From touring across America to touring across the street to Safeway, I’ve put more than 15,000 miles on my Surly. I don’t say that to brag. I say that to emphasize the terror I felt in seeing a thief try to ride away with her last night.
I’d arrived at my girlfriend Ashley’s house on SE 28th Place a little after 9pm. The night felt unusually dark—an addition to the literal and ever-present darkness of canopying tree cover. Older streets in Portland like 28th Place tend to be overgrown and well-shaded by Evergreen and Douglas Fir, giving them a very typical northwestern homeyness and burrowing charm.
I unwound a combination lock that I was borrowing from work on account of losing my Kryptonite u-lock and cable. I passed it around a tree and brought its ends together after pulling it snug through my rear wheel and my frame. The front wheel will be fine, I thought. I’ll only be here for a bit.
To say Ashley was having a hard week at work would be like calling Mt. Everest a hard hill to climb. She is a mental health therapist seeing four times as many clients that a typical therapist sees, a recent repercussion ailing public health facilities like hers brought on by the Affordable Care Act. I wrapped my arms around her and we sat for a few moments in silence. She exhaled and began to share what little she was allowed to. Without knowing the vocabulary, nor what it’s like to carry several dozen people’s psychological trauma, I was helpless to offer anything more than my ears and calm presence.
About thirty minutes later I whispered a prayer for her with my arms still firm around her body. She held her eyes shut. I used my index finger to sweep away two tears from her face. We sat in silence again for another five minutes until, outside, I heard rustling.
I figured one of Ashley’s neighbors was locking his or her bike to a tree just as I had. It was a relief to think that others felt safe enough to lock their bikes to the trees outside their homes in this neighborhood. I rose to see who it was, thinking I might have a talking point with one of them later. To my surprise, I only found one bike (my Surly) and one other person. I leapt to my feet, snapped the deadbolt unlocked and threw the door open. Before my eyes stood not a neighbor but a man in a black and red ball cap, jeans, a dark sweater, and the arms of a rusty pair of cable cutters draped over his left forearm. His legs being too short to fit the height of my bike, he looked frantic and unstable as he was attempting a get-away.
“HEY!” I yelled, the level of my voice rising with the milliseconds within the second it took to yell the word. I’d yelled too loud, probably, surprising myself and tricking my adrenaline into jolting into light-speed. My bike wobbled more beneath the man, my B17 Brooks saddle swaying like a head upon a stiff man’s neck. It felt like watching a thief trying to ride away with my helpless teenage daughter. I was beginning to burn with indignation. “HEY!” I yelled again. I sprang from the porch running.
“Don’t you f***ing run up on me like that,” the thief called.
“I’m not running up on you,” I yelled, obviously lying and sprinting right up to his side. It was then that I noticed he was unable to get away. Something was stuck in the rear wheel, impeding it from rotating. His cable cutters still dangled on his arm and both feet were now firmly planted over my bike—his body right above my bike gave her a vulnerable and lifeless look that I grimaced at.
“Come on, man,” I said, not knowing what else to reason with, and not actually knowing what I would do if the thief were to drop my bike, grip his cable cutters with both hands and take a swing at me. He might be packing, I suddenly thought. Sh*t—am I about to fight this guy? Would I even fight him if he swung at me?
To my surprise, the thief kept his ball cap low and made no eye contact. His hands eased up on my Surly’s neck and handlebars.
“Come on, man,” I said again, this time quieter and taking a step closer. Without knowing it, I was negotiating, my arms limp at my sides. “This is my bike. You’re taking my bike, man.”
He looked me in the eyes for the first time. He was frozen and, apparently, conflicted. I’d seen frightened thieves, angry thieves and careless thieves, but I’d never seen a conflicted thief in my life. He exhaled and closed his mouth and then said reluctantly, “Okay.” He dismounted and guided my Surly toward me. I picked her up, turned, and carried her back up the sidewalk toward Ashley’s house.
From the street I could hear muttering, stuttering one-liners. But I didn’t care. He could skulk around out in front as long as he’d wanted. I snapped the deadbolt locked again, still holding my bike in the air with my other arm like a frantic father just arriving at the ER.
She wasn’t moving, her rear wheel paralyzed. I looked closer and found a cleanly snipped cable that refused to free my bike; instead of lying lifeless like a severed limb upon the grass by the tree outside, the cable caught itself up into an increasingly tighter wind, like a last-ditch effort to protect my bike. After catching my breath and hugging a now wild-eyed Ashley, ensuring her I was safe, I, like a surgeon, cautiously removed the scapegoat cable. I slid the correct numbers into sequence and pulled it apart as it was meant to be broken. I held both sides of the lock in either hand and, after studying it, held it at eye level.
Well, I thought, comically reflecting on how I was about to give an inanimate bicycle lock my appreciation. The Surly and I live on; you definitely did your job, lock. Thank you.