Urbanities

Peter Hellman
The Bicycle Thief
Summer 1996

Before I ever stole a bike myself, at least 20 had been stolen from me over 25 years of riding, and locking up, on Manhattan streets. They disappeared from seemingly secure tetherings to sign poles, parking meters, mailbox bases, and iron railings. All were out-and out thefts—but my act, I'd prefer to call semi-stealing. Its unexpected reverberations say a lot about Manhattan as small village. They also drill home an old moral: wrongdoing, even with extenuating circumstances, will come back to haunt you. We're talking Dostoyevsky here, with 0. Henry twists. And six degrees of separation.

The first bike to go, around 1970, had been chained to a pole anchored in the ground next to a tree in front of an Upper West Side restaurant. About the meal—or the bike—I remember nothing. What remains oddly vivid is the memory of how fresh the earth smelled where the pole had been yanked out. I felt stupid for making it so easy on the thief. But not alone: over 6,500 bikes are reported stolen to the NYPD annually, of which a mere 1.4 percent are recovered. Most theft victims, me included, don't bother reporting.

With repetition, I learned to blunt my hurt and dismay by counting all the faults of the latest bike to vanish: the torn saddle, the wobble in the rear wheel, the unsteady kickstand, even a feeling that the whole bike was crap. Then I'd think of how much worthier the next bike would be. Certain bikes, even an act of will couldn't sully. The one I most resented losing wasn't so special, but it was fitted out with a vintage, English baby-seat covered in green and red tartan. My son Jake commuted in it to nursery school after he no longer fit into my big front basket. That pleasing seat was irreplaceable: unlike the officially approved but ugly molded plastic seats now offered, it didn't meet federal safety standards. Pshaw!

As with other callings, bike thievery moves to a higher level in New York. Kryptonite, the maker of U-shaped bar locks, guarantees its basic model against theft everywhere in the country—except this town. The company now makes a thick brute called the New York Lock, with a one-year $1,000 guarantee. At $75 it's almost twice the price of the basic model, and you pay another $10 to register it for two extra years, essentially an insurance premium. A newcomer is the Quadrachain, with "Nitroloy body." Its square links are more difficult to get a cutting angle on than rounded links. A threefoot version, with built-in padlock, costs about $95. The saleslady at Eddie's Bike Shop, on Amsterdam Avenue, calls it an "overnight" lock. "Nobody's figured out how to break it," she says. "Yet."

They will figure it out. They always do. As a non-English-speaking Chinese deliveryman once made clear to me, finesse is the key. I was locking up to a parking meter a few feet from a lamppost on Ninth Avenue when this fellow urgently motioned me to move on. Thinking that he considered this meter to be his private hitching post, I was irked. Nobody has pole exclusivity in this town. Then he pantomimed this scenario: a thief opens the base plate on the lamppost, exposing an electrical outlet. He plugs in a heavy-duty saw or drill and makes quick work of the lock. Predators also roam in vans. Spotting a locked bike, they jump out with a portable chain saw. in no time, the bike disappears into the back of the van, as if into a shark's stomach. And not only bikes get swallowed. During one of last winter's snowstorms, as reported in the Post, a school custodian yielded his snowblower at gunpoint to thieves who'd jumped out of a passing van.

If I can hold on to a bike for a year, that's good enough. It means that the investment—usually about $100 in Woolworth's cheapest bike plus $75 for a new basket, chain, and padlock—has earned out. But sometimes I'm cursed by clumps of theft, as when three bikes vanished in less than a year. When the last one went, I was especially bummed out. I'd only just given up on Kryptonite U locks and bought a padlock and chain so heavy that it could have pulled up a bridge over a moat with horsemen on it. My wrist ached from picking it up. The dividend was the contentment of knowing that nobody was ever going to break it.

Nobody had to. I'd left the bike chained to a pole on Riverside Drive. The sign on top, declaring alternate-side parking rules, had been removed—and also the bike. In its place, when I returned a few hours later, was a pine stepladder. Partners in crime, it appeared, had been at work: one must have hoisted the bike to a second thief, atop the ladder, who had slipped it over the top, nine feet above ground. The rear wheel and frame still being chained, they'd have had to lug the bike away and then break the chain out of sight. The job must have taken hours—all for a basic bike that could be fenced for no more than $20 on St. Mark's Place, a hotbed of stolen bikes. Honest work would have been easier, and more remunerative.

