Bicycle Thieves, Homophobes & Just a Hint of Sulphur

Around nine weeks ago, someone asked me if I'd lost a bicycle yet in Amsterdam, to thieves. The implication being every bicycle in Amsterdam is stolen sooner or later. I said I hadn't. I'd been lucky so far, for sure, but I was also at pains to point out that I almost always double-lock my bicycle and was therefore convinced, no less, that the theft of a double-locked bicycle is a rare, rare, rare thing indeed. I wasn't smug exactly, but there was something over-knowing at the heart of my conviction that, like an overblown tyre, was just begging to be pricked.

Three days later, on a Saturday afternoon, whilst at the FilmHallen on Kinkerstraat watching an overblown Nazi drama that was not my first choice, my adorable €180 bicycle was stolen from the underground fietsenstalling. In broad daylight! Or at least in the underground equivalent. And yes, it had been double-locked. I was devastated. Well, let's not exaggerate. I was sad. I was bereft. And it took me a long time to accept it. For at least 20 minutes, I just wandered back and forth between the bike racks where I knew I'd left it, checking every bike individually over and over, shaking my head in disbelief. 

bicycle

Some beautiful bikes to break up the text. Why not? Photo by web4camguy on Flickr

Then, as I walked home in the drizzle, I just kept telling myself, "It's only a thing. It's not important. It's only a thing."

Walking home was weird. Walking in general is weird these days as I'm so out of practice. Heading west on the Witte de Withstraat, two large laughing ladies up ahead were taking up the whole of the pavement in an only slightly annoying way, so after first checking behind me, I stepped out into the cycle path super-briefly, with one foot only, out and around the human obstacle, back onto the pavement. Like a ninja.

A cyclist passed by, a tad quicker than I'd been expecting and when he was a short distance ahead, he turned his head to the right and shouted, 'OMO!' This was followed up with a second: 'OMO!' Then, a very short while later, as if to dispel any doubt as to his meaning: 'FUCKING GAY!'

My first thought was that I must have annoyed him by stepping out ever so slightly into his path. My second thought was: How gay must I look?

Only then did I remember the two women I'd just passed, and how they'd had the temerity to laugh in the street together, quite openly. Maybe even brazenly. I realised that their exuberance marked them out as the much more likely targets of the cyclist's homophobic outburst. Maybe they'd also had the temerity to hold hands or some such. I felt relieved, but simultaneously sad and ashamed.

Bicycle

Snow is also known as "white shame" in some cultures, probably. Photo by Bart van Dijk.

I turned and glanced back at the women. One looked pissed off, but resigned, like after a lifetime of street abuse, it hardly really reached her anymore. Of course, I thought. Even in a super-tolerant city like Amsterdam, openly gay people probably get abused all the time by small-minded maniacs and nutbag terrified simpletons. I imagined myself stopping and turning to talk to the women.

"I'm sorry," I would say. "On behalf of the rest of the world, I apologise for intolerance and aggression everywhere." I would probably follow this with a brief but perfectly humble bow.

"It's not your fault," they would reply, "but thank you. If only there were more human beings like you, everything would be OK. You're great, you are."

A few moments later, at the mosque up ahead on my right, I noticed three elderly Muslim men in robes were standing on the pavement and talking to a fourth man, a younger African guy wearing a brightly coloured long coat and hat.

I recognised the fourth man immediately, for it was him. It was the homophobe.

He was on foot now but it was him alright. He was pretty mistakable. As I got closer, he stopped talking to the Muslim elders and began to walk off slowly, in the same direction as me. I couldn't tell if he'd been talking to the Muslim elders because he knew them or because he was just one of life's street talking guys.

"Excuse me," I heard a voice calling out. "Hello?"

The man stopped, turned round and looked me right in the eyes. For the voice, to my complete surprise, had been mine. 

Bicycle

Bicycle Rage, from here.

"Hello," I said, apparently on some weird auto-pilot, like one of life's street talking guys, which I definitely am. "Were you shouting 'HOMO' back there in the street?"

He replied — angrily — that he was indeed shouting "HOMO!"

I started to speak, hoping to make him see that shouting abuse at women in the street is actually unacceptable, but he shouted me down, making it perfectly clear that having stepped into the cycle path and apparently into his path, it was definitely I who was the recipient of his barbarian abuse.

I didn't point out that I'm not gay, because of course it was irrelevant. But I was definitely curious as to why I got "HOMO!" and not, say, "FUCKWIT!" or "KLOOTZAK!" or maybe something to do with cancer. My turquoise backpack maybe? My almost flamboyant sense of joie de vivre? But I didn't ask. Instead I said, "But you can't do that. You can't go shouting abuse at people in the street...."

Which was when he interrupted and shouted at me, properly roared in my face: "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"

I hadn't really thought that far ahead. I smiled. "Well, I suppose what I really want is for you to apologise and maybe...."

He cut me off and the next word he screamed so loudly that his voice cracked apart like the skin of a croissant. "APOLOGISE??!!"

He was genuinely furious at the suggestion. He screamed abuse into my face for a short while longer. Now the thing is, if someone is shouting "FUCKING GAY" in the street, you know — at least to some extent — that they're mentally ill. So I guess the reason I started talking to him — and all I can do is guess because no planning went into it — was to find out just how unstable he was and maybe, if he was just borderline bonkers, maybe I could help steer him towards something calmer and more compassionate, more tolerant maybe. And it was with this kind of Buddhist outreach in mind that I said, "Hey, hey, hey. Why are you shouting at me? There's no need to shout. We can just talk."

Which was when he screamed four words into my face with such passion, such sincerity, such terrifying zeal, that I realised immediately I was very much out of my depth. He screamed: "GO TO THE HELL!"

Then there was a beat, just long enough for someone in his brain to lean forward and turn up the volume again. "SATAN!"

At which point, I nodded in understanding, said, "OK. Have a good day!" and continued on my way home. I noticed as I walked away that people at bus stops and outside of grocers and mosques were staring. I started to laugh. In fact, for the next couple of hours, two things kept making me giggle. One was his use of the word "the" in the sentence, "GO TO THE HELL!" And one was him staring into my eyes and screaming with all of his might the word "SATAN!"

I haven't had that for a while. 

bicycle

Satanic rack that just appeared here. 

Now I don't want to give the impression that there's anything amusing about mental illness … although sometimes there is, there definitely is. I mean come on, as any crazy person worth their salt will admit, crazy people can say the funniest things. And who amongst us can claim never to have been off their meds, whether or not they've ever taken any?  

Levity aside, this guy definitely needed help. But then again, having said that, if you look around the world we live in, look at the things people believe — look at who they're voting for and who they're angry with — and a lot of them, if not the vast majority, could definitely qualify as mentally ill.

So there we have it. Everyone's nuts. I blame Capitalism.

The next morning I reported the theft to the Hallen administrators and I got a call from them that evening. They'd looked back at the CCTV and saw that my bicycle was exactly where I'd left it, in a completely different part of the fietsenstalling to where I was looking, and looking and looking and looking. I was embarrassed, but I was very pleased. I was also left wondering, who's the more mentally ill — the man who shouts "SATAN" in the street, or the man who's looking in entirely the wrong place for his bike?

It's the man who shouts "SATAN" by the way. Obviously.

Finally, interestingly, and coincidentally, no more than two days later, my spare bicycle was stolen from in front of my house, where it was locked with just one cheap crappy lock. Therefore, to conclude: I was right about everything.

Hail Satan!

About the Author

I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you'll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven't already.

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