If only it were a bike that was stolen

By Michele Herman

The phone rang last Thursday at 3, the time my 14-year-old son usually appears rosy-cheeked at the door after his ride home up the West Side bike path from Stuyvesant High School. “Hi Mom,” he said in such a flat voice that I guessed what was coming next. “My bike was stolen.” Had this been our family’s first bike theft, I would have greeted the news with the urge to throw up. I would have tried out a fancy word I didn’t generally use and found that “violated” was indeed how I felt. I would have been socked by a surprisingly strong grief, considering that the loved one was a conveyance made of steel and rubber.

But it wasn’t our first bike theft. It was our sixth — two for him, two for me and two for my husband. So I had a different set of reactions. First came relief that he was safe, which I know puts me ahead of parents in many regions of the world. Next I sighed with resignation, as if a periodic New York City tax that I like to put out of my mind had come due again. I also felt complicity, because the two-toned silver Gary Fischer bike we would surely never see again had been our 13th-birthday present to him, and we knew full well when we bought it that it was a little too pretty to spend six hours every day locked to a signpost in Lower Manhattan. But our son is, like us, a dedicated cyclist. He had outgrown the hand-me-down he’d been riding uncomplainingly since his only other new bike, his 10th-birthday present, was stolen in front of P.S. 3 a week after we gave it to him. Yes, the sensible thing would have been to wish him a happy 13th birthday, tell him “today you are a man,” and hand him a nice ugly hand-me-down in his size.

As seasoned victims, my son and I knew the drill. He made the long, bikeless trudge home, while I planned a dreary afternoon full of acts of near futility. First we would head to the First Precinct to fill out a theft report, which doesn’t change anything but at least creates an official record. Then we’d begin looking into a replacement bike, this time a reconditioned one, the more beat-up looking the better. And we would have to weigh competing advice about locks, trying to find a more clever thief-thwarting locking system than the clever two-lock thief-thwarting one we were already using. (We did later pinpoint one vulnerability in his locks: because the little yellow Kryptonite U-lock that came with his massive New York chain was from that old unfortunate batch that could be picked with a Bic pen, he had been using an off-brand U-lock that had a shoddy mechanism.)

The next day, everyone offered sympathy for my son, but I gradually realized that no one other than bicyclists really wants to talk about bicycles, let alone bicycle theft. This is when I began to feel the emotion I’d been stifling from the start: anger. I felt the impotence of the second-class citizen, someone with a legitimate position that is a priority to no one.

My insurance agent told me the bike was worth less than the homeowners’ deductible. The youth officer and the safety officer, who patrol four area schools, told me they can’t do more to secure the single railing where (as any bike thief worth his bolt cutter knows) all the Stuyvesant kids’ bikes are locked all day. The assistant principal for organization at Stuyvesant said even in the unlikely chance that the school could find indoor space and dedicate it to bike parking, theft is rampant inside the building; just the other day a student’s down coat had been stolen from inside her locked locker, in full view of the guidance office.

My conversations with two police officers were the most disturbing. The crime prevention officer taught me a new expression: the “major seven.” These are the real crimes: rape, murder, grand larceny and the like. Bike theft is petty larceny or, as the officer who filled out our theft report spelled it, “petit” larceny, making it sound almost charming, which I guess it probably is to someone who books rapists and murderers all day. He told me the petty larceny reports don’t even come to him. Nor do they figure in any way in the city’s falling crime statistics, which is interesting given all the emphasis on quality of life in the two most recent city administrations.

“It’s not something we can put a lot of resources into,” he explained. He told me that the police are, however, working hard to combat theft of kids’ iPods. These often get taken by force, or fear of force, which makes them possible robberies, which bumps them up to major-seven status. Meanwhile, the property clerk told me the only time they get recovered bikes is when they seize them during the monthly Critical Mass bike rides.

As I listened, an unfortunate recent statement of Mayor Bloomberg’s started ringing in my ears. In December, he was asked by The Villager about the two recent cyclist deaths on the bike path by motorists who were driving there illegally. “Even if they’re in the right, they [cyclists] are the lightweights,” said the mayor. “Every year, too many people are hit by cars — and bikes have to pay attention.”

How right he is: bicyclists have to pay attention because no one else will. On Friday, my son told me that during an assembly, the Stuyvesant principal mentioned the problem of bike theft to the student body. He said that the school can’t guarantee the safety of the bikes locked outside, and there isn’t enough indoor space to accommodate them all. His conclusion: kids would be better off not riding to school.

Creating secure bike parking for New York school kids would be a pain in the neck, I agree. There would have to be new railings or security guards, or security cameras and threatening signs, regular patrols, or a partnership with a nearby garage, or a space cleared indoors. This is obviously never going to be a principal’s top priority.

But the city administration has shown its talent for creating new priorities. It’s apparently rallying now to protect children’s iPods, a luxury item that they aren’t supposed to bring to school. It has rallied to reorganize the school system several times over in the past five years. It rallies every month to protect the populace from the threat posed by Critical Mass, though for the life of me I can’t understand how a single gathering of bicyclists blocking traffic once a month constitutes more of a public nuisance and menace than the conditions created by motor vehicles on New York City streets every day.

When I tell people about my son’s bike theft, they often lament the loss of innocence that must accompany it. I’m not so worried about that — growing up in the city a kid sees too much to live by any silly, simplistic notions that the bad people are kept somewhere far away. What I wish he didn’t have to see, and what I can’t explain satisfactorily, is why the powers that be are so resistant to supporting bicycling as a serious mode of transport.

Every day bicyclists are relegated to the role of relative nobodies. We are stereotyped as lawless light-runners (a letters-to-the-editor staple as durable as the welfare queen in her Cadillac). And our problems are considered too small to count.

So I guess, as Mayor Bloomberg suggested, it’s up to us cyclists to pay attention, and to remind the government of the value we provide. Bicycles are compact, quiet, quick and benign, and they can run for hours on their rider’s slice of morning toast. If we could increase daily bicycling by making it safer, this city and this nation could make a significant dent in our most pressing page-one problems: obesity, lack of exercise, diabetes, asthma, pollution, global warming and dependence on Middle-Eastern oil. You might call them the major seven.