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Bikes locked outside the Medical Science Building at the University of Toronto's St. George campus on July 28, 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Yohani Mendis is a writer based in Toronto.

On the night I discovered my bicycle stolen from the ring-and-post bike stand, I should have accepted it as a write-off.

Four years of living in Toronto’s downtown core without incident had made me careless – a fact I came face to face with when I found the bicycle gone, a lone front wheel locked to the ring-and-post left to greet me. Most of the people who passed me by on my hour-long trudge home in the thunderstorm that night in 2014 side-stepped the harrowing figure muttering half-formed phrases to herself. At the age of 23, the idea that I could track down a bicycle thief in a city of three million seemed wholly plausible.

And so, when the following night I found myself gasping over the photo of my bike posted up for sale on Kijiji, it felt like the universe had answered my pleas for help. There was my stolen bike, under the caption, “21 Speed Gary Fisher Mako Hardtail for sale.”

Composing an inconspicuous-sounding e-mail to the thief became an exercise in creativity. I ultimately decided to go simple: “Is this bike still available?” I hit send, feeling mildly insulted at the low asking price listed for my bike. Within minutes, a reply appeared in my inbox. “Yes it’s available. Are you gonna buy the bike for $120?” I paused, considering the proposition of meeting this person. “Yes. I really like this bike.” A minute later came the reply that sent my heart racing. “Meet me at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Prospect St. and Parliament, in front of the Pizza Pizza. Here’s my cell number, call if anything. Goodnight.” The warm sign-off, likely an afterthought, felt strange coming from the person who had just stolen my bicycle and was now expecting compensation.

I briefly considered my options. I could play it safe and pay the ransom for my own bicycle. But I was also a near-broke recent graduate and, further emboldened with my chance luck of this discovery, wanted this thief to take some accountability. The day prior to our planned meeting, I dialled the hotline of the Toronto Police. The woman on the line sounded unimpressed as I blurted out the volatility of the situation. “I’m meeting the man who stole my bike at 10 a.m. tomorrow. Can you send backup?” I asked hopefully. “We don’t have the time for this. You should file a missing bicycle report instead,” she replied. My excitement deflated like a punctured tire.

“But I’m telling you, I found my bicycle – it’s not missing if I know where it is and who took it,” I say, but the operator flatly wished me well and ended the call. I should have taken the hint, but I was riding a high wave and unwilling to let up the momentum. In the essay Abandon, the writer Rebecca Solnit touches on the phenomenon of youth, as one of “bringing the fearlessness of children to acts with adult consequences.” In my early twenties, I was peddling that precarious balancing act. It did not matter that my bicycle was stolen in the same city that harboured the world’s most infamous bicycle thief (the name Igor Kenk will be familiar to many); the same city where the recovery rate of a stolen bike hovered around 1 per cent. When morning arrived, I hopped on the streetcar going east and rang the police hotline. I got another disinterested operator. That is, until the point of mentioning I was minutes away from a potentially dangerous encounter. Her voice pitched up in alarm.

“Ma’am, you do realize you’re getting into the line of danger. Give me the address, I’ll send someone over right away.” Her voice veered close to compassion at my ignorance, and for the first time in many months I felt a little less isolated in the city. Earlier in the summer, my mother had sold our house and left. She had asked if there was anything I wanted at the house, before things were split into shipping and thrift store piles. Folded away in the garage, a metallic glint caught my eye. The Gary Fisher hardtail mountain bike stood in the corner. Once a shared belonging with my brother, it was a relic from the early 2000s when our family still lived in the Persian Gulf. Now that my brother was leaving for college, he had no use for it. The bike was a memorable and integral piece of the past and my childhood, and I jumped at the chance to own it and ride it again.

My heart now leapt to my throat as old Gary Fisher came into view on the intersection corner, chained to a railing. Suspiciously – or perhaps, this is standard practice for stolen city bikes – no one stood near it. Not daring to approach, I strolled up and down the parallel sidewalk, pretending to be on my phone to avoid looking at the bike and drawing sure attention to myself. After the passing of an uncomfortable length of time, a police officer arrived, in full uniform and police car to boot. I cringed as he walked toward me, realization dawning that the thief was likely watching the scene unfold from a safe vantage point.

