My Mom the Bicycle Thief by Keith L T Alexander




I can’t even count the number of times when strangers asked if Lin and I were adopted. It wasn’t just the sight of a white woman out walking with two black children that triggered the question.  It was when one of us called her “Mom” that heads turned.

“Is that your mother?”  

“Yeah.”

“You adopted?”

“No,” I answered. “My Dad is black.”

 This happened so often that I finally confronted Mom.  “Are you sure we’re not adopted?”

“Of course I’m sure.”

“Then why do people keep asking?”

“Because you and Lin have darker skin than I have.”

I puzzled over that answer for a minute and it made no sense. “Why is our skin darker?”

“Because your Dad’s skin is darker than mine.  The two of you got his skin color instead of mine.”

“I never want to be as dark as Dad.”

“Me neither,” said Lin.

Mom would let the subject drop but lose her temper if she thought we were the victims of racism. When Lin didn’t get chosen to play a sugar plum fairy in Chicago’s production of The Nutcracker, Mom lost it.  The role would have meant a union wage for Lin and badly needed cash for us. Mom was convinced that Lin had lost out because her skin was brown. It pissed Mom off so bad that she took the matter to the local office of the NAACP to file charges against choreographer, Ruth Page, who was in charge of the show.  Mom was at the NAACP all day making her case but it turned out that she didn’t have enough proof.  Still furious as she left the building, Mom paused to catch her breath and noticed an unattended bicycle that was leaning against a lamppost. She jumped on it and rode away.  Within the hour, she had sold it to a café owner named Dan for fifteen dollars.

Just like that, Mom went into the bike stealing business.

Encouraged by how easy it was to make fifteen dollars cash, she began to learn about locks by reading books and through trial and error.   When Mom went to the hardware store to buy key duplicates, she stole their box of key rejects, and grouped them according to their profiles.  Among these groups, she had a selection of the different cuts.  In doing so, Mom amassed a collection of 1083 keys.  “All I could lay my hands on,” she says.

Although there were an infinite number of variations of the five tumblers, locksmiths only used a few for making keys. Through her study, Mom concluded that all keys were practically versions of the same key. 

  Like any good businesswoman, she needed a place to warehouse the stolen bicycles. She also needed customers to buy them.  She stored the bikes in a friend’s basement and used Dan’s coffeehouse to pick up and deliver orders.  Dan and his wife owned Café Pergolesi and soon the word got out among students and families with children that orders for cheap bikes could be placed there. 

So, Mom slept during the day and “worked” at night. 

After Lin did her homework and I came home from scrounging in alleys for food or bike parts, Mom would read to us and then we went to bed.

After Lin and I dozed off, Mom plopped her long screwdriver and ring of keys in the pockets of her hip-long denim jacket which was shiny from years of dirty wear.  She ambled quietly down the back stairs from our third floor apartment on Buckingham Place and unlocked her own bike.

  The apartment buildings that Mom hit stood five stories high and were known as “four-plus-ones.”  They were a staple of Chicago housing in the 1960’s and cluttered the side streets of Chicago’s north side. 

Four-plus-ones did not have basements; instead residents drove their cars into a ground floor parking level, and then entered the building through a door.  Once inside the building, Mom knew she had to act quickly to get into the locked storage room. 

Frequently, the first key did not work, so it was common for Mom to stand at a door trying each key until one worked.

Inside the storage area, Mom peered in between the wood slats of the lockers, looking for quality merchandise. If someone locked away the expensive stuff, Mom assumed they had forgotten about it. When she found luggage, electronics, or an excess bicycle, Mom brought it to a locker she appropriated in another four-plus-one half a block from our apartment where she stashed her excess swag.  In this way, Mom could fill orders within hours.

 One night, she spotted a black Sears men’s 3-speed that was padlocked, and an expensive red Peugeot.   

“The bikes I stole were in perfect condition,” she boasts.  “Without even a soft tire.”  After pinching the Peugeot’s tires, she chose the Sears, because she liked their fenders and favored their sturdy construction. 

To disable the combination lock that held the Sears, Mom slid a piece of metal tape measure between the shank and lock body and popped it open.  Strolling out from the garage ninety minutes later with the bike, Mom rode the mile and a half through side streets to Tim and Sara Jane’s house near Wrigley Field.  Despite riding down the dim side streets at night, her biggest worry, she says, was that the bike’s owner would spot her and flag down the cops. 

On her arrival at Tim and Sara Jane’s, Mom was in The Zone.  After stashing the Sears in their basement, Mom took a cab to the swag locker she kept on Roscoe Street. There, she picked up a woman’s Schwinn, and rode that to Tim and Sara Jane’s as well. Then she returned to Stratford for the Red Peugeot. 

Rather than strip or repaint the bikes, Mom disguised them by removing the baskets,  adding bells and switching carriers.  When her inventory ran low, Mom would nick as many as six bikes in one evening, ride them over to Tim and Sara Jane’s or to our dining room. Then she’d take a cab to another four-plus-one.  “Some nights got expensive because of the cab fare, but I never raised my prices, just my volume,” Mom says.  

A few evenings later at the Cafe, Tim peeled off two twenties and gave them to her.  On the slim chance that the previous owner might recognize their recently stolen bike, Mom signed the receipt, Eric Fischl, a person who did not exist. 

“I loved being a bike thief,” Mom says.  “It only took three to four hours, and only two or three days a week.  I couldn’t have made as much on a job, frankly.  It was work, but not like a job.”   

It had to happen sooner or later.  Mom got arrested. 

The bust came as she helped herself to goodies in the basement storage room of one of the posh, lakefront apartment buildings.  Someone told the police there was a burglary in progress. Six cops walked in with pistols drawn. They saw a diminutive, middle-aged frump. 

Her cover story was that she was picking up donated paint for a mural she was painting on the wall of Hull House, a neighborhood settlement house.

 “This,” a policeman asked, “is a burglar?” 

Mom might have been able to talk her way out of the situation, but the fact that she carried 42 keys made her highly suspicious. 

“I spent four years collecting those keys,” she says,” and they were gone in seconds.”

When Lin and I woke up the next morning, Mom was not home. We went to the Monterey restaurant around the corner but her bike was not parked in front. School was going to start and she was nowhere to be found.  Mom was sitting in the Cook County Jail waiting for Dan and Lucy to bail her out.  Upon her release, she focused on getting our father to defend her.

To pay him, she had to steal even more bikes than before.

excerpted from "Forgery of the Month Club  a memoir"