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The Friday Profile: Jeffrey Cramer, Portland’s stolen-bike good Samaritan

Posted by on February 28th, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Jeffrey Cramer, who says he can support himself indefinitely as long as he spends just $500 a month, talked to us about bikes, bike theft and living outdoors in Portland.
(Photos by M.Andersen/BikePortland)

When Jeffrey Cramer bought what he now calls “Sarah’s bike” for $10 last Friday night, he wasn’t planning to track down its owner, he said. He just needed a way to get home, because someone had stolen his own bike a week before.

“At that time of night, $10 for a bike ride home was a good deal — you can’t get a cab back to where I live for $10,” he said. “It wasn’t ’til I got home that I realized I was riding a gem.”

Cramer, 48, doesn’t want to say exactly where he lives, except that it’s “way the fucking hell out there.” But five days after he turned down most of a $100 reward for tracking down the owner of the bike he’d bought from the man who stole it, this self-described “vagabond” was willing to have a candid conversation about his decision to live outdoors, the importance of bikes in his life and his own thoughts about Portland’s underground economy of stolen bicycles.

I’d contacted Cramer last Sunday using the temporary email he’d created to contact Sarah Mirk, the owner of the bike he’d bought and then returned. I asked if he’d be willing to meet up and talk about his decision. On Wednesday, after seeing our post, he wrote back. “I don’t see why not,” he wrote.

“I was thinking that maybe I was more happy than Sarah to give her bike back,” he told me when we met. “Then I saw that she was maybe more happy than me.”

Sarah Mirk with her bike, which Cramer bought
and returned to her. She offered him
a $100 reward; he accepted $40.

The former mechanic had showed up at Director Park Thursday with a loud laugh, a well-pressed shirt, a smile damaged by fistfights, a bottle of alcohol in his backpack and a big blue vocabulary. He also said he had no interest in distorting the truth about his very unusual life.

“I don’t need the bullshit,” Cramer said.

He told me I could find his mugshot online. He was right. shows that Cramer was booked into Multnomah County jail once in 2011 and once in early 2013, both times with zero bail and no criminal charges.

One of the most unusual things about him, he said: Cramer has enough cash in the bank that living outdoors isn’t a huge challenge for him.

“I worked most of my life; I’m approaching 50 years old,” he said. “I’ve got enough money that I can draw out $500 a month. I have to keep it to a minimum, and it’ll be enough forever.”

That’s exactly what Cramer’s set out to do. He keeps a storage locker in town where he keeps valuables like his TV set and bike tools. He gets around by bike whenever possible, or foot and transit when his bike is stolen. That’s something he says has happened five or 10 times with different bikes. (He’s not certain where he cable-locked his most recent loss, though he thinks it was at his usual storage spot. “To tell you the truth, I was on a bender,” he said.)

“I wish I was working,” he added. “But oh, shit. Jobs aren’t easy to come by.”

Cramer, whose father was an orthopedic doctor in Washington state, said he studied history at Tacoma Community College and the University of Washington.

“I got into trouble with the law during college,” he said. “An attempted burglary. … I wanted to be a teacher. It just derailed that.”

He worked as a pinsetter mechanic, among other gigs, and continues to pick up temporary jobs sometimes. Most of his time, though, is his own: listening to the radio, reading at libraries, or spending time with the people he’s come to know. He spends winters in Portland and summers in Montana, he said. He said he’d never spent a night in an emergency shelter.

“If you have enough money, it ain’t hard,” he said. “If you don’t have any money, it’s really hard.”

Cramer’s thoughts on bike theft are nuanced, too.

“There’s a whole bunch of bike thieves in this town,” he said. “These are not homeless people. They’re not what you’d call criminal types. They’re well-dressed people who have other things to do with their time. … They live in apartments and you would never guess who they were.”

“There’s a whole bunch of bike thieves in this town. They live in apartments and you would never guess who they were.”
— Jeffrey Cramer

So if he knows, why doesn’t he try to report them?

“Nobody likes a snitch,” Cramer said. “That’s where I’m at. I don’t do shit like that, but I wouldn’t want somebody to snitch on me.”

Though Cramer seems to despise bike thieves, he also said they “come in handy some days.”

“You need a bike?” he said. “He’s got a cheap bike.”

Cramer said he figures he could make extra cash by regularly collecting small rewards like Mirk’s, but doesn’t want to.

“There used to be an old guy who would go down to the waterfront and buy bikes and get them back to their rightful owners,” Cramer said. “He retired. Now nobody does that shit any more. … It’s not really my game. I don’t know what the hell my game is, but that ain’t it.”

