To (Not) Catch A (Bike) Thief
This is a Stakeout.
I've showed up at the San Francisco Public Library early, locked my bike in the middle of the Grove Street bike rack—one of the most notorious for bike theft in the city— and sat down 100 feet away with my hood up and my video-camera ready. Now I'm waiting.
I've locked the frame and front wheel of my bike with a mini U-lock, and intentionally left the rear wheel unprotected, a mere quick-release away from getting nabbed. I figure if it's going to go AWOL, this will be the place. I'll be here to serve justice. I have the SFPD's non-emergency number in my phone, and I’m ready to collar some thieves.
The Potential Haul
There are 19 bike racks in front of the library, each a three-foot metal circle bolted to the road. The whole area is protected from cars and trucks by five burly stainless steel balustrades. My bike is eighth from the western end, and one of 12 bikes locked up with a U-lock (only two of which are Kryptonites). Three bikes are locked up with NYC-style chains, and four with metal cables in addition to U-locks. Three forsaken U-locks, two of which are tethered to snipped metal cables, attest to previous thefts. I have come to the right place.
Including my own wheel, eight wheels are unlocked, as are two helmets and one quick-release seat. Surely this bike rack is a sweet temptation. I'm waiting, and I'm watching.
Watching for a Perp Walk
Here's what happens when you observe the behavior of people near the Civic Center: everyone becomes a suspect. The guys with weird limps. The guys who smell like piss. The guys with cRaZy hair. The guys smoking way too many cigarettes for a Monday. The guys with their pants half off. The guys who just exude sketchiness. The guy who looks like ZZ Top. The guys pushing shopping carts. The guy tattooing his left arm. The guy wearing socks but no shoes. The guys with obscenely large backpacks/duffels/garbage bags. The guys dressed like and talking like old war buddies, who make you wonder: could they ever have been fit for duty? What about the balding guy in a brown canvas jacket and black Converse hi-tops, gesticulating wildly to himself / nobody / everybody, pacing back and forth, eying the bike rack, and then wandering off.
Is that just a ploy? Is he crazy? Am I? What about the crazy lady in pink pants, and a pink sweater, with pink fingernails, who's sitting down on the curb in front of my bike and talking to herself? Legit, or rouse? What about that lady hunting for coins on the sidewalk, and that guy screaming at traffic, and that other guy who's spent the last 45 minutes perpetually loading and unloading his pushcart? Are they decoys in some giant bike theft ring? Where is law and order? Sure, a library security guard occasionally emerges, and the Dept. of Parking cabbie zips by punctually on the half hour, but what about cops? What about law enforcement?
The Near Nab
And then, shortly after noon: a tall guy in black jeans and a black t-shirt, with a black baseball hat slung backwards on his head rolls up on a crappy yellow and red Schwinn mountain bike, towing, a red road bike far too small for him. He asks, to nobody in particular, "Hey, you seen a blonde girl around?" I approach. "Is that your bike?" He turns, starts riding away, and says, "Why? It's my bike! What's that got to do with it! It's my fucking bike!" He rides off, mumbling. The red bike is stolen, I know it, and he's a bike thief, I know it too. He's nervous, and he's getting away.
I pursue him, slowly, around the block, and I think: if someone steals my back wheel while I am gone I will be doubly upset, because it is one thing to come up empty on a stakeout, another to come back negative. I feel like I could blink and miss the action.
The Schwinn bike thief disappears around the corner, but I find another. He's a bearded guy wearing a camouflage jacket, sitting on a cement wall, and there are two wheels at his feet and a crappy mountain bike frame beside him. "Are those for sale?" I ask. "Yeah." "What are they?" "Seven hundred series Deore, I believe." I try not to laugh. 700 is the size, as in 700-centimeter road wheels, and these are 26" mountain bike wheels. Regardless, nobody would ever call them 700 series. It's hokum, hogwash, gobbledygook from a scam artist. "Are they OK?, " I ask. "I think so. Actually, they belong to my friend John. He's over there, gettin' ready to kill somebody." "Is that what he does on Mondays?" "That's what he does every day." "Which guy is he?" He points across the street. "Over there. The white backpack with skulls on it." "Great, maybe I'll come back later."
And just like that, my stakeout is sort of panning out. I haven't seen a crime committed, but in three hours, I've witnessed one stolen bike, one stolen frame, two stolen wheels, and two, if not more, bike thieves. I’m just powerless to do anything about it.
I think of all my friends who've had bikes stolen. Rachel's was stolen on Valencia Street, and she found it a week later at the Laney College flea market, in Oakland. “That's my bike,” she said and just took it back. Sam's was stolen right here, at the library, and he never found it.
I've heard the thieves work as a team and know better than to steal fancy or / blingy / distinctive bikes. I've heard they used to sell the bikes they'd stolen out of vans behind Best Buy, but nobody knows where they've gone lately. I've heard that the best thing to yell at someone who appears to have in his possession a stolen bike is, "Hey, that's my bike!"
I've learned, from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, that there are worse places to lock a bike, like in front of the Metreon or in any BART station. I also know that BART police are doing stakeouts of their own, with decoy bikes in BART stations. BART police, in this quest, you have my support!
Still: why am I such an angry grouch? I’m not sure why I’m such an angry grouch. What about innocent until proven guilty? I've seen no action, no crime, captured no evidence on my video camera. Just sketchiness and urban decay and a cross section of society so diverse it gives both society and diversity a bad name. And as much as I hate these maybe-bike-thieves, hate the idea of my bike getting stolen, I’m also aware that there are worse things. I mean, it's just a bike. It's not a Ferrari, or a computer and that alone is kinda freeing and makes me less angry.
Packing up, a homeless guy approaches me. He comments on the blueness of my bike, then asks for some money, and I decline. "One thing's for certain and two things for sure," he says, without finishing the thought. I tell him I like the saying. He asks for a royalty, and again I decline. And I think about it. One thing's for certain and two things are for sure: bikes will vanish, thieves will keep thieving, and justice will ride right on by.