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Princeton's Solution to Curbing Bike Theft - A Sticker?

I'm super nervous writing this. While I have decent grammar and writing skills, I'm about to have a go at the Ivy League. Princeton to be precise. See, I probably should have an em dash or something back there, right? Whatever, it's holiday break, they're all off campus, so let's do it.

I was like 11 years old the first time I was a bike theft victim. My family had just moved from a nice neighborhood to a not-as-nice-but-still-nice neighborhood down Belsay road in a suburb of Flint, Michigan. My dad thought it was a good idea to quit his steady, long-time career in the chemical waste disposal sector so he could start a business making cultured marble sinks. Cultured marble is a fancy name for fake marble. It’s like powdered marble. Colors (most often some version of pink) and sparkly accents (most often gold) are chosen, the powdered ingredients and resin are mixed together and then poured into a mould. Is it mould or mold? The mo(u)ld is vibrated to remove air bubbles from the mixture, the mixture is allowed to cure and voila - out pops a shiny, once-piece, seamless counter-with-clamshell-basin ready to install in your 1980’s bathroom.

As I swept floors and took out trash at the powdered sink shop, I remember loving the smell of the resin and hating the noise of the vibrating tables. This American-dream endeavor my father embarked on meant selling the nicer home we were in for a smaller home in the aforementioned not-as-nice-but-still-nice neighborhood down Belsay road. The profit from downsizing was used to start the business. The business failed to succeed after a year or two. It came down to being a salesman. My father isn’t a salesman; he’s a craftsman. He had fun with the chemical reaction of curing fake marble sinks, but not with the interaction of hustling deals with contractors and housing developers.

While this business failure may sound like a downer, my family and I always look back fondly on the simplification of life and the resulting memories this simple life created (like duct-taping a piece of 80-grit sandpaper to an old, plastic banana board, so I could skate until I saved up for the $40 piece-of-shit Nash Kamikaze I really thought was cool at the time).

Before the move, I dabbled in BMX racing and had worked up from a sold-at-Sears Hawk II (read: Wal-Mart bike) to a JMC (read: pretty cool BMX race bike). It was a red and yellow affair that I fell in love with at the Schwinn shop. Back then it seemed all the good bikes shops were Schwinn shops. Our Schwinn shop sold vacuums, too. The JMC helped me win a race or two in the grom class against my arch nemeses, Jason B. and Jason R. I’m leaving their last names out of permanent record to save them the embarrassment of me and my JMC’s too-easy victories over their inferior CW and Robinson contraptions.

The JMC cost $260. I only remember the price because my father reminds me of how he took me to the Schwinn shop to buy a new bike. I was only getting a new bike out of guilt. At a local indoor BMX race, I went around a berm, out of sight with the rest of my competitors. The wobbly cluster of 9-year-old pedaling pinballs re-appeared from behind the berm without me. My handlebars had fallen off. As my dad loves to replay it,  the race announcer yelled, “HIS HANDLEBARS FELL OFF, OFF, OFF!” as if it was a mega stadium with a major echo. Without even watching, my father knew immediately that it was me. He knew how to make fake marble sinks, but he didn’t know much about quill stems, or at least didn't care to know. While the threaded headset nut was tight, the quill bolt that locks the stem into the fork was not. My bars came out of the fork, in my hands, stem and all, as I clumsily tipped over in the corner. Incredibly, this happened again some five years later with a 10-speed my dad assembled. Fool me twice. I then learned how quill stems worked. Back to the JMC I received because of the Hawk-II-handlebar-fall-off incident.

“Son, I have $260 to spend, no more,” my dad told me as we rolled up to the shop. It seemed like a whopping sum at the time. We went into the shop, and the JMC must have hovered right around that $260 price tag. My dad obviously didn't want to spend all of his hard-earned cash because he forgot to tighten a bolt, so we checked out other bikes. But all I had my eye on was the red and yellow beauty with snakebelly tires and three-piece cranks. The shop owner knew what was up, pulled out the dazzling piece of machinery and said, "here's this nice JMC." My father, ready to play hardball in a haggle session, dismissed the bike. He may not have been good at sales for the marble sink business, but he hated parting with the money in his pocket. I did not know this at the time, oblivious to the ways of the world, and said, "but Dad, you said we have $260 to spend." Cover blown. Negotiation over. Any nickels possibly saved through haggling went into the Schwinn shop owner's pocket because of my big mouth. My father was lighter by $260, and I was richer by one red and gold JMC BMX bike with snakebelly tires.

