The Bicycle Thief

A native of Cleveland and a graduate of the University of Chicago, WALTER M. GIBB is a member of the staff of the Baltimore Sun.


AT forty-two, an age when most criminals can point to a rather commendable record, I find myself just starting out. I can boast no time in the big house, no post office portraits, no flattering bail. The police teletype has never whispered my name. But no matter. All this is to come if only I persevere.

Five times in the past eight months I have been questioned by the police.

On no occasion was I crawling along anybody’s cornice. Nor was I dynamiting a path to the bank, or burning macadam in a getaway car. Nothing so hackneyed marks my underworld entry. What makes me a thorn in the side of Baltimore’s Finest is riding a bicycle through Guilford after midnight.

But I must not brag, for I was unaware of the enormity of such conduct until the police picked me up. The language is figurative: I got off the bicycle of my own free will the instant I found my way blocked by a squad car.

The driver had angle-parked, cutting me off like a piece of pie, and before I could pedal as far as the point, his friend was out confronting me with a flashlight.

“You live around here?”

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “ but I fear I shall have to say no to that one. What address are you looking for?”

He ran the light over me a couple of times and then two or three times over the bicycle. “We’re not looking for any address,", he said. “Where do you live?”

The question was neither logical nor gracious, but I answered it nonetheless. I did more: I volunteered information about my place and hours of employment, my opinion of the weather, and my concern for his health. He made no comment, but neither did he go away. So I showed him my press card, automobile registration, gasoline charge card, and an insurance identification listing the next of kin. He paid next to no attention. Finally I told him something about my work itself: how, when you came right down to it, our respective jobs had a great deal in common, inasmuch as I too listened to the police calls over a little radio right on the desk. That seemed to impress him.

“Well, captain,” he said, “we’re sorry to have bothered you, but, as you probably heard on your little radio, we had a little trouble out this way tonight.” And he turned back to the car.

“What kind of trouble?” I asked.

“A little burglary,” he said as they drove off. I drove off too, but slowly. It takes time to accustom oneself, even imaginatively, to the feel of a shoulder holster.

Next day I learned that the burglar in question had made off with several fur coats, dozens of evening gowns, a number of men’s suits and overcoats, and a small antique chest. My respect for the bicycle increased.

Weeks went by before I was stopped again. They were weeks of meditation, when, as they say of the drowning, I reviewed my whole life up to the sinking point.

It had not always been this way with me. I had seen better years, two score of them, the first under the watchful care of my mother, the last beneath a great green eyeshade. In both states the shelter factor had been the same. And the frustration. Especially the frustration. What was my life as a copyreader but one long round of vicarious evil? Hour after hour I participated at pencil point in the exploits of bandits and bigamists and piano players and all the others who led newsworthy lives, only to drive home at last through dark and sinister streets which l myself had done nothing to make that way. In short, it was an existence which no one with the slightest spark of delinquency could put up with forever.

Deliverance came one sunny afternoon. I had eaten breakfast, stacked the dishes, and was out on the back porch beginning my eye exercises. Near the end of the first long swing, at about 120 degrees, I saw my daughter’s bicycle lying across the walk. I went over to pick it up when something snapped, something not in the bicycle but in me. Whatever suspenderlike thing it is which holds up the fear of a God-fearing man gave way with a ping, and almost before I realized it I had ridden around the block.

That was the first step. Before the week was up, without confiding in anyone, I had bought a secondhand wheel with a three-speed hub and was riding it to work and back, thirteen miles a night.

My wife was stunned, of course, and did what she could to keep it from the neighbors. But with me she could do nothing. I was too far gone to be moved by the old appeals to selfrespect, consideration for our daughter’s future, and all the other maudlinnesses with which beginning criminals have to put up. I had experienced the exhilaration of a break with society, and there was no stopping me.

Except by the police. I had not counted on that. Instead, I had told myself over and over — as how many beginning porch-climbers have not — that I was only in this for the exercise and what could be wrong with that?

Of such whimsey my second brush with the law was even more disabusing than the first. Rain had overtaken me that night and was coming down hard by the time I reached Highfield Road. There, sloshing along among the rock piles, I saw a solitary patrolman, and instantly I felt for him the kinship of wayfarers in the storm.

“Hi!” I shouted.

“Hi!” he replied, and then, a moment later, “Hey!”

With that he splashed right out into the street and began televising me with his flashlight. “You live around here?” he wanted to know.

I answered him politely enough. But when I, in my turn, wanted to know if the people who did live around there slipped out at 4 A.M, for a good old bike ride in the rain, he acted a bit unfriendly.

“I’ll ask the questions,” he said. “Got anything to identify yourself?”

So, standing in the downpour, surrounded by the largest shelters in Baltimore, I established my identity.

“Tell me just one thing,” I asked. “Why am I never stopped when I drive through here, but only when I ride?”

“Listen,” he said, “you don’t have to be on the force very long to find out that a guy on a bike usually turns out to be a sneak thief.”

I thanked him and rode on.

My third and fourth encounters with the police had nothing special to commend them, other than being two more examples of the fact that crime does not pay. But my fifth (and last, up to this writing) had at least the novelty of taking place on the go.

For some time that night I was unaware of a patrol car driving beside me. To understand this I should explain that on these rides body and soul do not always travel together. Cycling along through the quiet and the dark, past one after another modern ruin, at fixed rhythm and fixed gaze, induces a kind of separateness in which the creaturely world and the stuff in me which likes to have nothing to do with it part company. This occasions long lapses of identity. It is as though I were making the run in two sections, railroad fashion, albeit not on the same track.

This night one section was going north on Greenway, bent well over the handlebars, while the other trudged barefoot along a dusty road in Saxony early in the twelfth century. Gradually I became aware of a voice beside me. I looked up and, lo, there was this police car, and the officer who had spoken was waiting for an answer. I had not made out his words, but by now the formula was familiar.

“No, I don’t live around here,” I said, “but if I can be of any assistance . . . ?”

He laughed. “I was just asking if you’re taking a trip somewhere.”

For an awful moment I thought they were inviting me to take one with them, and that this was the end. Still riding — indeed, not daring to stop — I recited in a breath the vital statistics which so far have kept me out of prison.

This time it was the driver who spoke. “Okay, fella,” he shouted, “but hold it under forty!” And he pulled ahead, the two of them laughing.

Let them laugh, I thought. There was a time the police jested with Dillinger. Rome did not decline and fall overnight, and I have some of the worst years of my life ahead of me.