That theft put me over the brink. I'd had it with trudging off anew to Woolworth's at Broadway and 110th Street. The manager, Mr. Collins, knew what I needed as surely as the local crack sellers know their clients. I was as sick of Collins's commiseration as of his cheap bikes. This time I went straight to the bike storage room of my building. Windowless and stifling, it's jammed with bikes. The ones in orderly ranks up front are regularly used. Farther back, in catacomb-like dimness, is a jumble of old bikes that molder like forgotten steamer trunks. The very oldest—British-built Raleighs, Rudges, and Royce Unions—had been there for decades, their tires flat and crackled, their frames covered in mummylike shrouds of ancient plaster dust: similar in condition, no doubt, to many of the owners. Or so it was convenient for me to assume as I poked among these artifacts. My idea was less to pinch a bike than to resuscitate one into an active new life—the equivalent of a prince's kiss.

I settled on a green Raleigh "Sunbeam" with a Sturmey-Archer three-speed gearshift, like one that I owned as a boy. Lying in a dark corner under several other bikes, it was a mess. Bikes are supposed to have tags identifying the owner, but this one didn't. Ishmael, my favorite mechanic at the aptly named Bicycle Renaissance, then on Amsterdam Avenue, overhauled it for $75. As usual with my bikes, I had a large "butcher's boy" delivery basket installed and bought a new Kryptonite lock. I felt this bike was now truly mine: I'd carried out not a theft but a rescue.

Only a few neighbors in my building of 165 apartments get around Manhattan by bike, and I thought I knew them all at least by sight. Then I got a phone call from a magazine editor named John Stickney, then at Metropolitan Home and unknown to me. In a 40-minute conversation, we discovered that we were both middle-aged guys who preferred two wheels for getting around town. Stickney wanted to send me a packet, and I told him my address.

"Jesus, that's my building," he blurted. Not ours, mind you, but his. Try as we did, we couldn't quite figure out who the other was, even though we'd shared an address for years. I was sure that I'd recognize Stickney when I saw him. Yet when he dropped by for coffee one morning, I gazed at a tall, handsome guy who was no more familiar to me than if he lived in Düsseldorf.

The name of Stickney, now my friend, came up again, a year after we'd met, during a chat with a well-known Time-Life editor, Richard Burgheim, in his office high up in the Time & Life Building. As usual, I'd biked over. Burgheim had worked for his share of successful magazines in the company, but he was best known for having been at the helm of TV-Cable Week, notoriously scuttled at launch in 1983. Stickney had worked for him, and they'd stayed friendly. In fact, Burgheim now mentioned, Stickney had once done him a favor.

"I had a nice bike," said Burgheim. "There was no room to store it in my old apartment. So John let me store it in the bike room in your building." He flashed a bitter smile. "Only then somebody stole it. Right out of the bike room. Nobody except tenants can get in there. So you have a thief in your very own building."

I froze. Weakly, I asked, "Could it have been a Raleigh three-speed?" And then: "Was it green?" And finally: "Come over to the window, Dick." Pressing our foreheads against the curtain wall, we peered down at the bike rack on the plaza directly below us. But the angle was too sharp to get a good look. We took the elevator down.

"Would this possibly be your bike?" I wanly asked.

I felt Burgheim's pale blue eyes appraise me as if he were a store detective who'd just nailed a shoplifter. When he'd been an editor at Life, a few years earlier, Burgheim had bought a story from me, a writer he'd never met, which several other magazines had turned down. Burgheim's thumbs-up had been important to me. Now I'd done this to him. The dagger of remorse twisted in deep. The next weekend I delivered Burgheim's bike to him at his new apartment. He offered to pay half the cost of the overhaul. I accepted $37.50 in cash.

