I wanted to share a story that happened to me a few years ago when I was working at a coffee-shop in Santa Rosa. Regarding the setting: it was an old stone building with a private parking lot out back, neighboring a decommissioned train station, frequented by all variety of character. I was 19 years old and I was sitting in my Jeep on my brief lunch break.
Across the parking lot, I watched this guy in a green jacket approach the bike rack. He was homeless, maybe forty-five years old, with black sunglasses and baggy pants. This guy started yanking on my green bike chained to the rack just outside of the back entrance. I was a bit dumbfounded at first, bearing witness to this thievery in action, and from the driver’s seat of my Jeep I was unsure how to react.
Was this actually happening?
This green Huffy five-speed mountain-bike belonged to the mother of my ex-girlfriend and I’d been letting a friend borrow it for a few weeks and she hadn’t been using it, so the bike had been locked up for a while. Because of this emotional and physical detachment from the bike, I was calm and more curious about the situation than anything. That bike—though it was essentially mine—was very much not mine, at least not until the homeless guy snapped the lock off the rack.
Oh shit. He got it.
Suddenly all that detachment I felt came rushing back in a strange form. I suddenly very clearly saw myself telling people that I witnessed the robbery of my bike and did nothing to stop it. I imagined how disappointed people would be. How many lectures I would hear. How often people would bring that up in conversation and remind me of how cowardly I was.
Was I a coward?
This was a test.
But really? There I was on my lunch break, relaxing in my car, listening to music, and you didn’t even let me get through one song before you forced this moral dilemma in my face.
I got out of the car.
This was crazy. What was I going to say?
I had about forty feet to cover before I was close enough to say anything—me being a chronically soft speaker. I managed to squeak out a weak, “Hey,” but my voice caught in my throat. I was very nervous, after all, being one of the most non-confrontational people I know.
This homeless guy had freed my bike from the rack and was kicking up the kickstand, squeezing the handlebar with his thieving hands, and before I knew it he was peddling away.
Rather than make a right turn out of the parking lot and disappear forever, he made a left turn, keeping him in sight. Knowing I couldn’t give up now, I backtracked across the parking lot to follow him as he coasted leisurely along the sidewalk on the opposite side of the chain-link fence, adjusting the gears as if he owned the bike.
What an asshole, I’m thinking.
I was walking. Not running. At no point did I demonstrate any sense of urgency or panic. An observer would not have thought that I was following someone trying to escape with my bike. I didn’t feel any urge—though the idea passed through my mind—to chase him down and beat him up. Violence seemed unnecessary and improbable, unless he hit me first.
I walked across the parking lot until I was at the far end where the fence separated me from Sixth Street, and I considered hopping the fence to continue pursuit but really hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
Wouldn’t you know it—the guy turned left off Wilson and onto Sixth, on a path perpendicular to my own. He was going to pass right in front of me and suddenly, again, I was at a moment of necessary action. Do I shout at him? Do I hop the fence and stand in front of him? What do I say? What should I do?
I wondered if I was going to be late coming back from my break because of this. I thought about how I’d have to explain that my tardiness was caused by chasing a homeless bike-stealing man across Santa Rosa. For as unexpected and dreamlike this situation was, I had to keep reminding myself that it was happening and that I had to do something about it.
Across the street, a tall man in a black shirt stopped and waved to the bike thief—causing the Thief to set down his feet and stop riding for a moment. Now all of a sudden I found myself standing on one side of the fence directly opposite the Thief at the end of the parking lot, close enough to speak with the man, close enough to hop the fence and block his route. I was also close enough to overhear a conversation that went something like this:
Friend Across Street: “Hey! Nice bike!”
Thief: “Thanks. I just got it. A friend told me he’d seen it left here for a week.”
Friend Across Street (in the act of crossing the street): “Nice.”
Thief: “Easiest thing, too. Whew.”
It wasn’t long after that when the Friend noticed me standing there. He was the first one to give me a nod of acknowledgement, drawing the attention of the Thief, who turned as he sat on my bike and looked me up and down. The man in black was a thinner and more approachable-looking fellow, but just as untrustworthy in my book for being acquaintances with the Thief—and now both men were staring at me, waiting for me to speak.
The fate of my bike rested in the outcome of this moment.
I took a quick breath and held it.
Then, with a wouldn’t-you-know-it shrug, I said to the Thief, “That’s my bike.”
At first the words had no effect.
Then he asked me, “You’re serious?”
“Yeah. I work here,” I explained, my eyes locked on his. “It’s… My friend has been borrowing it. It’s my friend’s bike I’m borrowing from her.”
I didn’t know how else to go about this situation. I didn’t know how much I needed to defend my ownership of the bike—wasn’t it enough that I was bold enough to make such a claim to begin with? What did he think—that I saw him steal the bike and then quickly assembled some lie to con him out of it? My voice trembled a bit but I did my damnedest to stay strong. I’m not confrontational. I’m totally out of my element.
“You’re not just pulling my leg, are you?” he asked.
“No. It’s mine,” I said.
“It’s been left there for a week,” he tried.
I nodded. “I know why you took it,” I said. “I do. But it’s mine.”
The Thief sighed, defeated and unsure how to react.
In a moment of rare decisiveness, I firmly added, “And if you keep riding then I’m going to have to call the cops.”
The mention of the authority was what did it, I think, because no more than ten seconds after this thought pinballed around the man’s mind he began to get off the seat. How he must have felt—I had no idea. But there the guy was trying to steal my bike and I caught him red-handed and, probably a bit embarrassed, he stepped down. He really did.
It all felt kind of expected, honestly. In a strange way this felt like the exact way this situation was meant to unfold.
Then the Friend got involved and reached for the bike. “Let’s get it over the fence,” he said to the Thief and the two men hoisted the bike onto my side.
I gripped the handlebars, in case they changed their mind. It had been a while since I’d been in possession of this thing and yet it felt intimately familiar and a sudden wave of anger passed over me when I realized how close I came to losing it forever. I quickly went and locked it safely in the back of the Jeep.
The finale is anti-climactic. The whole story is anti-climactic, which I think is what bothers people the most about this story. “That was it?” they ask. “I would have called the cops right then,” some people say. But I didn’t. I had my bike back and no harm had really been caused—other than a severed lock—and in my book the universe was balanced, and that was that.
I think the moral of the story is similar to that of the tortoise and the hare. Don’t jump to confrontation. Don’t rush to conclusions. In the face of a test like this, remain calm and take it one step at a time. We’ll all have our Coward Test someday. Surprise yourself with how you react and you’ll be surprised by the outcome.