His beloved Vespa motor scooter had been stolen. I noticed it missing, early morning, when I let the dog out. I went back to the bedroom.
“Dharma, Are you awake? Your bike isn’t out back.”
“Where is it?”
He went back to sleep. When he got up he asked me to drive him to the bus station.
“You have to report the theft to the police or your insurance won’t—”
“I’ve got everything under control, don’t worry about it. Could you drive me to the bus station?”
He was still half asleep without coffee.
“Shouldn’t we go to the police station right now and –“
“I’ve got it covered.” He said.
“Let me drive you home.”
“No, the bus is fine. I like the bus.”
Dharma had christened his bike “Mona-Lisa”, being that she was Italian. I’d nicknamed him Dharma, being that he was a serious student of Buddhism. The bike, an inadvertent gift from his father (when he’d taken on the payments) had been in perfect condition. Dharma and Mona, inseparable for years, had covered 14,000 rough miles across the country without incident. He’d coddled her, kept her tuned up and shining. One visit to Providence, RI, and she was gone.
He rationalized the loss. “Mona and I had our time together, and that chapter of my life is over. She was with me when I really needed her. That time has passed. I’m not traveling like I used to. I’m doing sitting meditation. I now travel in my mind. I need to regain my health. I should walk more.”
Three days after Dharma filled out the police reports, they found Mona Lisa. It hadn’t been difficult. Although spray painted a dull brown, whoever had stolen it forgot to change the Louisiana plate.
Dharma, thrilled, took the bus from his home in Newport back to Providence. I picked him up and we drove to the towing company where Mona had been stored. She was beaten up but still drivable.
“She looks kind of cool” said Dharma, pleased. “I may rename her “Rubber Bum.” Back wheel wobbling and almost flat, broken tail light, cracked muffler, smashed mirrors, scratched and dented, he rode the bike to my place.
The police said they’d arrested the kid who was riding the bike. Somehow the kid’s cousin located Dharma’s phone number, probably from paper’s stored in the bike compartment. Dharma’s cell phone rang.
“Hey man, you the guy got your bike stolen? My cousin didn’t steal it. I bought it off some other guy and he was just ridin’ it. He just got out of jail, man. The cops are sayin’ they might press for a felony, man. How much that bike cost?”
Dharma says “10,000 dollars”
“Oh, shit man, they gonna nail his ass, man, and we didn’t steal it! Man! I’m telling you! Some guy sold it to me and I don’t know who he is or where the hell he is!”
Dharma says, “Hey, wait, wait a minute. Calm down, don’t worry. I’m not going to press charges. It was my fault anyway. I left the keys in it. Anybody having a hard time makin’ it might do the same thing. No problem, man.”
Dead silence on the other end of the phone.
“What you say?”
“I said, I’m not going to press charges..”
“The police got my cousin locked up now at the police station and they’s gonna press charges they said and he just got out a’ jail, and he’s gonna be really f-”
“Let’s go get him out.”
Silence, then “Wha?”
“I’ll meet you there this afternoon and we’ll see if we can get him out”
“This sa’ kind of trick, man, ‘cause we don’t need no jive ass bullshit—“
“Bro’, what is your name?”
“Clive, glad to talk to you. I believe that you didn’t steal the bike, okay? Let’s see if we can work this out- I do not intend to press charges. Shit happens, man.”
Dharma met Clive at the police station. He was large, sulky and suspicious.
An aging white guy was being nice to him. He felt some resentment which left him off-balance and more confused than he already was.
The policeman behind the counter said they couldn’t let Clive’s cousin out of jail unless Dharma attended the arraignment on Monday and reasoned with the prosecutor.
Clive put his hands in his pockets, not surprised. He walked a few steps away from Dharma, stopped and turned around. With a mix of feigned sincerity and suppressed rage, he challenged Dharma.“I hope that ain’t too much inconvenience.“
“Not in the least” said Dharma, pleasantly.
Large, stunned Clive stiffly shook Dharma’s outreached white hand.
“No worries, man.” said Dharma.
Dharma came over to my place after his visit to the police station. When he told me about his forceful plea for Clive’s freedom, I felt vulnerable, almost unsafe.
“Won’t your letting them off send the wrong message? If they think they can get away with it, won’t they just do it again?”
“They’ll do it again anyway. They’ve got nothin. And why they’ve got nothing is not their fault.”
