(Photos by M.Andersen/BikePortland)
The man was calling, he told Sarah Mirk, from the free phone at Good Samaritan Medical Center.
“I Have your bike,” he’d written in an email to her a few minutes before. “Please e-mail a phone #. as I am not well connected.”
It was two days ago, Saturday afternoon. Mirk, 27, had spent much of the day in a Stumptown Coffee shop, she later explained, “glaring at everybody who went by and thinking ‘maybe you stole my bike.'”
No one could have blamed Mirk for being upset. Her missing ride was a bright blue Univega Via Carisma she’d bought for $360 from the Community Cycling Center on her third day in Portland, in 2008. Mirk, who works as the online editor for Bitch Media, doesn’t own a car and says she’s ridden the bike every day since. She’d added a $200 hub-powered light, matching red grips and pedals and locked everything with a hex key to make it harder to strip for parts.
“I was like, I’ve been worrying about this day for six years and it’s finally here. There was nothing I could do.”
— Sarah Mirk, bike theft victim
Then, on Friday night, she’d walked out of a movie at the Fox Tower theater to see her u-lock dangling from the rack where she thought she’d secured her bike.
“I was like, I’ve been worrying about this day for six years and it’s finally here,” Mirk said. “There was nothing I could do.”
Well, almost nothing. After writing an investigation of bike theft for the Portland Mercury in 2010, Mirk had been inspired to finally take a photo of her bicycle and record its serial number. She dug both up, shared the photo on social media and submitted theft reports to both the police and BikePortland’s Stolen Bike Listings.
Now she was on the phone with Jeffrey, the “not well connected” man who claimed to have her bicycle. (Note: we’ve removed his last name from the story for his privacy.)
How did you get it? she asked.
On Friday night, he said, he’d been at Operation Nightwatch, a downtown recreation center for people who are homeless, and bought it from “a tweaker” for $20. The next day, he looked closer at the bike.
“It seemed like it had been ridden a lot,” he told Mirk. “It looks well-loved.”
So on Saturday afternoon, Jeffrey said, he went to a public library and Googled his way to her stolen bike listing. He’d left a comment and emailed her.
“There was a $100 reward,” she said. “Do you want it?” “Well, $100 seems excessive,” he replied.
“I said there was a $100 reward,” Mirk said. “Do you want it?”
“Well, $100 seems excessive,” he replied.
“How about $40?” she asked.
“That’s what I was going to suggest,” he said.
They made plans to meet immediately, in Couch Park at 6 p.m. She considered calling the police, but didn’t want them to be involved because she didn’t want the man to get in trouble.
“I just don’t think it’s useful for people to go to jail,” she said. “It’s better just to talk it out than to threaten somebody.”
He’d suggested that she bring a friend. She didn’t bother.
“I was thinking, the worst that could happen is I don’t get my bike back,” Mirk said later. But she did tweet an update:
A guy called about my stolen bike!! He said he has a "funny story" and the bike "looks well loved." Sketchy meet-up in park impending!
— Sarah Mirk (@sarahmirk) February 23, 2014
When she got to the park, a “scruffy-looking street dude” with long white hair, maybe in his late 40s, was waiting there, with a male friend. Mirk’s bike was there too, locked to a tree.
“Oh hey, I thought you’d be tall,” he told her. “I was riding it around. This bike is sweet. It hauls ass.”
Mirk handed him the $40 and thanked him. He unlocked her bike, they wished each other well. Mirk rode off and tweeted again:
My stolen bike is returned by a friendly homeless guy who told me, "Your bike is sweet. It hauls ass."
— Sarah Mirk (@sarahmirk) February 23, 2014
“My bike is totally intact,” Mirk said in an interview Sunday afternoon. “Nothing is taken off of it.”
I asked Mirk whether she thought Jeffrey had been the thief. She didn’t think so.
“He could be lying,” she said. “Which would be fine, I guess. He seemed to me like a really nice guy and was trying to do the right thing. … I know it’s unlikely. But sometimes people are just friendly, you know? Sometimes good things just happen.”
Do they? I decided to try to find out.
After meeting Mirk Sunday afternoon, I pedaled down to the Operation Nightwatch hospitality center, in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. They were just cleaning up after a meal. I asked a few people there if they knew a possibly homeless man in his late 40s with long white hair named Jeffrey, who had been there on Friday night. One guest said he knew him, but wasn’t sure where he was staying — maybe under the Morrison or Burnside bridges. I gave him my number and email on a slip of paper and headed back to my own bike.
After I unlocked but before pulling away, I decided to try one last person — the bushy-haired man sitting on the stoop of the church in an old baseball cap.
“Hey, this is a long shot but I’m looking for a guy named Jeffrey,” I said. “He helped a woman get her bike back the other night.”
The man stared at me and laughed.
“The Univega?” he said.
I sat down beside him on the stoop.
“Jeffrey lives in the woods,” said the man, who gave his own name as Xavier Viator. “I don’t think you’re going to find him.”
Viator, who called himself a traveler, said he’d known Jeffrey, who he described as “a third-generation Oregonian,” since the mid-1990s.
“Did you see the transaction?” I asked Viator.
“It was right here,” Viator said, gesturing to the staple where I’d leaned my bike. “It was just some tweaker-looking guy that was like, ‘You want to buy a bike?’ We were like, ‘What kind?’ and he was like, ‘Just a sec, let me look,’ so it was obvious he’d stolen it.”
Jeffrey had piped up, Viator said. “I got $10,” he told the thief.
“Not $20?” the thief said.
Sorry, Jeffrey had replied.
“Our main objective was to get rid of that tweaker guy,” Viator recalled. “It was just out of the blue, you know?”
After getting the bike back, Jeffrey told Viator that he’d try to look it up on Craigslist to find the owner.
“He’s a good guy,” Viator said. “His dad’s a doctor, something like that. He was raised the old-school way that stuff that’s not yours, you don’t keep.”
“Would you describe him as homeless by choice?” I asked Viator. “What’s his deal?”
“Unfortunate circumstances,” Viator said carefully. “Basically he’s got a degree and he can’t use it. I don’t know why. He used to work for Mighty, an auto-parts place on the other side of the river. The chain stores took away their business so he lost his job.”
“He’s a good guy,” Viator added, and laughed. “You can tell he’s got a good head on his shoulders because he brags about it. Kind of one of those types of people where even though you’re homeless, you’ve got that rich-kid attitude. It annoys us sometimes, but Jeffrey’s Jeffrey. Everybody’s got their personalities.”
I thanked Viator. He seemed pleased to talk about the incident.
“Just goes to show, not all homeless people are the same,” Viator said. “As if just because you’re homeless, you’re not going to do an outstanding thing as a Portlander.”
— Story by Michael Andersen
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.