My bike got nicked while I was running the door for PattiPow’s choir concert, at the Korean Hall at Hastings & Clark. The ol’ slippery pole trick got me. I locked my bike to a sign post with not-one-but-two heavy-duty U-locks, and even gave the pole a firm tug to ensure that it was solid before I walked away. The thief simply pulled out the bolt at the bottom of the post and slid it out. Bike vanished, U-locks and all.
PattiPow hugged me and said don’t worry chum, I’ll help you. Tomorrow we will go out and look for your bike. We’ve done this before and we’ll do it again. Conrad Schmidt was loading a/v gear into his van behind the Hall when I came trudging down the alley in the rain, feeling pathetic in my yellow bike jacket with my helmet on my arm like an empty shell. Quick, jump in the van, he said. We’ll drive around and look for your bike.
Concert-goers scrambled to help us, dumping armloads of tangled cables into bins. We tossed the speakers into the back of the van and headed for the Downtown Eastside. As Conrad drove I scrawled on scrap paper with a dying sharpie: bike description, my phone number, $100 cash—no questions asked. I approached the knots of folks huddled on street corners in the rain. They took the blurry paper scraps with interest, and even with genuine empathy. “It’s not right,” a First Nations man said with disgust — “they shouldn’t steal bikes, not here in the ‘hood”. What colour is it—silver you say? Tiny small? What marks? We’ll look for your bike. We’ll find it. It’s here, not far away.
I got home after midnight, phoned in a police report, and made up a little handbill with a photo and description of my bike. I sent out the word to my networks, attaching a PDF of the handbill for friends to distribute. Notes of sympathy and support came streaming in, with offers of bikes to lend and loans to buy a new bike. I felt buoyed up by the warmth of friends and strangers. Really, I thought, a bike is just metal not flesh. I live a blessed life. I will find my bike, or I will get a new bike. In any case all will be well.
I had a bus ticket for Seattle booked for the following day, Daniel’s birthday. How to search for my bike from Seattle,was a problem I could not resolve. Patti and Scott said they’d cover for me, and I knew I could call them, but still. I got no sleep that night.
In the morning I rode my old mutant bike to work at the shop in the bucketing rain, so thankful for that bike that I almost gave away. I could not help but think that given the crazy bike karma I seem to be running this week, it would be entirely in keeping for my bike to be found. Thousands of bikes are stolen in Vancouver every year, and I knew chances of finding it were minuscule. I had no expectation that my sweet silver Indie would come back. Yet, with no expectations, I had hope.
Patti had promised to do a sweep of the Downtown Eastside for me in the afternoon. My Bolt Bus was to leave for Seattle that evening at 6:30. Around noon it stopped raining, the sun came out, and I got a strong tingling in my gut that I should hit the streets again. I left work at 3pm and headed back to the Downtown Eastside.
If you are from Vancouver, the words ‘Downtown Eastside’ are weighty. The DTES is a 20-square-block chunk of downtown which looks like a scene from a whole other movie. Squeezed on all sides by encroaching gentrification, the DTES is heroin alley, and the first likely landing ground for stolen goods of all kinds. It would be easy for me to paint the DTES as a horrifying underworld, as many do. But I can no longer see the DTES that way. Like any neighbourhood it has many shades. Its social network and economy are complex. Certainly there is wrenching personal pain and deep systemic problems, to be faced and not romanticized. But also, there is beauty. There are people. Where there are people, there are angels.
I rode slowly down Hastings Street on my mutant bike, guided by pure intuition. I only had an hour and a half to spend there before catching my bus. I don’t know how I selected the people I approached — some seemed lucid, some were receptive, some very wasted, others were scary. Regardless, I went up to them and met their eyes. “I know this is kind of crazy, but I’m looking for my bike, that went missing last night … it’s my baby, it’s all I’ve got. Can you help me?
A hollow-eyed woman injecting behind a shopping cart told me she’d seen my bike, in a room at the Regent. A beefy man with tattoos down his neck told me he knew where my bike was. He said, you’ll find it locked by the red door down the alley. I did not want to go down the alley. Down the alley makes the Hastings sidewalk scene look like Disneyland. But if my bike might be there, then down the alley I would go. The alley detour took me through ground zero. It was hard for me to reconcile what I saw on the periphery of my vision as I rode through the alley, weaving through the syringes which could pierce my bike tires. Most of the people in the alley were not capable of speaking so I didn’t ask them questions. I didn’t find my bike, but I managed to pass out a couple of flyers. Again and again, people looked right into my eyes and said—it’s here, not far away. We’ll find it. I thanked them, and moved on.
