I alighted from a Glenmont-bound red line train just after 6:30 p.m., and left the station to walk to the Harris Teeter down the block. After getting a couple things at the store, I walked back to the station to get my bicycle. I stopped at the newspaper boxes near the station's M Street entrance, grabbed a paper, and began walking to the other entrance where my bicycle was parked.
When I was about 100 feet from the bike racks, I realized one of the bikes was moving like it was being jerked back and forth. The front of the bike was obscured by one of the station's concrete support pylons, so I couldn't see why this was happening. The person who was shaking the bike to see if it was locked up stepped into view, and started removing the rear wheel from the bike. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, but only a moment until I knew that I was witnessing a bicycle theft in action.
What surprised me was that the thief was a kid. He couldn't have been more than 10 years old.
I walked right up to him and asked him matter-of-factly, "What are you doing?" The kid replied that he needed a rear wheel for his other bike. He claimed this bike was his, and that the lock was broken, keeping him from taking the whole bike home. I called him out on his story, but he insisted the bike was his and that his dad had bought it for him at "the bike shop down the street."
"What street? What bike shop?" I demanded.
"Over there, by Safeway," he said. The only bike shop that came close to fitting that description is BicycleSPACE in Mt. Vernon Triangle. They don't sell the bike pictured above, though. I wanted him to tell me what brand his bike was, and he turned his head to look at the bike.
"No way!" I shouted, putting the paper in front of his face. "You can't look at the bike to answer that. You don't have a clue, and that isn't your bike."
At this point, we stared at each other for a second. It felt like five minutes. Part of me wanted to grab the wheel, yell at the kid, and tell him to get the hell out of there. But some rational part of me thought he'd give up the game and leave. That didn't happen.
He insisted again that this was his bike, and said, "I even have a lock like this," while pointing at the bike's lock. Of course, he should have said the lock was his lock, not like his lock. At this point, a good interrogation might have gotten him to trip up and really contradict himself, but he's a kid! We stared at each other again, and I asked, "You're absolutely sure you're telling me the truth?" He nodded and started to walk away with the rear wheel.
I knew that if I touched the kid, even in an attempt to detain him for the police, I'd probably end up being charged with assault. I did pull out my phone to call the police. He knew exactly what I was doing, and started to run. While I was on the phone with the operator, I hurriedly unlocked my own bike, intending to follow him and figure out where he lived.
I got the bike unlocked, ended the 911 call (with the operator telling me there wasn't much they could do), and took off in the direction the boy had run. When I reached M Street, I asked a woman there if she had seen a boy with a bicycle wheel running by. She directed me towards Harris Teeter. When I got there, I asked the same question to some people standing there, and they pointed towards North Capitol Street.
As I moved down the unit block of M Street NE, I saw him crossing North Capitol Street and turning down the alley behind the Sibley Plaza Apartments (the large apartment building on the southwest corner of M and North Capitol). By the time I got there, he was gone. Again, I asked people who were sitting and standing around if they had seen the kid. All responded with a negative.
I biked through the plaza and parking lot between the apartments and the Sursum Corda cooperative, looking for a sign of the boy. Finding nothing, I went back to the station and talked to the station manager, letting him know what I saw. He mentioned that he'd like to start parking his bicycle at the station, and would love to see whoever is stealing bikes get caught. He also said that it's likely that police would only arrest someone if they saw them in the act, or if someone could make a positive identification of the perpetrator.
So, in the end, I have no idea if this kid is responsible for every bike theft and vandalization at the New York Avenue station, but I know this one was his doing. I spent a couple minutes looking at his face, though. I know exactly what he looks like. The police have my phone number,
The broader question here, of course, is why are little kids stealing bike parts? What can be done to stop this behavior? I have my doubts that punitive action against their parents would alleviate the situation.