Around 2:20 p.m. last Thursday, my bicycle was stolen in Brooklyn, N.Y. Just after 6:45 that evening, I got the bike back—5 miles away, on the other side of the East River, near Union Square in Manhattan. It felt like a miracle.
In fact, it was a team effort. I was helped by several dozen strangers; by Slate's political blogger Dave Weigel and film critic Dana Stevens; by New Yorker music critics Sasha Frere-Jones and Alex Ross; by singer-songwriter Neko Case; by three plainclothes New York City policemen; and especially by writer and musician Nick Sylvester. All those people—and Twitter—found my bicycle.
Here’s how it happened. I spent the morning hunched over my laptop in a café in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, working on an article and hiding out from the record-setting heat. At noon, I decided to switch venues: My cellphone had powered down, and I needed to recharge it. So I got on my bike and pedaled a few blocks south to a small café that has electrical outlets. I took a seat at the counter in the window, directly in front of my bike, which I’d chain-locked to a parking meter outside.
Except that I hadn’t locked the bike. Maybe I was delirious from the heat, or maybe I was just careless—I’d leaned the bike against the parking meter but neglected to chain it. I bought an iced coffee and settled down to work. I remember glancing up a few times and seeing my bike sitting there. I wrote a sentence or two. I surfed the Internet a bit; I typed a tweet. The clock ticked. Somewhere, an angel wept. And just after 2:20, I looked up. The bike had vanished.
Of course it had. Bicycle theft is a national epidemic. Each year, more than 1 million bikes are stolen in the United States. In 2010, the most recent year for which the FBI has figures, stolen bikes accounted for 3.3 percent of U.S. larceny-theft cases. Those numbers only begin to tell the story—most bike thefts go unreported. New York is widely regarded as the nation’s bicycle-theft capital—Kryptonite’s signature bike lock is called the “New York Lock”—and in New York, as elsewhere, bike stealing spikes during times of economic distress.
New York’s bicycle thieves are also, well, very New York: ingenious, intrepid, ruthless. They’ve got chutzpah. About a dozen years ago, I locked my bike to a traffic sign on Avenue B in the East Village and left it overnight. The next morning, it was gone. A man who worked at a bodega down the street told me he saw two guys pull up with a flatbed truck, unscrew the traffic sign at the top of the pole, and lift my bicycle, whose front wheel was still chained to its frame, over the pole, some 12 feet off the ground. They put the bike on the flatbed and drove off.
A chained-up bicycle will not deter a determined New York thief. As for an unlocked bike—even a bike parked outside a twee storefront café on a genteel commercial strip in the heart of “Arcadian” New Brooklyn—even there, it’s ridiculous to leave your bike unlocked. It’s a gimme.
So, suddenly, I was bikeless. It was injury that came with insults attached. For one thing, it was my birthday. It feels shitty anytime your bike is stolen, but it’s doubly shitty on your birthday—tripley shitty when the temperature is 97 degrees and the birthday in question is your 43rd.
You could argue that my bike was a midlife-crisis purchase in the first place. It’s a three-speed Chief cruiser made by the California-based manufacturer Felt. The Chief isn’t expensive, as bicycles go, but it’s flashy. It has a sleek metallic-maroon retro-style frame with an old fashioned “tank,” and a pretty brown leather saddle with matching handlebar grips. The pièces de résistance are the tires: enormous white Thick Bricks, a good deal bigger than the average balloon tire, and a lot more eye-catching. In short, it’s a cheeseball retro-ride—a friend called it “the PT Cruiser of bicycles.” The Chief is a fish tank and a couple of flat-screens away from being the bike that West Coast Customs would make, if they were in the business of pimping two-wheelers.
I didn’t care. I loved the Chief. I loved the way it looked, and I loved the way it rode. (You glide right over potholes on those Thick Bricks.) I was sure it was pointless to file a police report, but I called my local precinct to ask if they knew of any shady used bicycle outfits in the area. If a crook wanted to fence a stolen bike in South Brooklyn, where would he do it? The cop I spoke to told me she had no idea: There’s a pawn shop on Atlantic Avenue, she said, maybe try there. She wished me good luck and hung up.
It seemed hopeless. My bicycle was gone. But wait—how do you hide a bike like the Chief? I’d had it for five years, and I’d never seen another one anywhere in New York City. And I spend a lot of time ogling bicycles. The window to recover the Chief was closing fast: A smart criminal would spray-paint it, or strip it down to the ball-bearings and sell the parts. But if the bike was still on the street, it couldn’t have gone far. And those tires are easy to spot.
So I unpacked my computer. I’d read news reports about crime victims using the Internet to recover stolen property. There was a man who found his missing laptop using a tracking software program, and corralled a posse on Twitter to ambush the bad guy in a Manhattan bar. Police in Seattle have used Twitter to track down stolen cars. Increasingly, bike-theft victims—including Lance Armstrong—have turned to social media to hunt for their stolen bikes. (It works both ways: In May, Los Angeles police arrested three men who had canvassed Craigslist and Facebook for owners of high-end bicycles .)
I found a photo of the Chief on Felt’s website and dumped the link into a Twitter window. I decided to try my luck—to digitally crowdsource the hunt for my bike.
I have about 3,100 Twitter followers. That’s a decent number, but I wasn’t sure it would do the job. If I was going to snare the bicycle thief, I’d have to cast a wider virtual net.
I needed to get some local institutions in the mix. Places like Book Court, a haunt of Brooklyn literati, a dozen blocks from the scene of the crime. Book Court has close to 10,000 Twitter followers, and a lot of them, I suspect, ride bikes around New York, hoping to fling their manuscripts at passing literary agents, like kids on paper routes in the old days. I needed that street team. Even better: Brian Lehrer, the host of a current-affairs show that airs weekday mornings on WNYC, New York’s NPR affiliate. Would Lehrer retweet my plea and deploy his 13,000 tote-bag-armed shock troops?
Neither Book Court nor Brian Lehrer (nor Jay-Z, nor Mayor Bloomberg) answered the call. But the news was getting around, thanks to friends and colleagues, some of them with large Twitter followings. Slate’s Dana Stevens (9,600 followers) and Dave Weigel (64,000) retweeted it. So did Slate, the mothership (370,000-plus). The New Yorker music brain trust, Sasha Frere-Jones and Alex Ross, spread the word to their combined 46,000 followers. One of the subscribers to Frere-Jones’s Twitter feed is the indie rock star Neko Case, who retweeted my plea to her 59,000 followers.