How Twitter Found My Stolen Bicycle

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 25 2012 4:11 PM

#stopthief!

How Twitter found my stolen bicycle.

Jody's bike.
Observe the distinctive "Thick Bricks" tires on the author's Felt Chief bicycle

Courtesy Jody Rosen.

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.  

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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.

1206025_BB_BikeTweet_1

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?

1206025_BB_BikeTweet_2

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.

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.

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.

1206025_BB_BikeTweet_3

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.