I remember the day as a fairly normal one – a year into the pandemic and my spouse and I both working from home. That morning, she said she wanted to pick up the dry cleaning we dropped off a few days before. I said we could squeeze the errand in at lunch.
Hemmed in by afternoon Zoom meetings, we got into our car, which is a Honda I bought new sixteen years earlier. From the day I drove it from the dealership to May 11 2021, it was the only car we owned between us even though we always worked in separate cities. Compromise, biking and public transit – however challenging all of it can be – had allowed us to remain a one-car household from the day of our ‘I do’s’ so our journey to bike-more-and-drive-less was already off to a pretty good start.
I turned the key, and was greeted by a loud roar from the undercarriage. I immediately knew what had happened: our catalytic converter had been stolen. Sure enough, there was a vacant space under the Honda where the catalytic converter should have been and a used reciprocating saw blade lying on the pavement.
We immediately ruled out the trip to the dry cleaners. I instead threw a bike into the back and drove the car – obnoxious roar and all – to a repair shop a few miles away. The mechanic warned me it may be a while before the catalytic converter could be replaced and it would be an expensive repair. Trying to calculate my car’s Blue Book value against the deductible on my insurance, I pedaled home.
Later, we attached a Burley trailer to our tandem bicycle – which had mostly been used for leisurely weekend rides up to that point – and headed off to the dry cleaner.
For days, I worked with my insurance company and the mechanic – who had determined the damage was just over $5,000. That did not include the special, tiny jail I bought online to shield the next catalytic converter to deter future theft. We put it in the bike trailer and pedaled our tandem to the mechanic to drop it off for eventual installation.
We also came upon the day of our second COVID vaccine, and moved the appointment to a pharmacy a mile and a half away. We rode our tandem to that too.
On the weekend, we rode the tandem around south San Jose to look for tag sales, and went to a farmer’s market. One evening we rode the tandem to get take-out from Hanul – an excellent Korean restaurant in South San Jose – and got home to eat it while it was still hot.
We were without our car for over two weeks as the supply chain nudged the replacement catalytic converter to the mechanic. When we finally got it back, we found our relationship with the car had changed. We had gotten used to having the tandem ready to go at all times, having saddlebags to stuff groceries, or the trailer whenever we wanted to carry something large. Using the tandem became a habit.
It was also an inexpensive habit, and one we were especially thankful to forge as gas prices climbed over the past year. Based on the Honda’s fuel economy, we were saving twenty-five cents per mile of taking the tandem on car trips. And that’s just what we can measure in gasoline. By putting fewer miles on the car, we were putting a valuable buffer between ourselves and the next, eventual trip to the mechanic (as of this writing I have to schedule a time to replace the power steering mechanism, which I was told will cost about $800). The repairs I’ve had to do to the tandem consist of fixing occasional flats and replacing brake pads which I can do on my own.
To this day, we use the tandem frequently in our day to day lives – interesting trips, short trips, fun trips, boring trips – all of it. We think about it first whenever we need to go almost anywhere in San Jose. We’ve also bought frame bags, tries and other components at Good Karma Bikes in San Jose. We even attach the trailer when we don’t need it in case we happen upon a yard sale (so far we’ve brought home a chaise, a 7’ surfboard, and a used but functional Bose stereo system). It’s not for every trip, but having a bike opens up options – and that’s a good lesson to hold whether or not your catalytic converter has been stolen.
Michael Norris lives and works in San Jose. He can be found on Twitter @michaelknorris