I met with hostility only once. Spotting a woman scuttling along with a pair of bike wheels, I held out a flyer toward her. She spat a stream of insults at me — fuck off, do-gooder! In my bright jacket I looked like any one of the ‘do-gooders’ who come to the DTES, to hand out vouchers or money or food. I felt shamed by her anger, scorched by her pride. But I wasn’t there to do good. I was there to ask for help.
At 4:30 I gave away my very last flyer. I had to leave, to catch the 6:30 bus to Seattle. I turned and started to cycle home to Commercial Drive, to the clean streets and the shiny people.
Riding east, gravity tugged at my wheels. I couldn’t bring myself to rush. I certainly wanted to escape to the comfort of my partner’s arms—and yet, I knew I couldn’t go there. All those people on the DTES promised that they would help me. They gave me their word. I accepted their word. I said please call me, I’ll answer, I’ll be right there…but how could I be there, if I was on a bus to Seattle? It would feel like a betrayal to leave. I had to choose: to trust or not trust. My gut instinct was speaking loud and clear. You cannot get on that bus, said my belly.
I called Patti to tell her how the day had gone and to let her know that I was not going to Seattle that night. Patti had just returned from flyering herself. A phone call interrupted, an unknown number. My heart jumped. I hung up on Patti and rang the number. A woman answered and passed the phone to a laughing man, who said warmly: I think I’ve got your bike. Where are you?! At Hastings and Gore, he said, in front of the Patricia. Don’t move! I said, stay there! I’ll be there in 20 minutes, stay put, I’ll bring money! Laughing—don’t worry about the money, he said, I’ll be there. I took all the cash i could find, about $120 including laundry change, and looked for anything else I could bring. I grabbed a big bag of cherries I had stashed for my bus ride. I took the cherries and the money, and rode back downtown, for the third time.
A thin stooped man with bright eyes scuttled out of the Patricia parking lot. He grinned at me. I’m Brian, he said—I’ve got your bike. Are you sure? I asked. Does it have two U-locks on it? Yes! It’s your bike, I’m sure. It’s in my workshop.
I followed Brian to his apartment, his little workshop, in a social housing complex on Powell Street. Briefly as we walked, he told me his story—that he has a relationship with some of the bike thieves of the DTES, and he makes it his mission to return stolen bikes. If he can’t find the owners he refurbishes and rebuilds them and passes them on. His next-door-neighbour told him that a woman was looking for a bike, and he recognized the description immediately — the thief had brought him that bike last night, and Brian had paid him $80 for it. But the neighbour didn’t have the phone number, so Brian went out on the street and easily found someone who had the flyer, and a phone. He borrowed her phone and called me. “You and your friends,” he told me, “you made an impression.”
There in Brian’s clean little apartment cluttered with bike parts, was my tiny silver Norco. Missing its ratty pannier, but with both U-locks still attached to the frame. I burst into tears. Brian said, I wish the kid who took the bike was here now. He’s a good kid, he doesn’t want to steal, he’s just messed up. You should write him a letter. Send it to me, he said, I’ll pass it on. I gave him the money, and the cherries, which pleased him enormously. Brian loves cherries.
Of course, Brian is also a cog in the city’s stolen-bike industry. The bike thieves know he will pay a little bit more for a high-end bike than they can get on the street, which would just enough for a quick hit of whatever their bodies crave. I can’t say where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ lie here. The problem of petty theft won’t be solved through punishment or enforcement. Addiction doesn’t respond to logic, and desperate people do desperate things. I am not making excuses for theft, but I can’t find a place here to direct anger or blame.
Everyone says that getting my bike back was a miracle. But these days, it seems to me, miracles are a dime a dozen.
At 6:30pm the bus left for Seattle. My seat on the bus, empty. I walked out of Brian’s apartment wheeling one bike in each hand. A big friendly woman sat on the stoop next door. Is that your lost bike, that people were looking for? she asked. Yes, I beamed, Brian got it back to me—he’s an angel. Oh yes he is, she said. Lots of good people. Angels on every corner.
Deepest thanks for all your good wishes. I’m not mystically inclined but I have no doubt, that the passion of your thoughts for my wandering little silver steed help to bring her home to me.
Deepest bows over the handlebars,
P.S. Brian gave me permission to take his photo and put it on my blog with the story. He wants to think of ways to help with bikes on the DTES. I invited him to come over for tea. But I had trouble reading his handwriting and the email I sent him has bounced back. Brian, if you are reading this, please get in touch! –Carmen
You can follow Carmen’s journal of self-propelled dharma here at the Bicycle Buddha.