Burgheim had seen his thief, but I'd never seen one of mine, so it was easy not to put a face on them. Theft to me was just that sinking feeling of coming upon an empty space on the sidewalk where my bike had been. Then came an evening when I dashed into the Federal Express office on West 116th Street just before closing time. I only expected to be there for three minutes, so I took a calculated risk and left my bike unlocked at the door. The private guard posted on that block seemed to put the odds on my side. I was right about the three minutes, wrong about the gamble. As I headed out, a thief was just swinging a leg over my bike. I sprang toward him, but he was on his way, rapidly picking up speed on the downhill of 116th Street. He turned north onto Riverside Drive, leaving me standing winded at the bottom of the hill. Suddenly, two young men in a small car pulled alongside me. They wore knitted skullcaps. "We saw it," said the driver. "Jump in."

A few blocks north, approaching Grant's Tomb, I caught sight of a biker in the shadows of the trees on the promenade of Riverside Park. Jumping out of the car, we gave chase. The thief tried to ride down a set of shallow steps into the park. Bad choice. The bike tipped over, handlebars first, and he went hurtling down the steps. I picked up the bike as he picked himself up—a slight Hispanic man—and then I cursed him as he limped into the darkness. After so many bikes stolen, I'd seen my first thief. But not my last.

On a cold Thursday evening last spring, I picked up my daughter Kate, age eight, from a play date and was riding her home sidesaddle. At 6:30 we stopped at a greengrocer on Broadway at 105th Street. After packing a basket from the sidewalk displays, I instructed Kate, "You watch the bike while I run in to pay. I'll only be a minute."

The line was longer than I'd expected. One person was still ahead of me when suddenly I heard Kate's cry of alarm from the sidewalk: "Dad! He's taking the bike. He's stealing it!"

Dropping the laden basket, I bolted out. By now the scene was déja vu: a thief, this one wearing an orange hooded parka, had just mounted my bike. He was trying to pick up speed on the sidewalk. Only this time, there was no downhill to help him fly. I caught up with him at the end of the block and threw my arms around him from behind. He pedaled mightily—or tried to—but he couldn't get headway so long as I gripped him. I felt as though I were struggling with a big fish. Held tight, he had to dismount, As he did, I grabbed the handlebars. On opposite sides of the bike, we glared at each other. "What the fuck are you doing?" I said, not knowing quite what else to say. He was thinking hard.

"I paid $10 for this bike from a guy that was standing by it," he said with cool assurance,

"Yeah, with my briefcase and my daughter's backpack in the basket, right?"

"I paid the man $10," he repeated.

His tone was so self-righteous that I could almost half-believe that he'd been conned by this other "dude" who'd cleverly claimed ownership and turned a quick $10.

Kate, who had been standing beside me wide-eyed and silent up until now, suddenly began quivering. "That's a lie," she shouted with alarming intensity. "I saw it. He took the bike." Her red Phillies baseball cap pulled low over her face, she started to sob. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than for the thief to disappear.

But the multicultural crowd that had assembled around us, acting like a Greek chorus, chanted, "He's a thief, don't let him go. Call the cops." Two strangers volunteered to be witnesses against the thief. This was no Kitty Genovese situation, believe me.

Still, as I turned to comfort Kate, the thief slipped away. Seconds later a patrol car pulled over. Where had the thief gone? I pointed eastward on 105th Street. Even in the failing light, it wasn't hard to spot a man wearing an orange parka. By this time another patrol car was on the scene and it shot down the block. My bike was loaded into the trunk of the other car and off we went, Kate and I in the rear seat, to the 24th Precinct house. Statements were taken, the bike photographed—though only after a long search for a Polaroid camera. As cops led the thief through the station house to be booked, we were cautioned not to look directly at him and not to let him see us. Kate stared at him anyway. A patrol car dropped us off at home—exactly 90 minutes late for dinner.

I guessed this was too minor a crime to bother with a prosecution. But the next morning brought a call from Linda Fenstermaker, an assistant district attorney. Merely making off with the bike, she explained, would have been theft. But because the would-be thief resisted me as I tried to restrain him, the felony became more serious: attempted third-degree robbery.

"How much time could he get?" I asked.