“ Didn’t you say you don’t believe they were the thieves?”
“I choose to believe.” said Dharma. “That’s different than believing.”
Dharma showed up at the court house on Monday and sat with Clive from 9 am to 2:30 p.m. until the cousin was presented to the judge. The state attorney read a rap list on him that lasted five minutes. He was on probation for aggravated assault and battery. Being caught riding a stolen vehicle while on probation was a serious matter, and although Dharma insisted he was not pressing charges, it didn’t make much difference.
“What the hell do you mean, you aren’t pressing charges?” asked the attorney.
“It was my fault, I was drunk and left the keys in the ignition”
“You’re saying it was your fault?”
The attorney was somewhat bewildered.
“That doesn’t make our job easier.” He said, “But the probation violation is a separate issue, so we aren’t letting him out.”
“As long as both you and the judge know that I am not pressing charges for the theft.” Insisted Dharma. “Why should the man be punished for something he didn’t do?”
“He stole your bike.”
“Nobody can prove that and it’s a mute point because I choose to believe he was just riding the bike and did not necessarily steal it.”
The attorney shook his head and sighed. His suit was wrinkled.
“As I say, this kind of thing doesn’t make our job easier.”
“Well,” said Dharma, “I understand that you have a job to do, and I respect that, but I’m doing my job as well.”
“What job is that?” asked the Attorney.
“Well, no need to get into it.” said Dharma.
“Fine.” answered the Attorney, “but you’d best call your insurance company before you make this decision final. I’m not certain, but I don’t think you can collect insurance for damages if you don’t press charges.”
“I stand by my decision.” said Dharma.
The Vespa dealership in Newport approximated the damage at $1,800.
“I don’t understand” I said. ‘You don’t have any money, and you owe your father so much money, why would you put this thug first, and not your family? You could get the money from the insurance company, maybe a little extra, repay your dad. This guy your protecting is a convicted felon on probation, and I’m not saying that’s bad exactly but –“
“You don’t get it, do you?” Dharma gave me his dead-eyed look, half pity, half disgust.
“And the felon,” I whined, “remembers where he stole the bike, in front of my apartment. If he thinks we’re mushy liberals I wonder if he’ll come back and steal my car?”
“That’s fucking ridiculous!!” barked Dharma, before he caught himself. He said very calmly, “You don’t know, do you, that I talked to my father this morning. He supports my decision 100%.”
We were talking on the phone and I felt the cell phone against my ear, small and greasy. I felt small and greasy, too, unable to think of anything to say, except, “Good. Well, that’s good. Glad it all went well.”
Why wasn’t I being supportive like his father? He only owed me 300 bucks not thousands. It wasn’t about the money, or was it? I had, at first, felt proud to know him, respectful of his spirited generosity and radical world view of equality, yet an emotion I could not identify tightened in my throat. Was it envy that I couldn’t be so forgiving? Resentment in that he was harder on me than the thief, judgmental, often patronizing? Jeolous? Situational Ethics seemed to interest him much more than I did.
Dharma detected a waver in my tone. “Don’t worry, it will all work out. I am going to ask the guys at the Vespa shop if I can sweep and clean and do stuff around the garage in exchange for fixing Mona. Maybe work there mornings, three times a week. You know me, I like to sweep.”
And there is was. An answer. He liked to sweep. He reached low, not high, so as not to fall. Forced to accept the charity of family and friends, he now had the opportunity to help someone worse off. It was a chance for him to be a man instead of a little boy, to feel powerful in his generosity. In this case, play God. “Let me release you from your burden, Brother.”
Years before, Dharma and I were sitting near my living room window in my second floor apartment. We happen to glance out the window just as a teenage girl grabbed the handlebars of his bicycle, which he’d left on the sidewalk.
He stuck his head out the window right above her head and said, ”Oh, little girl, please don’t steal my bike. Please don’t.”
Horrified, she gasped, then caught her breath, jumped on the bike and disappeared. Dharma walked to the sofa and sat down, still, quiet. He lit a cigarette and shook his head. “I hope I didn’t upset her.”
“I really don’t understand you” I said. “I’m trying to understand but I don’t. If someone came in here and robbed me at gunpoint would you feel worse for them or me?”
He gazed above my head and said, “I’d feel bad for the whole world.”