A Christmas bike miracle
by Lise Anderson
From the December, 2013 issue
I was working in our office studio above the garage one evening when my husband, Miles, came back early from a bike trip to Kroger.
"How was your ride?" I asked, without looking up. He didn't reply. "Everything OK?"
"I am one country boy. I am one [expletive] naive country boy."
I recognized rage just below the surface of his normally easygoing demeanor. He pulled out a file and plunked down on the couch. This seemed serious. What had happened?
Miles seemed to find the information he was looking for, picked up his phone, then thought better of it, looked at me wearily, and explained.
He had ridden four blocks to the East Stadium Kroger to buy milk and bananas, or was it hot sauce? He had leaned his bike beside the store as he'd done before and dropped his kickstand, but, being a recent transplant from a village in Connecticut, left it unlocked.
Naive country boy came out five minutes later, and the bike--a scratched-up white-aluminum-frame Specialized Sirrus with the "One less car" bumper sticker on the crossbar--was gone. The older man smoking on the nearby bench said he hadn't seen anything unusual. The manager and the baggers hadn't seen anything.
Miles called the Ann Arbor Police and gave them--and later the University of Michigan police--the serial number. The dispatcher listened as Miles explained his humiliation over the phone. The officer acknowledged Miles' frustration and, without calling him an idiot, underscored the obvious risk of leaving a bike unlocked, especially at that Kroger, with student traffic and needy people redeeming bottles and cans for money. Numerous bikes had been taken from the Kroger parking lot over the years, he said. Miles hung his head lower and described the bike in detail. "In case some patrol officers find an abandoned bike somewhere on the campus," he told me later. (That'll be the day, I thought.)
It was a gloomy few weeks. Miles watched Craigslist for used bike listings. He found a national registry
of stolen bikes and reported it there. He drove all over Ann Arbor, sure he would find the bike behind an apartment building, in an empty lot off State, along the railroad tracks. The Ann Arbor cops had said people often grab a bike, ride where they need to go, and then ditch it down an embankment. Others don't want to get caught with a stolen bike, so they hide it.
He stopped regularly at two local used bike shops. He scanned the racks of the central campus transportation center. Did his search verge on obsessive? He loved his bike, and the fact that his innocence had been violated transformed him. He was relentless.
Months passed. His vigilance mellowed. Dry leaves and dust began to swirl in the frosty bike lanes as I pedaled my bike downtown to catch the bus to work. Miles wouldn't concede that sooner or later he would have to shop for a replacement, but he was slowly moving through the stages of grief towards acceptance.
On Christmas Eve I left work at 2 p.m. and headed downtown to conquer my holiday shopper's block. I bought an Orangina at Sparrow Market and walked through the cheerful shops at Kerrytown. Tinsel and lights and the Santa in the stairwell filled me with smiles, but I still froze when I looked at price tags. I was turning over a pretty box of hand-painted notepads at Hollanders when my phone rang.
"I found my bike."
"No way. Where are you?"
"At Liberty and Fifth across from Seva. It's locked to a signpost, and I'm waiting for the cops."
"Are you sure it's yours?"
"Everything is off of it, but I'm sure. They forgot to scrape off the Mystic Bike Shop sticker."
The temperature was in the low teens, and it was windy. When I drove up, Miles was hovering beside a mangy-looking white bike locked to a "no parking" sign. I could tell he wanted to gloat: only a few days before I had been admonishing him to get over it and buy himself a new bike. But we hugged like best friends from out of town, high-fived a few times, and waited for the police on a busy day for them. We paced and talked: why would a thief tie up a bike in plain sight?
After half an hour, Miles went to get coffee and warm up. We took turns sitting in the car. Finally, with the light beginning to dim, a patrol car pulled up. We greeted him giddily, as the officer, hands in the pockets of his light jacket, apologized for the delay.
He turned the bike upside down to look at the serial number on the crank. Even though it matched the description of the one reported stolen in September, to cut the bike lock he said he would need proof it belonged to us. Could Miles get a receipt or documentation with the serial number on it at home?
"No problem, officer." Miles took off in my car.
As the officer sat in his car, I paced the sidewalk. Maybe the cold had addled my brain, but I wanted a confrontation with someone. Yet, what if the person who had locked the bike here was a victim as well? What would I say when he said, "No way, I paid for this bike. It's mine!"
Miles returned with document in hand and a glow of justice beneath his short beard. The officer cut the cable, smiled, and we shook hands. Then he told us about the rest of his Christmas Eve.
The patrols had been tied up, he said, due to the latest case in a rash of suicide attempts. It had been a rough few days: three Ann Arbor residents had unraveled and turned from despair to violence.
We wondered aloud why there couldn't be some way the police department and mental health providers could coordinate. Maybe these awful scenes could be avoided. All that pain at Christmas. The officer shrugged, smiled knowingly, and said, "not with laws like HIPAA."
It was late and getting colder. We thanked him--Miles and I humbled but glad to share the small Christmas Eve miracle with a first responder. Miles started home on his bike in the zero-degree wind chill, warmed with satisfaction and vindication.
Our lessons? Pay attention! Keep your receipt handy. And always reach out to other people, no matter the time of year.
Anderson lives, works, bikes, and raises three sons in Ann Arbor. She is the author of The Lost Chapters, a memoir.
[Originally published in December, 2013.]