On the 4th of July my girlfriend and I took a friend visiting from Richmond, Virginia out to dinner in an area of the West Village that we refer to as Charm Central. We parked the car on West 4th, which is my favorite street of its kind in the city. It’s quiet, tree lined, narrow, and it, as well as Bank, West 12th, West 11th, Perry, and Charles Streets have some of the most beautiful townhouses, brownstones, small apartment buildings, and restaurants in New York City, as well as any other city I have ever lived in or visited.
Its residents take pride in their homes and apartments for many have been restored, interiors renovated, and those that are not are charmingly in decline. Everyone seems to be readers. Or at least they have shelves and shelves of books More than merely fancying myself living in the neighborhood (I can’t afford it), I feel a civic connection to it. I care about its well-being. And it represents a lifestyle I would like to become accustomed to. I am, after all, an American and so I believe that through hard work and determination I will eventually live on West 4th, though each year I grow less convinced of this.
Well, we walked west along West 4th, where it was unusually quiet both because of the heat and the holiday. When we got to West 12th, I noticed that there was a bicycle locked to a sign in front of Casa Di Pre, an Italian restaurant. We–my girlfriend and I–ate there once, and while I am not a food writer, I remember that the fare was heavy, the flavoring muddled, and the selections predictable, though the ambiance heightened the warm glow most of us feel after drinking two or three glasses of wine, especially with friends. The amber lights were kept low, the music was played softly, the wait staff was professional, and the room handled the table conversation well. We didn’t consider eating there again, but we did stop to look at the bicycle before we continued to Mi Cucino, an outstanding Mexican eatery on Jane Street, where we began our Independence Day celebration with a light summery meal in their cool, brightly colored dining room.
The old red Raleigh touring bicycle was secured to a street sign with a Kryptonite, the black U-shaped lock that is legendary for being nearly impossible to cut, saw, or pick. The seat was gone, the front wheel was warped, tires flat, the front fender folded back against the tire, handlebars badly rusted, chain the same, brake and gear cables slack, their plastic casings cracked, and the rear reflector was askew. And it was flagged with two strips of hot pink plastic, which I learned was the work of the sanitation department, indicating they would, at some point, haul it away. The frame, however, seemed fine, and because of the elegant fits frame and famous name, I felt it could be reconditioned. I had been looking for such a bike for some time. So I made a mental note of it, and then we continued on with our evening.
The following morning we went to the country, and I completely forgot about the faded red Raleigh.
Then, last Friday night I was walking alone in Charm Central when I happened on the Raleigh, again. And, as I was early to meet a friend, I went into the Casa Di Pre to inquire about it. The bartender said, “That bicycle has been there for two years.” I told him that I wanted to buy it and he said, “Buy it from whom? Just take it.”
“Really?” I said.
Riding home on the train it occurred to me that while I used to like bicycling, I had rarely been on one over the last decade because I had been hit by a car while cycling home from work, suffering a blow to the face that knocked my front teeth out. One of the paramedics found my teeth lying on the street, picked them up, put them in a plastic bag, and when I arrived at the emergency room a dentist was waiting who put my teeth back in my mouth.
I still remember the click my traumatized teeth made when he put them in place. It took only a few seconds. Then I was rushed away to have my head and face x-rayed. After I recovered, walking replaced cycling. I sold my bicycle soon after it was repaired. Years passed before I rode a bicycle again. But I was looking to resume cycling on the recommendation of my physical therapist, who had prescribed it as part of a regime to recover from a back injury. So, I left the restaurant with the assurance that the bicycle was abandoned, and that I was to remove it from in front of the business as soon as possible.
On Saturday morning I decided I would go and see if I could claim the bicycle. First I had to run an errand near Union Square for my girlfriend, who was on vacation. I happened be close to Ernie’s bike shop, so I stopped in to ask his advice. I told him that I had access to a pair of five foot bolt cutters and I asked if they would cut through the legendary lock. Ernie said, “They might do the job, but if not, I have a hacksaw with a tungsten steel blade that will cut it with 45 minutes of steady sawing.”
I took the train to Spring Street, where I borrowed the bolt cutters from my employer. The moment I hit the street with the heavy, bright red bolt cutters, I began to attract unwanted attention. Once, about three years ago, I had a recurring dream in which each morning I awoke and without dressing I left my apartment and walked along Riverside Drive to the grocery store at 116th and Broadway without anyone so much as looking at me. With my cutters in hand, however, a couple began amiably quizzing me about where I was going and what I was planning on doing. (This, apparently, is what post 9-11 New Yorkers are concerned about).
“I have a job to do. I am going to get a bicycle,” I said.
“Is it yours?” the man inquired.
“It’s not but it will be,” I answered rather wildly.
“And you’re telling us this. That takes a bit of cheek,” his partner said in a clipped British accent.
I turned to the man and said, “Well it isn’t mine, yet,” at which point he finished for me by saying, “But it will be” and then I moved off. There was nothing more I could say. When I looked back, they had evanesced in a sea of shoppers.
Walking along Mercer Street, I turned heads with my heavy bolt cutters. On Houston Street I hailed a cab and after I had situated myself, the cabbie turned, looked through the small plastic window and said, “If the police see you with those, you’ll be arrested.”
