The Dangers of Recovering Your Stolen Bike from Somebody Who Is Much Larger Than You Are

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, college student Michael Rosen tells us more about what it’s like to have your bike stolen and then have to confront someone stronger than you later on in order to get it back.

Not fun: getting your bike stolen. Also not very fun: seeing your stolen bike w/ a group of homeless people and asking for it back

— Michael Rosen (@michaelrosen3) July 19, 2014

Michael, so what happened here?

Really, this whole ordeal is Richard Linklater’s fault. That sounds like a non sequitur, but I promise it’s not. For the Daily Cal (UC Berkeley’s student newspaper), I was assigned to review Linklater’s most recent movie, Boyhood, and as a kind of perk/thank you for writing the review, the arts editor allowed me to interview Linklater as part of a press junket-y thing. It’s important to understand that Richard Linklater is not just any movie director to me: Me and my buddies watched Dazed and Confused every weekend for at least a year. Waking Life and the Before series are movies near to my heart. And I really loved Boyhood. So I was pretty stoked to meet this guy whose movies I’ve worshipped since puberty.

I was also a bit nervous. I’ve interviewed dozens and dozens of people, but without fail I clench up into a throbbing ball of anxiety before each and every one. The prospect of interviewing Richard fucking Linklater upped my built-in pre-interview anxiety a couple standard deviations. So as I rolled up to the restaurant adjacent to the Berkeley Public Library, I evidently forgot to lock my bike to the bike rack. Which I never do! I am religious about locking my bike, especially since I just bought it a few months ago.

You can probably guess what happened next. I interviewed Linklater for ten minutes (it went well!), and then went back to the bike rack. It’s a pretty surreal feeling to realize your bike is just, like, gone. It’s like going through a lightning round of the five stages of grief: I transitioned from confusion (where the fuck did I park it?) to denial (nah, this can’t happen to me) in a span of minutes. Meanwhile, I’m pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, thinking I parked on this street sign or that street sign, looking like a crazy person. At a certain point, I accepted that my bike was gone.

Frustrated and angry, I called the police, which I knew was futile, but, whatever. “Do you ever find stolen bikes?” I asked the officer. “Honestly, no,” she said. “If you’re lucky, someone will be selling it at the Berkeley Flea Market down at the Ashby BART station.”

And so the next morning, hungover, I made the forty-five-minute trek down to the Ashby BART station, which sits right on the Berkeley/Oakland border, and walked through the flea market, swiveling my head left and right to look at each of the tents. Hundreds of vendors hawked CDs and omelettes and herbal soap, but the only shop selling anything remotely related to bikes was selling used bike tires. No luck.

I had told myself I’d go back and check the bike rack where I thought I’d parked it just one more time to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating or something. But I was very tired and wanted to enjoy my weekend, so I eventually just decided to head back to my apartment. On the way home, for some reason, I turned around and headed back to the Berkeley Public Library, my denial roaring back.

The Downtown Berkeley BART station sits about a block away from the library, and there’s usually a sizable conglomeration of homeless people near its multiple entrances. I was walking past the Shattuck and Allston entrance on the right side of the street when I saw a bike sitting upside down near one of these groups. That’s weird, I thought, who sits a bike upside down? So I looked closer, and noticed the U-Lock attached to the frame of the bike. Huh, that’s where I put my U-Lock, I thought. And I looked even closer, and it was a light blue specialized Sirrus model. Holy shit, I thought, that’s my fucking bike.

So did a confrontation ensue? How heated did things get, and what was the end result?

Well, first I needed to decide between fight (confront this group of seven or eight homeless people, most of fairly imposing size) or flight (call the police). As someone of slight build, words are my favored mode of defusing conflict, but I figured out pretty quickly that it was going to be tough to talk my way out of this one. On the other hand, calling the police was risky — what if the people with my bike just up and fled? And I really wanted my bike back; it’s easily the favorite thing I own. A combination of rage and desperation conflated to give me the courage to approach the group.

Me (not very confidently): “Uh, how did you get this bike?”
Alleged Bike Owner: “Bought it, bruh.”
Me: “That’s my bike, man.”
Me: “That’s my bike, bro, and I have a police report filed for it.”

Things got pretty heated in a hurry. Maybe I’m just a coward, but I was ninety percent sure I was about to get my ass kicked. Luckily, downtown Berkeley in the middle of the day is pretty crowded, and a few people started to glance over, but they sure as hell weren’t about to come over and help me out. I desperately glanced over at a lady sitting maybe twenty or so feet away, but she quickly diverted her gaze. Alleged Bike Proprietor and his buddy — both at least six feet and two hundred pounds — stepped pretty closely into my personal area. Both screamed various threatening ad libs: “Better back the fuck up, bruh!” “This is our fuckin’ bike!” etc.

Thankfully, one of the homeless people — an older lady, my guardian angel — stood up to defend me. “Give him his bike,” she said. This started a bit of an internal war of words — Alleged Bike Proprietor and his friend turned their attention away from me and aimed their profanity-laced rants at the woman.

Guardian Angel: “Just give him the bike back.”
Alleged Bike Owner: “I paid $200 for this shit.”
Et cetera.

During this brief respite from paralyzing fear, I remembered my bike keys were in my pocket. “Hey, I can prove this is my bike: Look, I can open the lock,” I said.

I grabbed my bike and turned it right side up. The Alleged Bike Proprietor muttered something like “You better hope you can open the lock.” Meanwhile, his hands were on the bike. Honestly, I thought he was about to just bolt as soon as I took the U-Lock off the frame, but I figured this was my only shot, so I proceeded anyway. My hands were shaking like crazy. I shoved the key into the lock, but it’s kind of a fussy lock, and my shakiness and the lock’s fussiness prevented me from opening it the first time. I yanked the key out and tried to just run off with the bike, but that maneuver elicited some tempers to flare up pretty quickly. “Open the lock, man, and you can have the bike,” Alleged Bike Owner said.

He put his hands back on the seat, and I worked to open the frame in the front. This time, it opened up. “You’re a lucky man,” he muttered, and I figured that was license to ride off with it. Somehow, I emerged unscathed.

Lesson learned (if any)?

I mean, there’s the obvious one. I’ve been ultra careful locking my bike since I got it back. I’ll lock it, walk into work or class or whatever, get paranoid, and then walk BACK to the bike rack, just to make sure the lock’s actually on the bike. That level of paranoia probably won’t be sustainable long term, but I’ll probably make more of an effort to just bring my bike inside when I can.

I suppose I gained some confidence in confronting situations with a degree of physical risk. Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any practical day-to-day application to this lesson, except maybe at pickup basketball or something. Next time that one dude keeps cherry picking, I’ll probably talk a little shit.

Just one more thing.

If I ever have to interview Richard Linklater again, I think I’ll probably just walk.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.