July 20, 2012
Having your bike stolen is a rite of passage in Chicago.
Stealing your stolen bike back, as Chris Chmelik did Thursday, is not.
By the time he had yet another bike stolen, the one he called Pink Lemonade, Chmelik had grown almost accustomed to the idea that bicycles exist to teach us, two wheels at a time, that we never really own what we imagine we possess.
As he puts it, “Not everybody gets mugged in Chicago, but everybody has a stolen-bike story.”
Pink Lemonade was a special bike, if only to Chmelik. A 26-year-old actor who makes ends meet as a bicycle delivery guy, he’d “Frankensteined” the bike together: 1990s pink-and-yellow frame, new wheels and crank set, handlebars he cut himself then wrapped in special leather. It wasn’t worth much money but, in case it ever went astray, he shoved a paper with his name on it deep inside a handlebar.
Pink Lemonade was the bike he was riding on the night this March that he went splat on a city bridge. When he woke up a day later in the hospital, he had a torn lip, a fractured skull and a shattered cheek.
Pink Lemonade was fine. It became his lucky bike.
“I couldn’t for the life of me stop riding that bike,” he says. “I ordered a new bicycle, started tricking it out, but I just couldn’t stop riding that pink-and-yellow bike.”
Then, three weeks ago, it disappeared from a locked area behind his Humboldt Park apartment.
You know, he says, that tingly feeling you get when you realize something of yours has been stolen? He’d felt that before, with bikes that didn’t feel so much like lucky charms.
“But this was just pure rage: My bike is gone.”
Gone and, the odds would suggest, never to be seen by him again.
Fast forward to last week.
Chmelik was on a new bike, delivering some fried chicken in Lakeview, miles from Humboldt Park, when he turned onto Oakdale Avenue.
And there, outside a gray apartment building, he saw a familiar flash of pink and yellow.
Pink Lemonade. Locked to a railing.
You know that tingly feeling you get when you realize something of yours has been stolen? Multiply it by a thousand when the thing reappears out of the blue.
Chmelik hopped off his new bike, slapped his spare lock on his old bike, then scribbled a note on a brown delivery bag and tugged it over the seat. (The brother of a friend of mine snapped a photo of the note, which was how I learned about this story.)
YO!! You are riding a stolen bicycle, MY stolen bicycle. I want it back.
Then, after his phone number:
“I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “It seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do.”
A couple of his friends who live nearby kept watch for days as he waited for a call or clue.
Pink Lemonade sat there, wearing its brand of shame, seemingly untouched. No call.
By Thursday afternoon, Chmelik had decided: “I’m thieving it back.”
Ignored by passers-by, he used a car jack to pop the thief’s lock — “You can see how easy it is to steal a bike” — then rode Pink Lemonade all the way home.
Or was it the other way around?
“I really feel like that bike was trying to ride back to me,” he says.
And if in the fat annals of Chicago’s stolen bike stories, the tale of Pink Lemonade is not the most dramatic, it is one of the more hopeful.
Days can surprise, in the best way, and sometimes what’s lost can be found.