Police have busted thieves with shopping lists for everything from Victoria's Secret underwear to the antiallergy drug Claritin. In one case, McCloskey said, police traced a ring smuggling goods to Mexico.
A short time later a man rode through the plaza on a beat-up yellow Schwinn. He tried to sell the 12-speed to another man, so I approached him and asked how much he wanted for it. He told me $20. With a modest amount of bargaining, I got him down to $5 before telling him I wasn't interested.
Just before I left, two police officers on a beat patrol walked through the plaza. Sales stopped briefly. As soon as the officers passed out of earshot, a man came up to me. "Flashlights," he said, "real cheap."
INSIDE A CHOP SHOP
After striking out at Seventh and Market, I figured it was time to investigate the chop shops Veysey mentioned. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) reports bicycle chop shops operate all over the city. Thieves strip bikes because the parts (unlike the frames) don't have serial numbers and can't be traced as stolen once they are removed from a bike. The parts can be sold individually or put on another stolen bike to disguise it, hence the Frankenstein bikes that show up at the Bike Hut.
When Veysey told me about bicycle chop shops, I pictured something from a '70s cop movie a warehouse in an industrial district populated with burly men wielding blowtorches. But the trail led me somewhere else entirely: Golden Gate Park.
SFBC officials said they had received reports from a gardener about chop shops in the park. When I called Maggie Cleveland, a Recreation and Park Department employee responsible for cleaning up the park, she said they do exist and would show me what she thought was one if I threw on a pair of gloves, grabbed a trash bag, and joined one of her cleanup crews. I agreed.
Shortly before 8 a.m. on a foggy, chilly morning, the crew and I picked up mechanical grabbers and industrial-size trash bags and then climbed a steep hill near 25th Avenue and Fulton Street on the Richmond District side of the park. We plunged into a large camp in the middle of a hollowed-out grove of acacia bushes.
The camp looked like a sidewalk after an eviction. Books and papers vomited from the mouth of a tent. Rain-soaked junk littered the camp, including a golf bag filled with oars, an algebra textbook, a telescope, and a portable toilet. A hypodermic needle stuck in a stump like a dart and a gaudy brass chandelier swung from a branch. Amid the clutter was one constant: bicycles and their parts.
A half dozen bikes leaned against bushes in various states of repair. There were piles of tires and gears scattered around. The noise of the crew had awoken the residents of the camp. A man and two women sprung up and immediately tried to grab things as the crew stuffed the contents of the camp into trash bags. They grew more and more agitated as two dozen bags were filled.
Cleveland said the group may have been operating a chop shop, but she didn't have definitive proof, so they were let go with camping citations. I asked one of the campers if their bikes were stolen.
"We find this stuff in the trash. There's an economy here. We exchange stuff for other stuff," he said.
Cleveland said the camp was typical of what the crews find around the park. One of the most notorious campers goes by the name Bicycle Robert. Cleveland said park officials have found a handful of his camps over the past couple years. One contained more than two dozen bikes, but Robert himself has never turned up.
Occasionally, cyclists will get lucky and find their bikes at a chop shop. Max Chen was eating dinner in North Beach one night when his Xtracycle, a bicycle with an elongated back for supporting saddlebags, was stolen.