SEPTEMBER 2008 – NO. 26
"Do you know what that is?" I asked my son on his fourteenth birthday last May, nodding toward the new 21-speed NEXT bicycle in the garage, a beauty gifted to him by his grandparents.
"A bike," he said, smiling, happy to field such a rare, easy question from his old man.
"Wrong," I said.
He frowned, double-checked the object in question then double-checked me to see if I was crazy.
"That thing with the spokes, hand brakes, chain, kickstand, the SRAM shifter is not a … well, okay, it's a bike … but it's more than that," I said. "That bike represents your freedom."
He soon caught on. He didn't need me to chauffer him to important destinations like the city pool, the library, Brick Oven pizza — 20- 10-, and 5-bike-minutes away, respectively.
Through May, June, and most of July, my son made good use of his freedom, frequently pedaling his new bike to the library and returning with his backpack bulging with borrowed books.
In late July, though, he called me from the library for parental taxi service.
"Can you come and get me?"
"But you're on your bike."
He was quiet for several seconds. "I lost it," he admitted.
"You lost your bike?"
"I parked it in front of the library, went in, came back out ten minutes later, and it was gone."
"Someone stole your bike from the front of the Public Library in broad daylight?" I asked.
Surely not, I thought. Not in our safe and quiet town, which, in the past, has been listed as "one of the 25 best small towns in America." I know people here who don't lock their cars — or homes. This is not Gotham.
But sure enough, I found my freedom-clipped son waiting for me in front of the library with an open book by Hunter S. Thompson in his lap. There were no bikes at the library bike rack.
A bike thief was in our midst.
We drove the surrounding blocks and scanned yards, eyes looking for the mean streets that I thought our town was immune to. But the day mocked us with its stillness. The most action we saw was black-shirted kids on skateboards.
"Who could have done this?" I muttered.
I pondered the meaning of it all.
Is the economy so dire that a kid can't even leave his bicycle in front of the library — the heart of our town? Was the bike thief an adult fed up with high gas prices, resorting to cheaper transportation?
I thought about those freaks in the Guinness Book of World Records, the ones who eat entire cars, bolt by bolt, metal chunk by metal chunk, until the car is gone. Did one live here and simply go out for a snack?
"Are there chop shops for kids' bikes?" I wondered aloud.
Around and around I drove, repeatedly applying profanity and tread to the same downtown blocks, obsessed with glimpsing shady dealings within our inner town. For all I knew, someone at that very moment was busy with a chisel, rubbing out a bike's serial number, numbers I previously failed to document. Who really thinks about documenting serial numbers in one of the 25 best small towns in America?
Was the bike thief watching me search him out? — was he that crafty and diabolical? Were the same people on the stoops and sidewalks I kept passing starting to suspect me of something unlawful? Did the skateboarders think I was a stalker? Was the continued sighting of my slow-going white Corolla causing others to run inside to write down not only my license plate number but the serial numbers of everything they own?
My uncharacteristic vigilant behavior unnerved my son. He seemed uncomfortable with the out-of-the-blue emergence of my inner Charles Bronson. Once, at the movies, I had challenged a group of rowdies behind us about being too noisy. He'd stopped asking me to take him to the movies.
"It's okay," he now said — pleaded? — in the passenger seat, not wanting to be an accomplice to someone on the verge of causing a scene. "It's just a bike."
"It's not just a bike," I reminded him. "We're going to the police station."
He groaned and sunk in his seat. "Can you take me home first?"
The officer on duty didn't seem too excited about my report. He didn't rush to the microphone to announce an all points bulletin. The library grounds weren't cordoned off for investigation. He remained calm, cool and collective, the sign of a good cop.
The officer wanted just the facts. He asked for the bike's description, which caught me off guard. Suddenly, I couldn't recall any details, just vague things like spokes, hand brakes, chain, kickstand, SRAM shifter. My son and I quibbled over its predominant color. I wanted a sketch artist involved, a professional who could get the details just right so we could transfer the image to milk cartons. If one wasn't on hand, maybe we could conduct a quick round of Pictionary involving me, my son, and the attending officer. Granted, we'd most likely come up with nothing more than a "stick bike" but at least we could hang the image on telephone poles. The public would get the point.
The officer asked if the bike had been locked. No, I groaned. I thought I was immune to theft, especially of a simple thing like a bike, in a simple place like this town. He asked for my name (not my son's), phone number, and date of birth. What does my birthday have to do with a stolen bike? I wondered. I became paranoid. Was I a suspect?
Months later, nothing has come of the police report. I haven't been called in for further questioning, and my dad, after hearing the news, has bought his grandson another bike.
I bought a lock for it. And I wrote down the serial number. And I still drive the streets near the library, searching for the bike, the bike thief. I'm not sure why, really. My son has a bike again, his freedom. Maybe I return to the scene of the crime because I'm looking for something else I lost on that safe and quiet day, before I got a phone call in my safe and quiet town.
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