As we talked, we looked at the high-end 33-floor office tower being built across the street. I asked Cramer if he had any thoughts on what the city’s policy should be toward people who live outside.

“I think they should get rid of us,” he said with a laugh. “Well, I don’t want any more of us.” And he shook his head with a smile.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • el timito February 28, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Dude makes me look like a piker. Safe roads to you, sir!

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Scott H February 28, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    People’s lives are derailed by trouble with the law. What good does that do our society or our community? And what good does it do to book someone without any charges? Am I missing something?

    Recommended Thumb up 6

    • scott February 28, 2014 at 4:10 pm

      You are missing that cops are small minded jerks who no longer follow the ‘serve and protect’ credo.

      Recommended Thumb up 3

    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) February 28, 2014 at 7:03 pm

      I’m not sure but I think it might mean the drunk tank.

      Recommended Thumb up 6

  • lyle w. February 28, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    Though Cramer seems to despise bike thieves, he also said they “come in handy some days.”

    “You need a bike?” he said. “He’s got a cheap bike.”

    Get a decent u-lock with some of that $500 a month you get, Jeffrey, and stop making yourself a reliable market for all the bike thieves in this city who would otherwise maybe get their lives together if they didn’t have a dependable group of people (that you’re a part of with your comment) who they know they can flip their stolen bikes to.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • meh March 1, 2014 at 2:40 pm

      He doesn’t “GET” $500 a month, he has savings and has budgeted himself $500 a month to live on.

      He isn’t all that concerned about his bikes, considering he can’t remember where he last left one locked up.

      He lives the life he chooses and pays his way, can’t ask much more from a person, than that.

      Recommended Thumb up 16

      • lyle w. March 4, 2014 at 9:50 am

        Well then, I guess in that case, the next time he needs a bike, the dude who steals it for him steals your bike and not mine.

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  • Schrauf February 28, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Great journalism, once again.

    And I wish Jeffrey all the best, he seems like a decent guy.

    Recommended Thumb up 18

    • AndyC of Linnton February 28, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      It’s like the “Real Estate Beat” without the real estate. Thanks!

      Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Rob Ford a.k.a. (Found On Road Drunk) February 28, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    Tolerance of crime is in itself a crime. Does society make people feel powerless to determine a better life for themselves?

    Recommended Thumb up 2

    • scott March 4, 2014 at 9:52 am

      So are you like a mendicant monk that has bells all over him so that even insects are warned that he is coming and makes sure never to step on ants or worms and drinks only rain and eats only what others throw away?

      Highly unlikely. All you do is redefine what is crime and what is not to suit your lifestyle.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Burk February 28, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    Way to rock the new journalism, this was fascinating!

    Recommended Thumb up 9

  • Paul March 1, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Thanks for taking the trouble to track down Mr. Cramer. Your article made for an extremely interesting profile of a homeless (by choice?) individual.

    Recommended Thumb up 11

  • Nuovorecord March 1, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Well, there went a lot of stereotypes. Nice article, Michael.

    Recommended Thumb up 7

  • BIKELEPTIC March 1, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Great article! Thanks!
    I happened to have a great conversation with about half dozen individuals while waiting for a bus last week (for an hour in the rain) last week. There are many reasons why people choose not to access the emergency shelters or services. Shelters in town require yearly TB testing (for free thru Mult clinic which happens twice weekly at TPI), but many people don’t want to get that done. Interpersonal conflict, fear of “bugs”, fear of the unknown vs the familiar – just being inside can have major effects on a person and some people that have been living outside for a long period aren’t able to cope with it. It does take a lot of adapting. It is super overwhelming. And many facilities have waiting lists that require weekly check-ins. Remembering to do that otherwise getting bumped off the long waits can get discouraging. Also many require you to be clean/sober while you’re in the program. If you’re struggling with addiction that can be a daunting process. It’s very difficult to say to someone “Ok you used yesterday, you’re here today so you have to stop now.” It’s not that simple.

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  • Paul in the 'couve March 1, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    Seriously a top notch article from Bike Portland. Thank You.

    Now that was a great life style column.

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • Mike Quigley March 2, 2014 at 5:26 am

    Next time your bike gets stolen go down to the waterfront and shop around.

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  • Joe March 2, 2014 at 9:54 am

    what a great dude.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • kww March 3, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    A good snapshot of street life. Unfortunately, many of these people are ruled by their addictions. We should not forget they are more than the sum of their faults, there are good people underneath most of the time.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Drew March 3, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks for that article Michael. It ranks up there with the best of bikeportland articles I have ever read.

    Recommended Thumb up 1