When Theodore Roosevelt was 33-years-old, he was appointed police commissioner of New York City. One of the first things he did to better understand the city’s crime problem was to walk around at night in plain clothing and examine the problem areas. I’ve always wanted to go on my own night beat in Salt Lake, I have witnessed a huge problem with bicycle theft and burglary in my neighborhood and I thought I would see if I could gather any clues by going out on a night beat.
It’s 2:30 AM. I’m dressed in sweatpants and a shirt. No different than if I was out for a jog. To anyone I encounter, I am just some dude.
Although the moon is full, the sky is overcast, and only brief pockets of moonlight fall on the scene before me, there are no cars, no people. Even 700 East is deserted.
I cross the street into Liberty Park. Rounding the corner past Tracy Aviary, I see a shadowy figure sneak behind a tree. Then there is a flashlight signal: one long flash followed by three short flashes. I don’t respond. Again, the pattern repeats. Then I see the “flasher” duck behind the tree and a lady wearing a midriff cross the street. Is she bait? And is the flasher signaling me in some code to take the bait? I have no idea, and I don’t intend to find out.
At 500 East and 800 South, the Bagel Project is the first business I find with signs of life inside—a lone baker is preparing dough for proofing. Along this street I see several cats on the prowl. The toms show no sign of fear; they appear to be the rulers of the night.
Westbound on 300 South, near the YWCA, I see another couple. A young lady, again in a midriff, runs across 300 South away from a man she had words with. I wonder if she is trying to get away from her partner or maybe she’s getting instructions from her pimp. She circles back around, again seeming to test me my intentions. Since I say nothing she goes back to her partner.
I see a parked, idling police car just east of Junior’s Tavern. A homeless man is sitting on a bench looking at me surreptitiously. This also feels like a set-up situation. But it could just be I have a heightened sense of paranoia.
Now southbound on Main Street: The only bar on Main Street with signs of life—a cleaning person. Whiskey Street, Bodega and Maxwell’s are all closed.
Main Street has two sleeping lonely souls curled up on planters their worldly belongings piled beside them.
I approach Little America and hear blaring, rather intense elevator music. A lone girl is meticulously scrubbing away at the brass door handles. She is fixated on her job and doesn’t notice me pass.
Eastbound on 600 South: trucks, men and commotion are all concentrated on the corner where an all-night crew is pouring concrete behind a sign that reads, “Affordable Housing Redefined.” There must be 50 men. Passing Sears, Taco Time and State Room, I hear a biker approach me from behind. It’s a young boy, maybe 12, out at 3:45 am on a school night. He rides right behind me slowly before passing. I neither look behind nor engage him. Next, another biker, then a skateboarder ride right behind me. He’s another young kid, probably 18 or 19. A thin kid on his bike circles back around toward me. Am I in shark-infested waters? The skateboarder begins muttering obscenities behind me. “Nigga don’t want to talk… Nigga don’t want to say anything. Where’s this nigga going?”
Is he a pimp? A drug dealer? I don’t know and I don’t want to engage with him, because I have no backup. The skinny biker again circles around me. I decide to start jogging. From 10th South to 16th South I continue jogging. They continue following. I’m not really scared because these are skinny kids. But I do realize there are no cars, no one to flag if they attempt a mugging. I see a biker slowly hauling a BoB trailer heading Northbound. I hasten my pace and run toward him. His goateed face and sunken steely eyes are striking. Then I realize he might think I’m pursuing him, so I quickly run past him.
In my one second scan of his ballast, I notice dozens of stacked bicycle parts: forks wheels, crankshafts. Is he a scavenger, a coyote for spare parts, or perhaps a bike thief? I take a quick look back down State Street and see that my pursuers have disappeared into the darkness.
At this witching hour, there is a marketplace and business being conducted, just as there is during the day. On foot, as an unassuming walker in sweats, I could be anybody. It’s a unique vantage point, which is not visible to police in patrol cars, and completely invisible to motorists or bikers. On foot I’m a troller, a nightwalker. What lurks around the corners are the true creatures of the night, but I’m too timid to know them.
The next night, my cousin James joins me. It’s 1 am on a Friday.
The same city I visited 22 hours ago has not yet emerged. Now the streets are very much alive: the night time party is in full swing. Every bar we pass is packed—Dick and Dixie’s, Twilight Lounge, especially Johnny’s, Beer Bar, Bar X. They are alive with young, loud people. Now past 35, this is no longer my scene. But it’s nice to see it’s a lot cooler than the late night Salt Lake City I knew. We don’t stop. We have ground to cover.
Just east of Main Street a potential fight is ensuing. “You can talk sh*t, but you can’t just walk away. Come back and say that to my face… Seriously dude, I don’t mind you talking sh*t, just come say it right here to my face!” The man’s girlfriend quells potential hostilities. “Listen dude, just back the fu** off!” She is one foot away, unafraid, head raised high, staring in the much larger man’s face. He backs off: girl power.
We visit Pierpont Ave., Lumpys, and then Sky Bar, where two youngsters in club outfits are shamefully puking one right after the other. They hide their faces in shame: party fouls.
An anomaly that becomes obvious is that every place of business with any lawn at all at 1:30 am has sprinklers spraying. No place for drunks or bums to pass out. We proceed to our destination: Pioneer Park. I wouldn’t dare do this if James wasn’t here. But the scene is surprising—the Park is bare. No campers, no drug deals, not even litter. It’s surprisingly clean. Is this the result of Mayor Biskupski and County Mayor McAdam’s recent crackdown on crime?
We travel further south on 400 West. Campers and homeless people are outside the Catholic Rescue Mission. We cross 400 South, then find a treasure trove under a huge tarp. The dimensions are ridiculous—10 feet wide by 20 feet long. I look underneath where probably 30 bicycles are hidden in plain sight.
Were these legitimately left here? That’s hard to imagine. I’ve had two bicycles stolen at or near Pioneer Park. Bikes are currency for the drug trade, but this appears like some type of bicycle limbo. Nobody is protecting the cache, and I wonder if any of my bikes are under there. I wonder if the police know about this plunder?
We continue home. At this hour there are plenty of cars on State Street and nobody says a word or attempts to engage us. It’s nothing like the world I witnessed last night at 3:30 AM. The business of the night won’t open for another two-and-a-half hours.
Next month I plan to present these bike theft clues to the SLCPD. I’ll offer a follow up story about what they tell me online at UtahStories.com