my bolt cutters and headed home.

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Michael and his “Sweet Wolverine” zine.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org


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