This isn't my bike, but it's red and a JMC, so you get the idea.

Our new neighborhood with the smaller house was a giant rectangle. It was nice enough, safe. My friend Adam lived on the other side of the rectangle from us. I’d ride half the circumference of the block to his house, trying to pop wheelies on my JMC, to play Super Mario Bros. Can I say circumference if it’s not a circle? On that side of the subdivision, two houses down from Adam, was a high school kid named Tommy. Tommy’s house wasn’t kept up like the others and Tommy was definitely what my sister called a “stoner.” I only understood the term as derogatory, belittling. He had a ripped jean jacket with a lightning-heavy tapestry on the back proclaiming something called Metallica, and according to my household's ideology, I should beware someone like Tommy.

We had stoners as next door neighbors on one side of our house, too. Our other side had more of a jock family, clean cut, athletic with an uber-tidy yard. We were sorta in the middle, class-wise and interest-wise, I guess. One stoner neighbor was my age and too young to be a real stoner yet. His brother was in high school and definitely a stoner, but didn’t have the same refined stoner countenance as Tommy though. They were scrubby in appearance, but really nice, talkative. I thought stoners were supposed to be angry. I didn’t understand why their yard was so messy or why they had a van on cinder blocks with no front wheels in the driveway, but I appreciated their grit. I also liked the discipline of our jock neighbors though. Like clockwork, their lawn was mowed and trimmed each week with a green Lawnboy mower. Those were serious machines, they were asymmetric. I liked living next to both of them, feeling like an observer of opposite worlds; it was more exciting than our other neighborhood where one neighbor was an old lady with a grouchy Pomeranian and the other neighbor I had never, ever seen.

Our stoner neighbors were friends with stoner Tommy. A decade or so later, I’d realize their shared musical and extracurricular tastes are probably what made them friends, possibly solidified by a less-than-ideal home life. It’s a shame that so much later in this life, despite what happens in the following story, I really wish I could have had a glimpse into Tommy’s world. I’d give anything to see what his room looked like (there had to be velvet, blacklight-illuminated Ozzy posters with records and tapes precariously perched on a dresser full of pentagram scribings and dirty socks hanging off half-opened drawers).

One day my JMC was gone. It wasn’t in our garage anymore. This was the 80’s in suburban Michigan. Everyone in our neighborhood left their garages open during the day. We may have left ours open all night. Who knows. I ran to share the horror with my parents and was asked if I had carelessly left the JMC somewhere. I reassured them that I hadn’t. I don’t know if a police report was filed, but it didn’t matter, the yellow snakebellies weren’t popping brightly in the garage any longer. The yellow plastic seat had someone else's ass on it and three-piece cranks were probably being spun in an inconsistent, offensive cadence by the culprit.

Sans JMC, I had to ride my sister’s 10-speed to Adam's to play Super Mario now. It was a “girl’s bike" (do they say that anymore?) with a sloping, step-through top tube. This was not the 10-speed that lost its handlebars some 5 years later. I was embarrassed because I once had a really sweet bike. Now I’m on my sister’s maroon Columbia. It’s funny how you find identity in a thing.

I passed by Tommy’s without a glance each time I went to Adam’s. From afar, it looked the same as always, and I was probably scared that if I looked up there to see stoners loitering in the garage, that they'd try to chase me. One day, however, as I passed by, I looked up at the garage and there it was - a gleam of yellow in Tommy's garage catching my eye. Those were yellow snakebelly tires! But they were on a black bike. My JMC had a distinct oval-ish downtube. This bike had a distinct oval-ish downtube. My JMC had gold anodized three-piece cranks. This bike had gold anodized three-piece cranks. I knew this was my bike. I knew it. As I bravely slowed down to look more intently, heart racing, I could see the black spray paint job wasn’t even good enough to cover all the red. This was my bike.

I was obviously an easy mark for any rule-bending stoner looking for a thrill. A naive 5th-grader rolling around proudly on a flashy bike, leaving it in yards and driveways (more on that later), unattended, oblivious to “the game” and reality of life around me. In disbelief, I tried to keep my cool and my naive self wondered why Tommy thought he could get away with stealing my bike? I mean, I ride by his house nearly every day to play Super Mario. Doesn't he know that?

