How Twitter Found My Stolen Bicycle

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June 25 2012 4:11 PM

#stopthief!

How Twitter found my stolen bicycle.

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I was getting eyeballs, as the saying goes. There were words of support, condolences, and advice. A friend called out the cavalry from his office in midtown Manhattan. Angelenos and Brits chipped in from afar. A young woman, @dizzydance, suggested I shop for a replacement bike at a store in Huntington Beach, Calif.

More tweets flew. There were jokes and false sightings. (“I just saw a hipster bike go by!” quipped @joshgreenman.) There was some snark, and some Schadenfreude. The stolen Chief wasn’t exactly a trending topic, but it was pleasant to imagine that I’d gone, in the space of a couple of hours, from hapless crime victim to field marshal of an army of gumshoes. “That thief had no idea what he/she was getting into,” tweeted @choosingraw.

The pivotal player turned out to be Frere-Jones. His retweet made its way to Nick Sylvester, a journalist, musician, and co-founder of the record label and production company, God Mode. (Thus his Twitter handle @GODMODEINTERNET.) Sylvester was working at his office, just east of Union Square in Manhattan. He sent me an email describing his afternoon:

I was dead set on exercising but didn't have any clean gym shorts. This was around 4pm...[I] walked over to Paragon Sports on Broadway to pick up something basic. On the way I passed a bike with enormous white wheels. It was an absurd looking bicycle. I don't ride bikes, but I remember liking that the wheels had the words “Thick Brick” on them. I picked up shorts and went to the gym and did my whole routine and so on. Around 5:30 I got back to my computer. (I don't keep Twitter on my phone anymore, it makes me too anxious.) That's when I saw Sasha's retweet about your bike being stolen. Something about you tweeting "only 1 bike like mine in Brooklyn" made me click the link to the photo. There were those wheels again, the Thick Bricks.

At 5:42 Sylvester typed out a tweet: “@jodyrosen i saw a bike with these wheels around union square about two hours ago. i also only distinctly remember the wheels.” A couple of minutes later, Sylvester tweeted that he was heading back outside to retrace his steps to try to locate the bike.

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Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, I had met up with my girlfriend and was busy commiserating about the lost Chief. The plan for the evening was to pick up my 7-year-old son from his babysitter and rendezvous with my father and half-brother, who were driving over from Manhattan. The five of us would then head to a local restaurant to celebrate my birthday.

At 5:56, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, so I let it go to voice mail. I glanced at the Twitter feed on my Blackberry. There was a new tweet from Sasha Frere-Jones.

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Just then, a text message came in: “jody it’s nick sylvester, i think i found your bike. 16 and irving.” I suppose I must have blinked a few times. I’d met Sylvester once, briefly. (Frere-Jones had given him my cell number.) I knew that Sylvester had been involved in a minor journalistic scandal some years back: He’d been caught fabricating some details in a story he’d written for the Village Voice. Later, he was hired as a writer by the Colbert Report, where he was put in charge of “Internet pranks.” “Keep in mind,” Sylvester wrote to me in an email later, “It’s my fate at this point for journalists to always kinda wonder if I’m burning them.”

I called Sylvester. He told me he was standing next to a bicycle, locked up on East 16th Street, just west of Irving Place. It looked like the photo I’d tweeted, Sylvester said. I asked him about an identifying mark: The gear-cable-housing on the right handlebar, was the top busted off? “Yes,” Sylvester said.

Sylvester called the cops. So did I. My girlfriend and I picked up my son, met up with my father and half-brother, piled into my father’s car, and sped to Manhattan. On the way in, I got a text from Sylvester telling me that the uniformed officers had handed the case off to plainclothes cops, who were staking out the bike to see if the thief would show back up to unlock it. Sylvester gave me the cell number of one of the plainclothesmen, “John,” and told me to phone him when I arrived at the scene.

At 6:42, we pulled up at the corner of East 16th Street and Union Square East. I punched in the number that Sylvester had given me. A man with an outer-borough accent answered. “Come to Brother Jimmys, the bar down the block,” he said. “We’re sitting at the tables outside.”

I found two men, probably in their early 30s, wearing shorts and T-shirts. They introduced themselves as NYPD officers from the nearby 13th Precinct. (A third plainclothes cop was loitering around the corner.) They looked plausibly un-cop-like—like a couple of guys who might hang out at a bar on a Thursday evening after work. (They were drinking water, though.) “Is that your bicycle?” one of the cops asked, gesturing across the street. It was no Internet prank: There, chained to a bike stand in front of a large limestone building, was the Chief. Evidently the thief had grabbed my bicycle, pedaled straight over the Brooklyn Bridge, locked up the bike, and disappeared to go about his business.

We went across the street to the Chief. I’d wrapped my chain tightly around the bike’s seat post, but the thief had managed to wrench the saddle upward a bit, unwinding the chain enough to let out some slack. He’d pulled the chain around the bike stand and attached a dinky combination lock. The policemen asked me to unlock the big padlock—my lock—to prove that I was the owner of the bike. I took out my keys and opened the padlock. One of the cops then broke open the thief’s combination lock with his bare hands. “There you go,” he said. “All yours.” It was about 6:50, almost four-and-a-half hours since I realized that my bicycle had been taken.

I was free to go. The police told me they would hang out for a while in case the thief materialized. “Where do you think he is?” I asked. “In there, probably,” said one of the cops, motioning to the entrance of the building we were standing in front of. It was a Department of Social Services facility, home to the New York City Job Center, the New York City Residential Center, and the New York City Food Stamp Office. Times are tough.

I took the bike and walked with my family to dinner at a restaurant nearby. I left the Chief outside—chained up, this time. I ordered a steak and sent out a tweet: “#crowdsourcesleuthing triumph! Bike stolen in BK, recovered near Union Sq.” Later, I had a brief text exchange with one of the plainclothes detectives. The thief, he told me, had never shown up.

There’s a moral to this story, surely, but what is it? Is the saga of the Chief a techno-utopian parable about social media—about the wonder of the all-seeing digital eye, the Internet’s omniscient God-mode? Is it an argument for pimped-out beach cruisers with gigantic white tires? A testament to the awesome power of Sasha Frere-Jones’ Rolodex? It might be a lesson about the capriciousness of fate. If Nick Sylvester had done his laundry on Wednesday night, would my Thick Bricks be for sale now at a junkyard in the Bronx?

Someday, when I’m wiser—on my 44th birthday, say—the answers may become clear. In the meantime: Lock your bicycles. And for crying out loud, #follow @GODMODEINTERNET.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.