“Really? But I am going to cut the lock from my bicycle. I’ve lost the key,” I lied
“It doesn’t matter. You have to get a locksmith,” he assured me.
“But that’s ridiculous. It’s my bike,” I said.
“Ok, boss, you know everything,” he said in a tone laden with skepticism.
We rode along in silence until we arrived, as it turned out, three blocks from where I had intended to be dropped off. “Good luck,” he said and then sped away. Walking along West 12th, I saw a couple sitting on the stoop When I drew even with them, the man, leapt off of the steps while the woman fixed me with a scowl.
“Yo, whauch you goin do with those? That’s a felony,” he said.
“What is? Someone else said the same thing,” I said.
Suddenly the woman sprang from the stoop and said in a high loud voice, “Comere. What you goin cut with that?” she asked.
I quickened my pace, my arms ached. I was not going to make the same error with this set of interrogators. But at this point, having ended the exchange, the man called to me. “Hey, you wanna get rid of ‘your’ bike?”
There was a small crowd across the street in front of Café Rosso waiting for a table when I arrived with my cutters in tow. A man said, “We need those.” I went inside Casa Di Pre and spoke with the manager, who said, “Yes, yes take it.”
“Will I get into trouble?” I asked.
He threw his arms up in a gesture meant to reassure me and said, “No, no take it. I told you, it’s been out there for two years.”
I peeled the plastic coating back to reveal the tubular steel. Clamping the cutters around the lock where it fit into the locking cross bar, I braced one of the handles on the sidewalk and pressed the long handles toward each other with all my weight. The manager came out and helped while continuing to look up and down the street. We couldn’t even scratch the surface of the lock. After ten minutes or so, a police van drove slowly past at the moment I was taking a break. I stood with the cutters behind me.
But why, I wondered. “I am not a bicycle thief,” I said aloud.
The bike had been abandoned for two years. Yet when the van pulled over a block away, I broke out in a cold sweat. My back began to ache, my feet hurt, and I started to wonder what the hell I was doing expending so much effort to obtain (steal?) a wrecked bicycle.
Intuitively, I stepped into the street, hailed a cab, and off I went. But couldn’t let go! I wanted the bicycle!
On 7th Ave, near St. Luke’s Place, I stopped to see a locksmith, who, after after listening to my problem, explained that he had a tool that could pierce the lock but it was illegal for him to do so.
He said, “You have to go to the police station on 10th Street, get them to designate it abandoned, they’ll cut it off the sign, and then you can buy it at the next Police auction.”
“What a pain in the ass,” I said. “Nobody wants this bike. It’s worth five dollars.”
“And if I remove it myself?” I asked.
“It doesn’t belong to you. It’s the city’s property. If you’re caught attempting to–in the eyes of the law–steal the bike and it is valued at $100 you could be charged with a felony”.
“Ok,”I said despondently
On the way home I thought about how I had wasted the entire afternoon with nothing to show for my effort. The voice in my head berated me: “You should have been writing. You are such a loser This is so typical of how you squander time. You will never write the poems and stories you want to write. You whine too much.”
My back hurt badly. When I got home I told my roommate about my ordeal and grew annoyed with him because he began playing devil’s advocate, making a case based on a strict interpretation of the law. He argued that just because the bicycle was thought to be abandoned didn’t necessarily mean that it was. And without the burden of proof, I was, in fact, taking something that did not belong to me.
“But it has been forgotten,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, like all the others.
I attempted to sway him by advancing my notion as to why it was left behind. I explained that there had been a minor accident in which the front wheel had been pretzeled, rendering it disabled. So the owner simply locked it up, intending to fetch it later, only they left it instead.
My roommate believed that all of the damage to the Raleigh had occurred while it was locked to the sign. “The owner,” he said, “is dead.”
Should I run an add in the Village Voice, I wondered. Should I put a sign on the bicycle to see if the owner called me? If the owner is dead, how did he or she die? Yet I knew that the owner hadn’t been in a fatal accident involving the red Raleigh because it would have been hauled away–not locked to the sign.
On Sunday morning I spoke with a traffic cop who told me that he was not aware that the sanitation department “flagged items left on the street.” He told me to ask at the police station. So on Monday evening after work I walked over to the station and spoke with a police officer whose responses annoyed, frustrated, and surprised me.
I explained the situation briefly and he said, “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Why not?” I said.
“We can’t remove it because there is the potential for too many lawsuits,” he said.
“You mean it will just stay there forever,” I asked?
“But I spoke with a locksmith who told me that you could designate it abandoned, remove it, and then I could buy it at auction.”
“There is a possibility of that except that it would go to Queens where it would be stored and eventually sold. The auctions are for dealers only who must buy in lots of 100 or more. Sorry. That’s the way it is, he said.
“So that’s it. There is nothing I can do,” I said.
“Unless You want to clip it yourself and take it,” he offered.
“But what if I were to get caught? I mean it’s not worth a hundred dollars, so it wouldn’t be a felony. But I could still get in trouble, couldn’t I? I’m not sure I should do that,” I said.
To that he shrugged his shoulders and was at that moment called away to solve a different problem, leaving me standing alone to solve mine.