"One year," answered Fenstermaker. When I heard that, the mayor's crackdown on "quality of life" crimes suddenly became real to me. And the defendant had a name: Richie Allen. He'd last been arrested ten years ago.

Kate and I got a late start that afternoon, heading downtown to Supreme Court to testify before the grand jury. As we emerged from the Canal Street IRT station, a patrol car was waiting at a red light. In 25 years in New York, I'd never had an excuse to try hitching a ride with a cop—until now. I tapped on the window. "My daughter has to testify before a grand jury in five minutes," I said. "Can you get us over to Supreme Court?"

"Hop in."

Based on our phone call, I guessed Linda Fenstermaker to be a tall, blond young woman with blue eyes and freckles, perhaps of German-Irish origin, from Queens. Instead, she turned out to be a tall, raven-haired Chinese-American. Kate would probably not be called to testify, Fenstermaker explained. That disappointed her, but she was thrilled to receive $6 in cash as a witness fee, a windfall that later went to buy baseball cards.

The size of the grand jury startled me—some twenty citizens sitting in ascending rows of wooden seats in what reminded me of an old-style college lecture hall. Like students, a few were dozing. Still, it struck me that this was a major mobilization for the rather puny crime of attempted bike robbery. Just before reciting my story under Fenstermaker's guidance, I saw her huddle in the rear of the room with one of the jurors. His back was to me. I didn't think any more about it until Kate and I arrived home.

My wife came to the door with an odd look on her face. "You won't believe this," she said. "Dick Burgheim called. He was sitting on your grand jury. When he saw it was you testifying, he had himself excused."

As in Burgheim's office, I froze. And felt myself transmuted: no longer merely a victim, but also a bicycle thief as surely as Richie Allen. After I'd testified against Allen, I felt, Burgheim could have stepped up and testified against me. It was a situation made to order for people who believe that black men like Allen feel the weight of the criminal justice system, while whites like me skitter out of danger.

Rather than plea-bargain, Allen was sticking to his story that he'd bought my bike on the street for $10. Why else, he'd stated to the arresting cops, would he have been walking instead of running on 105th Street when he was picked up? But then, after posting bail, he failed to show up for a court date. As the months passed, Kate regularly nudged me to call "The Fenstermaker," as she put it, to see whether Allen had been found. The NYPD warrant squad grabbed him a few months later. Now Fenstermaker had leverage: if Allen still refused to accept a plea of attempted robbery in the third degree, she would also hit him with an additional charge of bail jumping, another felony. Allen pled guilty. Fenstermaker called to ask if I wanted to make a statement at his sentencing. I did indeed. She seemed grateful. "Ninety percent of crime victims won't do it," she said.

In the courtroom of Judge Richard Andrias, I saw Richie Allen for the first time since the theft six months earlier. It had been hard to size him up in his bulky orange parka with the hood up. Now, dressed in fitted shirt and jeans, he was, I saw, powerfully built. His eyes were as I remembered them: intelligent, active, calculating.

At the judge's invitation, I said my piece: I didn't especially want to be the cause of anyone's loss of freedom, but what Allen did had constricted my freedom. Even more, my daughter's. We live under the shadow of crime on the Upper West Side. If crime goes unpunished, the shadow grows longer. Andrias took up that theme. As one who often takes the subway home late after work, he said, he also felt fear of crime limiting his freedom.

Richie Allen asked for leniency, saying that he had a drug problem that he was trying to lick. He insisted he'd been putting his life back into shape, even working with a dance company in Manhattan. Andrias was not swayed. He sentenced Allen to one year in prison. As the prisoner was led away, his eyes searched out mine. I wasn't sure if they reflected camaraderie—the two of us were linked by the act of theft and had even been locked in a perverse embrace as I grabbed him—or by just plain hatred. I'm still not sure.

In a few months Allen will have paid off his debt to society. My own slate still feels a bit smudged. But I do fantasize a helpful scenario: I'm strolling along, when I hear someone cry, "Stop that bike thief!" The culprit is coming directly my way; I grab him and recover the bike; it's a green Raleigh Sunbeam. I'll know who to return it to. Then we'll be even. But I do hope the thief isn't Richie Allen.

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