I went home, spazzy, amped. My dad wouldn't be home from work for two more hours and I don't remember if I told my mom about it. I was scared of high school-aged stoners and definitely not daring enough to just walk up and take my bike back. My dad, however, after a long day back at work in the chemical waste disposal sector, he was daring enough. We got in the Caprice Classic and drove around the block to Tommy’s. I was petrified and stayed in the car. SuperDad walked right up to the bike, took it out the open garage, walked it down and put it in the trunk. The trunk didn't close, but we were only going halfway around the block. I want to remember a story of Tommy and his stoner friends sitting there smoking while my brave-but-square dad took the bike back with a steely-eyed stare, but I don’t think they were there. They were probably in Tommy’s cool bedroom smoking and listening to the Metal Health record by Quiet Riot, the album with the cover that still creeps me out to this day. The guy in the straight jacket and mask? Pure fright.

We went home. I had the JMC back. Our stoner neighbors, out front when we came back, were clearly aware that Tommy had stolen the bike. Even though we got along, to them, the theft was all just part of the way things were, and they weren’t going to rat out Tommy. They gave us a look of like, “hey man, no hard feelings, right?” I was disappointed and I’m pretty sure the reality of the what had actually happened never even registered with me until I watched The Wire or something.

The JMC never felt the same with its haggard, black rattle-can job. I was getting older, the bike smaller, but it was different - compromised, used incorrectly by someone who wasn’t me. Tommy probably looked way cooler on it than I ever did, but it was looking a shell of its former self.

Ultimately, and rather comically a year later, my naive, dumb ass left the JMC in the driveway behind Mark’s mom’s van. Mark was Adam’s and my other friend. He lived next to a cornfield and we’d play army games in the corn. Corn leaves are surprisingly sharp. Mark’s mom backed over the JMC. It wasn’t her fault, but she felt horrible. I was the idiot (again). I drug (or is it dragged?) the bike home, all buckled. My dad was visibly upset, rightfully so. I probably got grounded. I don’t remember what happened to the JMC, but I remember having to ride my sister’s 10-speed after that for a while until, for whatever reason, I found myself riding that other 10-speed where the handlebars fell off.

My experience with SuperDad and Tommy and the JMC was sort of relived years later when I was with Cam McCaul one random day in Aptos, California.

Cute story and all, but what about Princeton and bike theft? I’m getting there.

The second time I had my bike stolen was in college. My first mountain bike, a Bridgestone MB-6, had made its way with me for school to the suburbs of Chicago from Fresno. It wasn’t a good mountain bike. It was a low-level bicycle, barely worthy of the moniker “mountain bike.”

Like all stupid freshman who think they know everything, I didn’t lock my bike up. There were 30 other bikes piled on the racks, and I was late for Phone-a-thon. Phone-a-thon was my excuse for a part-time job. It was technically a job because I received a paycheck. A couple of evening hours per week, I’d go into a basement room with other fellow Phone-a-thon student employees to hassle alumni for money via telephone. If an alumni answered (they often did because this was way before cell phones and before most people had caller ID), we’d read a script and hope they wouldn’t politely shut us down. If we had a polite soul on the other end of the line who felt bad for saying no quickly, we’d get to the part where we asked for money.

Even at a measly $5.60 an hour, there’s no way I raised more money from alumni than I cost the school. The only fiduciary commitments I received had to be out of pity. Like my father, I’m no salesman. The joke, however, was on me when I walked down the stairs after a standard shift of 15-or-so Phone-a-thon strikeouts. It was a dark, cold late autumn evening and my bike was gone. I knew exactly what happened. I knew it would happen someday. A crime of opportunity against a moronic, head-in-the-clouds kook freshman had taken place. My first mountain bike was no longer mine. I think I told my room mates, but only because they asked where my bike was. I doubt I told any family, I know I didn’t report it to campus security. Why bother? I felt like should just take my lumps for being stupid.

That summer, I worked mowing grass that capped landfills of a non-hazardous disposal site (my father back in the waste disposal game) to buy my first “real” mountain bike because John, Nate and Tim, the sophomore and junior guys I idolized in college, were really into it.

Hans got robbed. Keep an eye out for his bikes!