“So, this is the bike,” he said as he looked it over. He introduced himself as Charles. I skimmed last night’s e-mail thread, fishing out the cell number. As we stood on the curbside, passersby shot us furtive glances, making each of them a prime suspect in Charles’s eyes. He stopped more than half a dozen men, ordering they hand over their phones, and had me dial up the digits on my own phone. We waited for a sign. Not one of the phone screens lit up, and the men hurried away looking relieved and confused. I was filled with regret at dragging them into this mess, but neither did I expect the thief to be in hiding. I have to give him some credit – he had the street smarts to stay out of sight. Next to us, Gary Fisher played silent witness on the asphalt. The old thing had scratch marks on every inch of it. In truth, it was nothing worth stealing. What was I even doing on this wild bicycle chase?

Living alone in the heart of downtown, the bike had given me the gift of flight when I needed to escape close calls late at night in unsafe situations. Gary Fisher had been there for me when I first learned to ride; it had seen me fall innumerable times on the paved road outside the house I grew up in, at a time when scrapes and cuts healed overnight, in a country I once thought of as home. My fear of losing the second-hand bicycle was really a scapegoat for the losing race against time and age creeping up on me. I was not ready to let go.

After what seemed like an hour of waiting but may well have been five minutes, there was still no thief in sight. Charles’s patience was wearing thin. He was the spitting image of a policeman and a golden poster boy for the force: polished shoes, trim haircut, an air that commanded respect – fear, too, from the looks of people giving him a wide berth as they walked past.

“If he doesn’t show up soon, I’m afraid I can’t help you with this case,” he said. “I can’t just break the lock without evidence of theft.” He would leave, with or without returning my bike.

“I’m going to back up my car into the driveway next door and wait there for a bit,” Charles suggested, seeing the desperation flood my eyes.

I was not the only desperate one: As soon as Charles backed his car into the empty driveway, events began unfolding in almost surreal fashion. From across the street, a petite man booked it to Gary Fisher, unlocking it in one sweeping motion before leaping up. He started to pedal, turning his head to acknowledge me with a smug grin. It was promptly wiped off his face as I jumped up and down, waving my hands and yelling at Charles, “He’s getting away!” and off it went: flashing lights, blaring siren, action.

The siren attracted the attention of a second policeman who happened to be around the corner at the gas station, and his vehicle spun forward, blocking the path of the man’s escape. I ran toward the thief, sandwiched between two flashing police cars at the intersection. As Charles and the other constable walked out to confront him, he began to belt out a series of denials. I closely examined the bicycle for the second time: It was indeed mine, with its distinct markings and logo, and a new front wheel switched in place of the old one. The man gaped at me in shock as we sealed a firm verdict on the case: His phone lit up with a damning ringtone as I called his number.

In Ms. Solnit’s essay, she traces the delusions of youth, noting how “the young live absolutely in the present, but a present of drama and recklessness, of acting on urges.” Recovering the lost bike was my penultimate uncalculated risk. Less than a year later, I tore down a hill on Gary Fisher and ended up in the emergency room. I learned then, from my near-death experience, what Ms. Solnit calls adulthood: “a prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that make you navigate more slowly and steadily.”

But on that day, the adrenalin from recovering the bike kept me going. It kept me going all through the afternoon proceedings, up until the affidavit at the police station on College Street, when Charles asked me for a physical description of the thief for the record books. I faltered at this point for the first time that day, as I realized the man was Asian: just like me. It felt personal, speaking this fact out loud, and I went silent. Charles laughed at my discomfiture. “You don’t need to feel bad you know, these are facts,” he assured me. “I’m white, you’re brown, those are the facts. Nothing to be embarrassed about. We just need a complete record of what happened today. Then you’re free to go.” I nodded and gave him the information he was looking for, just so I could leave. At the end of the affidavit, he finally wheeled out my bike. He told me I was the hero of the day. I nodded on autopilot as I speed-walked away with Gary Fisher.

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