This happened five years ago in January. I got out of a class one evening and one of the staff quietly informed me that the police had called, looking for me. I had no idea why, and said so. She told me that they had found a bicycle registered in my name and would I go claim it as soon as possible. I was stunned; she was stunned; the other staff who were discreetly listening in (the word “police” causes understandable unease at conversation schools in Japan) were stunned; the students whom I told later that evening were stunned. And rightly so: we were witnessing a miracle.
None of us had ever heard of the Osaka police actually finding a bicycle before. Although I had returned from winter vacation that January to find mine missing, it had never even occurred to me that that was why they would be calling. Naturally, I hadn’t reported it missing – the previous two times I had a bike swiped, it took me nearly half an hour to fill out the forms (in triplicate, in Japanese, with carbon paper between the pages), after which the cop in charge told me, more or less, “well, let us know if you find it.” (if that sounds to some readers like a scene from the old Italian movie The Bicycle Thief, it is – I watched it yesterday for the first time, and that eerily similar scene jolted this memory).
The next morning, I went to the Taisho-ku Police Station, as requested, and stepped into a 1970’s police drama. There was no receptionist, so I just wandered into the office, which was laid out just like any other office in Japan: the desks of each section facing each other in small rows, the supervisor facing down the middle, like a headmaster in a Dickens novel. A plainclothesman, presumably hoping to infiltrate the day labourers of Shin-Imamiya to weed out any dangerous lefties, was disguising himself, quite convincingly, as a plainclothesman disguised as a day-labourer. I think they were planting a wire in his coat. He glowered at me – he knew the enemy.
At this remove, I don’t remember the names of the two cops I was finally referred to. They were both middle-aged, one decidedly closer to retirement than the other (he looked a bit like Abe Vigoda, and I decided that during an interrogation, he’d be the Good Cop). I went to a small, bare room with some chairs and some filing cabinets. After establishing that my Japanese was adequate, they offered me a cigarette and some coffee. I accepted the coffee but turned down the cigarette, which made them both, I soon realized, feel awkward because they were both (the older guy especially) just dying for a ciggy. I told them to please go ahead when potential Bad Cop brought me the (surprisingly good) cup of coffee.
They made small talk for a while, asked me where I was from, smoked for a while, let me drink my coffee. After what seemed like an interminably long and pointless time (I think they were waiting for me to throw myself at their feet and confess to something), Potential Bad Cop (black hair greased back, un-ironic wide tie slightly skewed) passed me a file and with studied nonchalance asked me if I recognized any of the men in a page of about twelve mug shots. They were all variations on all the scrawny punk kids – anywhere from 19 to 23 – with badly-peroxided hair who drove their loud scooters around the city on Saturday nights. I didn’t know any of them. This disappointed the two. Potential Bad Cop sighed and frowned, while Good Cop slouched his shoulders, crossed and uncrossed his legs and drew heavily on his cigarette (I think they were still waiting for me to throw myself at their feet and confess to something). PBC then did something odd – he pointed to one scowling kids photo and said, “He stole your bike. He confessed. His girlfriend lives in your building. You know her?” Well, um, no, I tried to explain – if I didn’t know him, how would I know which woman was his girlfriend?” Ah. Souka, Good Cop muttered. Oh that’s right. He took another drag, and sat there sadly.
They found him with my bike on January 3rd. His girlfriend had broken up with him and was at a friend’s place. He was banging on the friend’s door and threatening them, so they called the police. When the officer arrived, this guy was just about to get on the bike. They noticed that lock was broken and checked the registration number. “You’re not Colin Doyle (I’d love to know how they pronounced it),” the policeman said.
“He’s my friend. He gave me this bike!” said the guy. The guy was also wanted for some other petty thefts, so they took him in. With the info gleaned from my bicycle registration, they found out where I worked, and called there.
“So where were you on January 3rd?” PBC said, standing up. “We can’t understand why you didn’t report it missing (my Japanese friends told me not to waste my time, but I didn’t tell him that). Did you lend him the bike?”
It dawned on me that they still suspected me of being an accomplice to this guy. Luckily, I had the rare good sense to bring my passport along with me, and opened it up to show that I was out of the country from December 20th to January 7th. They both looked at it, flipped through the pages, handed it back. They looked at each other, as if to say, “well now what do we do?” Their gaijin theft ring case was all shot to hell. All they had was a common garden bicycle thief, and I wasn’t involved. PBC wandered off to another room. Good Cop sat sheepishly. He seemed like a nice enough old fellow. Finally he asked me which school I worked for. I told him. “Oh, my son went there,” he said, “when he was in junior high.”
“Arigatougozaimasu,” I said, the usual Japanese response to anyone who even remotely alludes to a time when they patronized your company (even if they just looked in the window). “How is his English?” I asked. “Terrible,” he answered, as custom demands when anyone asks about your kid’s academic standing. I was hoping they’d offer me another cup of coffee. Nobody did. Good Cop lit another cigarette; I knew he wished that I would too. Then we could bond.
PBC came back with some forms and carbon paper . We then proceeded to fill out a missing bicycle report. I had to describe the bike, when I noticed it missing, where I’d last seen it, and so on. They couldn’t do anything without the paperwork. They couldn’t charge anyone with stealing it if I didn’t report it missing, I guess. Were they both being Good Cops and providing me with an alibi? I’ll never know.
Finally, the paperwork done, PBC summoned me to the hallway, and we turned several grimy corners until we came to what looked like a broom closet. He opened the door, and there was my bicycle, bell and light knocked off, back lock jimmied open with a screwdriver, by the look of it. White dust all over it (for fingerprints!! It just occurs to me now!). “Is this your bicycle?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “Can I have it back now?”
“Oh, no,” he said, closing the door again. “We have to take it to Court.” He explained that the hearing would be in anywhere from three weeks to two months. “We’ll call you when it’s all over (“yeah, four years from now, when they hang him,” I thought as I walked out in the rain to Taisho Station).
About four days later, though, I got the call, and went to get it. No one really wanted to talk to me, but I finally got someone to let me sign for it, and recover it from the closet, where, oddly, it looked untouched from the last time I saw it. I schlepped it down the hall, and out the door. “We still can’t understand why you never reported it missing, ” Good Cop said.
I fixed the bicycle up, got two new locks, and a light. In June of that year, somebody stole it. I never saw it again. Mind you, I didn’t fill out a report.