I stalked across the parking lot of the Mission District's Best Buy. Like the hordes of people that streamed into the store, I was there to do a little shopping, but it wasn't for a flat-screen TV or an iPod. I was in the market for a stolen bike.
I bypassed the aisles of buzzing electronics and headed around the back of the store to a trash-strewn alley. It was empty except for a beat-up white van with its side door ajar. I took a nervous breath and knocked on the side.
A blond man in a sweat-stained undershirt threw open the door to reveal what looked like an upended Tour de France chase car: piles of tire rims, gears, and bike frames were scattered everywhere. The powerful stink of unwashed bodies stung my nostrils. A man in a tracksuit slumbered on a seat. The blond man looked sleepy and annoyed but waited for me to speak.
My $600 bike was stolen the third in five years from my Mission garage the night before, and it's here I was told by a bike messenger that I might find it. These guys were rumored to be bike thieves operating in the Mission.
"Hey man, have you seen a black and gray Fuji Touring?" I asked, employing a euphemism.
"No, we don't steal bikes," the man said, catching my drift. "We collect bikes off the street, repair them, and then sell them. We're like independent businessmen."
Interesting way of putting it, I thought, as I glanced at the "businessman" slumbering on a van seat. I glanced around the van half expecting to see my Fuji, but it wasn't there, so I left.
As I trudged home I stewed. I had lost more than $1,000 worth of bikes in San Francisco. Bike theft is a virtual right of passage for most cyclists in the city, and the city's thieves seem to operate with ninjalike stealth and efficiency. One cyclist told me how a thief stole his locked ride while he picked up a burrito from a taquería. He wasn't away from the bike for more than five minutes.
The city's thieves have even won a silver medal for their efforts: in 2006 the lockmaker Kryptonite ranked San Francisco as the nation's second worst city for bike theft, behind New York.
Gradually, my anger hardened into resolve, or more precisely, a mission. It would be virtually impossible, but I would set out to find my bike. The thought that my life would mirror the plot of a Pee-wee Herman movie was more than a little amusing, but I had a job to do.
In my months-long quest I crisscrossed the city, chasing down Dickensian thieves, exploring the city's largest open-air market for stolen goods, and finally landing in the surprising place where hundreds of stolen bikes perhaps yours end up. Unwittingly, I pedaled right into San Francisco's underworld.
THE GURUS OF GREASE
Bike theft may seem like petty street crime, but it's actually a humming illegal industry. Consider this: thieves steal nearly $50 million worth of bikes each year in the United States, far outstripping the take of bank robbers, according to the FBI. And in San Francisco's rich bicycling culture, thieves have found a gold mine. About 1,000 bikes are reported stolen in the city each year, but the police say the actual number is probably closer to 2,000 or 3,000, since most people don't file reports.
"It's rampant," Sgt. Joe McCloskey of the San Francisco Police Department told the Guardian.
I sought out McCloskey, the SFPD's resident expert on bike theft, and another man, Victor Veysey, to give me a wider view of San Francisco's world of bike thieves and possibly a lead on where I might find my bike. Several cyclists had recommended Veysey, saying he could provide a "street level" view of bike theft.
Veysey is the Yoda of San Francisco's bike world. For more than a decade, the 39-year-old has worked on and off as a bike messenger, mechanic, and member of the city's Bike Advisory Committee.