Some 23 years later, this is where Princeton comes in to save gullible, distracted and/or ignorant/arrogant, head-in-the-clouds students and staff the heartbreak that I survived (twice). The Ivy League institution recently announced that bike thieves and ne’er-do-wells should beware because a bait bike program has been launched. If you take off with a bike that’s locked up and not yours, Princeton public safety may pursue you.

An excerpt from the article on sharing the bait bike news states:

A few locked bicycles equipped with GPS tracking devices — known as bait bikes — have been placed around campus. If a bait bike is taken, Public Safety may track its location and arrest the person in possession of a stolen bike.

The goal of the Bait Bike Program is to reduce theft, as well as encourage people to lock their bikes and register them with the University.

“Bicycle theft is one of the most common crimes on college campuses, and Princeton is no exception,” Executive Director of Public Safety Paul Ominsky said. “Bikes are the most stolen item at the University.”

Reducing bike theft and encouraging people to lock their bikes is great. The question I have, however, is why would they not purse any and all bait bike thefts? This whole “may” thing mentioned in the article stings a bit. A bike was locked, the lock was breached and the bike is gone. What’s the hold up for campus security? Go get my bike from Tommy like my dad got my bike from Tommy!

The article continues and re-assures us that building brain power is the pinnacle of any elite educational facility. Princeton is teaching students, and thieves alike, how to think.

As part of the new program, Public Safety will provide registered bike riders with stickers that say “This Could Be a Bait Bike: Think Before You Steal.” That way, potential thieves won’t know which bikes are being tracked.

“The idea is to deter people from stealing in the first place,” said Cpl. Martin Krzywicki, a Public Safety officer. He and Sgt. Sean Ryder are leading the Bait Bike Program. “We hope bicycle thefts will eventually decline as we raise awareness about the bait bikes.”

I wonder if any Princeton statistics students were consulted on this project. Or sociology and psychology students. According to the internet, Princeton has about 5,300 undergrads, so with faculty and other randoms thrown in, how many bikes are on Princeton’s campus? 1,000 conservatively? 2000? How many bait bikes with GPS units will actually be in place? 10? There's no way it would be 100. How many people on campus actually lock their bike?

I’m not sure if public safety knowingly or unknowingly told us the bait bikes would be locked. I’m assuming (something only a non-Ivy Leaguer would do) that the bait bikes have to be locked or we’re talking something like entrapment. Legal nerds or Law & Order fans, please chime in. Did Princeton have to spill the beans about bait bikes being locked? The smart, funny and not original “This Could Be a Bait Bike” sticker thing is a moot point if you leave your bike unlocked, the Princeton cops just said so. While they say bike theft is one of the most common crimes on college campuses, I’m assuming (again, non-Ivy Leaguer here) that bike theft of unlocked bikes far surpasses that of locked bikes. I took my lumps with an unlocked bike, and I wouldn’t be too distraught if campus security decided every other non-bike-locker-upper should take their lumps too.

But, according to the Princeton article, any Harvard slime who steals an unlocked bike knows they’re in the clear from a bait bike beat down. Any Yaley devoid of thrills during a pop quiz drought may find a rush in snipping a paltry cable lock, poaching a bike, and placing the pilfered piece somewhere else on the Princeton campus to see if public safety “may” pursue the bike. A Cornell gambling addict can go even further with a roll of the dice, as they steal a locked bike and wait with the bike for the ultimate rush. They’re playing the odds, and odds are that they won’t be confronted by campus safety with the sizzling hot two-wheeler in their possession.

The article continues:

“The chances are extremely high that you will become a victim of bike theft if you own a bike on campus,” Krzywicki said. “We hope the Bait Bike Program will make campus safer.”

A college education is valuable, and I believe mine gave me some satisfactory critical thinking skills, as well as, the gift of getting stoked on mountain bikes thanks to Nate, Tim and John. Having two bikes stolen, however, gave me priceless wisdom. Wisdom to know a sticker is no match for locking my shit up tight and out of sight. Do I think the Princeton campus will be safer with the Bait Bike program? If you can’t tell, I’m skeptical. Hey, that reminds me - do you think the Princeton philosophy department is asking, “if every bike has a ‘This Could Be a Bait Bike’ sticker, will bait bikes cease to exist?”

Punish all bike thieves with vigor. Except Tommy that one time.

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