There was this guy on Ralph Avenue one Sunday afternoon that had a beautiful bike. Since he was walking across the street crossing the same intersection, “nice bike” I called out. He nodded sheepishly pulling his eyes down to the ground the way 15-year-old boys do when you’ve caught them doing something stupid. I thought he didn’t hear so I called out again. He nodded me off with a dry negative grin and kept it moving. Looking closer at the frame the obvious crept into my soul: he stole the bike.
For the record I hate a few things. First on the list are cockroaches. God, I believe, put these disgusting and vile creatures on the planet earth so that human beings would have something to hate. I advocate flooding NYC with the centipedes and gecko’s that eat these infernal creatures. Next on the list are bed bugs. No real explanation needed. If you have had a bout with them then you know all too well the depths and levels, they take you to expel them. In league with roaches and bed bugs are bike thieves.
It’s personal because and it has happened to me more than a few times. Each time an epic but the most recent time is really the story I want to tell. It is a story of the old idea that you cannot change what happens to you, but you can change how you respond to whatever happens to you. For me the roots go back to the way that we understand this life. As a Muslim we see life as a trial and a test. Everything is a test. We often think about tests as being hardships – but in truth the good times and how we handle those are equally important tests.
This was not a “good time” test. This was my beloved GT bike and I just happened to take my eye off if it for a second one day out while using in front of my building Someone jacked it right out in front out there on Myrtle and Clermont. Months later, when we were packing up the truck on what turned out to be a much shorter tenure in Virginia than we expected, I was walking on Lafayette Avenue and we happened upon my GT locked outside a bagel shop. Managing one’s emotions is hard to do. Over a decade of stolen bikes rushed through my veins. I rushed into the bagel shop. “I need to speak to the manager!” I demanded. The manager, a thin and calm Mexican man came immediately. “Come outside with me,” I commanded, “I want to show you something.” He followed. “Whose bike is this?” I asked him and at first he acted like he did not know. Then I said, “go inside and see if any of your guys owns this bike.” The old linebacker, no, the old running back in me was starting to come out.
Meanwhile my wife, seeing a side of me she has never seen before, is oddly quiet. The man goes inside and out comes a very short, square, and visibly scared Mexican man wrapped in an apron. “This is your bike?” I asked. He nodded sheepishly, “where did you get it from?” He mentioned a place in Sunset Park. “I bought it from a guy on 4th avenue.” “Was it a shop or a guy on the street?” I pounded. “On the street.” He nodded. “Well, I want you to go inside, get your keys to this lock, unlock it and give it back to me now. This bike was stolen, and it is my bike.”
Within ten minutes the manager had the keys in his hand, and I was holding my bike. I had finally gotten one back. I had gotten this GT from a messenger from Brixton whose visa was about to expire. He had custom made the bike and we were basically the same build. It was very well made, and it lasted a long time even in-between some of the other ones. Now, it was a shell of its former self. The dope components replaced; the seat was replaced. And the wheel frames were bent and wobbly. I wanted to scream and cry but I lost the will. I looked up and the man who’d bought it came out and with tears, looked me in the eyes, and apologized to me profusely.
Eyes are powerful. In the rougher times when the streets were ruled by fear making eye contact with other people was dangerous. My built-in operating system of fear and assuming the worst kept me safe when I was growing up but as an adult it was becoming passé in a city that was waking up and becoming new. I felt exhausted from years of assuming the worst and being afraid of each other and afraid that the next person was going to take what you have worked so hard for. As a youth worker I learned that when young people lie or distort the truth or are not proud they shift their feet and look down – they have trouble making eye contact. Pediatricians, when examining babies, ask you whether your child is making regular eye contact. I met Bill Clinton and Derek Jeter and both of them make such clear eye contact and make it seem as though you are the only person in the world. We locked eyes. As an immigrant he used that bike every day to get to work and hustled undocumented bringing cash and food home to his family every night. He was not a bad man but was in a bad spot.
My wife, who had calmly watched the whole scene and was thinking rationally the whole time pulled me aside. “You need to give him money for a new bike” she said, “he won’t take it, you are going to have to insist he take it.” It was sound counsel. We left but came back with a few hundreds of dollars. She made me see all these terrible systems of oppression that pitted us against one another. It wasn’t his fault he bought a stolen bike; this system is messed up; it pits hardworking people against each other. It doesn’t have to be this way. Really it does not. We have an opportunity now to be better than we have ever been before.
There are so many forces that pull people apart from one another. Institutions and systems and ways of thinking that want us to feel separated, broken, helpless, and quick to capitalize on moments of weakness. The very thing that brings out the sweetness in our souls is not when we lose something or when we win or gain. It is when, over-time we are blessed to see both sides and remember to reflect on how we showed up.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an urban strategist whose work focuses on deepening democracy and improving public engagement. He is also an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow.
American Civic Life
American Civic Life