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By now, most folks have heard the possibly true story of how a young Cassius Clay—now, Muhammad Ali—had his red Schwinn bicycle stolen, and was crying on the steps of the Columbia Gym when Louisville Police Officer Joe Martin talked him into training for the Golden Gloves. The young Clay’s ambition to seek physical vengeance against the bicycle thief never came to fruition, but a pugilistic career followed, bringing much fame and fortune.
At approximately the same time (Muhammad Ali was a year older than me), I was importuning my parents for my first “big two-wheeler” bike. I had advanced from a tricycle to a “kid’s bike,” but my heart was set on a full sized bike. One with 26-inch balloon whitewall tires and a coaster brake. Nothing could satisfy my burning desire, but a red Schwinn. With a big spring on the front fork, and a basketball rack on the fender.
Of course, a new bicycle was out of the question. My first years were spent with my parents in a one-bedroom apartment, in the Public Housing Projects at Eleventh and Hill Streets. When my first sister came along, we moved to a two-bedroom shotgun house in Parkland, on Wilson Avenue. Luxuries like a new bicycle were the stuff of dreams. Despite my protestations (all the other kids have new Schwinn bikes), my parents had their priorities. Feeding, housing, clothing, and educating two children (with a third on the way) took precedence over my lust for a new bike.
Then, one magical summer day, my father summoned me to go with him. We were going downtown to the Police Station. My mind raced. Was he finally going to rat me out to the cops? Did he know I was filching cigarettes from my Mom’s purse? Did my little sister tell him about the stash of Indian Cigars (Catalpa pods) I had sun-drying on the roof of the shed? My guilt was palpable.
We went to the parking lot behind the Police Station, where a crowd of about twenty or thirty people were milling about. LPD Officer Joe Martin stood on the back stairs and announced that the annual police stolen bicycle auction was about to commence. At his feet was a dazzling array of hot bikes, in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Toward the back of the collection was a red Schwinn 26-inch beauty, with a big spring on the front fork, and a basketball rack on the fender. Be still my heart!
My father handed me a five-dollar bill, and whispered in my ear: “When you see the one you want, hold the bill up and say ‘I bid five dollars.’”
When Officer Martin finally got around to the bicycle of my dreams, I did exactly as my father had instructed. Just then, a man standing behind me yelled, “I bid six dollars!” Joe Martin looked directly at me, and said, “Sold! To the boy for five dollars!”
I can still remember the thrill and excitement I felt when we arrived home with my first (gently used) big boy bike. Whitewall balloon tires. New Departure coaster brake. Push-button horn in the center console.
I remember feeling a little sorry for the poor kid from whom this wonderful bicycle was stolen, but my father explained to me that the police held these recovered items for a year before selling them, and that if they weren’t claimed by their owners, they had to be auctioned off. Years later, I learned that Joe Martin and my dad were old friends. My dad was a Golden Gloves champion, and Officer Martin had taught him to box in the old Columbia Gym. I recon the fix was in at the auction, but I never had any trouble attenuating my conscience to this fact. Hell, I may have ended up with Cassius Clay’s bicycle.
If Officer Martin had taught me how to box, I might have even stayed out of the Army.