Saturday, July 16, 2011

showing up

I was coming back from the Mütter Museum, along Market Street, maybe around 20th. It's all office buildings, empty on weekends, so there was very little pedestrian traffic. I watched a car pull into a parking spot, and next to the parking spot was a bike chained to a post, and a guy crouched next to the bike. With bolt cutters. Cutting at something. He decided he was done, and put the cutters in his backpack.

It's kind of an awkward situation. I don't see people committing crimes much, especially not in broad daylight. I couldn't just let the guy walk away with someone's bike. I thought of a story my aikido friend Brandon tells, about someone being aggressive on the commuter rail, and Brandon just moved himself over to where he could watch. The guy stopped harassing another passenger long enough to demand, "What are you lookin' at?!" And Brandon calmly said he was just going to sit there and watch, and the guy's enthusiasm petered out.

There was a white couple in their 50s in the recently-parked car, and the guy had already walked over to pay the parking kiosk. The woman had the door open, but was staying in the car. I decided to walk over and say hello.
He stands up, a little wobbly, pretty shabby-looking: black, dark skin, scruffy white whiskers, baseball hat, probably in his fifties, about my size. Quite friendly.
"Oh! Hi."
"What's up?"
"I lost m'key!"
"Yeah, y'know, I lost my key, so I hadda cut the lock off."
Awkward pause as I can't think of anything to say that wouldn't escalate the situation. Do I call him a liar? Do I try to run him off? Then what: shouting match? fistfight?

The chain is wound multiple times around the front wheel and back wheel and through the frame, and he stares at it blankly, paralyzed by puzzlement.
"Say, is there a lot of bicycle theft in Philadelphia?"
"What's that?"
A bit slower--our accents are a little different and I slurred. "Is there a lot of bicycle theft in Philadelphia?"
"Oh! No, not much. Why?"
"Oh, I just noticed you've got the chain all wound through the wheels and the frame."
"Yeah, you know, the wheels, they'll take the wheels."
"Ah, yeah. That's a good idea. I'm from San Francisco, lotta bike theft there."
All this time he's been expecting me to leave and mind my own business, so he can attend to his. I have nowhere to go. I can stand there and watch him in awkward conversation for the next five hours, if I feel like it.

New tactic.
"Say, can you register bikes in Philadelphia? Like, if I went and found a cop, you could prove it was yours?"
He doesn't blink. "Nope, nah, bikes aren't registered."
"Ah, bummer."
The truth comes out.
"Oh--you think I'm stealin' it!"
"Well, yeah, actually. I do."
"Well, I ain't. I ain't stealin' it." Well, your logic is impeccable. That should make me go away!
"Huh. Okay."
"I'm just gonna keep gettin' this chain off, tryin' ta figure it out..."
"Mind if I stand here and watch?"
"Sure! Go ahead!"
It's hard to describe the awkwardness. Yes, I see you committing a crime there. No, I'm not going to stop you. I'm just going to stand here and pay close attention, and make sure you know I'm here.

The chain continues to foil him.
"I just gotta figure out...get this chain off."
"Yannow, I'm gonna look around for a cop. He can help you with the chain."
"Oh, sure, thanks...gotta figure out..."
A few seconds later, he stands up, says "Bah" and walks away. Leaving his bike behind! Amazing.

The woman got out of the car and said, "You handled that beautifully. Thank you."

I looked at the thick, galvanized steel chain and saw the guy's trouble: he hadn't cut all the way through the link, and even if he had, he would have had to cut the other side, because you can't bend a steel link open. So I guess he's not an expert. I left a note in the half-cut link explaining that someone tried to cut it and I stopped them.

This is part of the value of community: if we're alone, we can tell ourselves whatever story we want. Maybe the guy convinced himself the bike was abandoned, or the owner was rich and could afford a new one, or he needed the money more than the owner needed the bike, or whatever. With other people around, we have to see ourselves reflected in their responses. It's concrete, external feedback that's much more convincing than the stream of thoughts in our heads. The bike thief may have been afraid of being caught, but he wasn't bothered whenever I mentioned the police, and in reality there couldn't have been a cop within 4 blocks of us, let alone one that would care about a bike theft. I think he was just unnerved that I was watching him and knew what he was doing. (I would have physically stopped him from actually taking the bike, but why escalate things without need?)

Being present matters. If a person is in pain, sometimes they just need another person to be there and acknowledge their pain. Yes, I see you in pain there. I can't fix it, but I'm going to sit here and hold your hand.

When I was a kid, my mother told me 90% of life was just showing up. I'm not sure if she knows how right she was.


  1. I think I would have been afraid of physical violence. How does one assess the situation properly to avoid becoming a statistic over someone else's bicycle?

  2. Good question. As far as physically stopping someone? It could easily not be the right choice. Besides that I'm pretty big, with 9 years of martial arts practice, here's some stuff that mattered this time:

    - This guy was extremely nice, a bit on the old side, mentally a bit scattered, not on rage-enhancing drugs, and not very coordinated. Also, alone.

    - I kept about 3 feet away from him the whole time and kept my attention very engaged on where he was and what he was doing. Assuming he's not secretly a down-on-his-luck Wing Chun master, 3 feet is enough space for me to see him coming and respond (running away or physical engagement).

    - I'm pretty good at managing conflict. The same way that I didn't call him a liar but I did say I thought he was stealing he bike, there's a way to communicate "I'm not going to let you take that bike" without saying "You're going to have to fight me for it." I'm pretty sure I could have dissuaded him without getting into a fight.

    - I think that most people aren't really all that interested in fighting.

    If he were hostile, younger, with a crowd, not on a broad open main street...if I were smaller or injured or untrained...I might have decided differently.

  3. Nicely done. Seems just right ma-ai, timing, focus, etc. Good judgment all 'round and an excellent result. Go, you!

  4. Nicely done! I love stories like this, and truly appreciate your sharing it.