How do you know when your life will open wide?
Chris Bolivar was having the most ordinary of afternoons.
One weekday a year ago February, he caught his usual bus at 1st and Hope after his shift at the Department of Water and Power headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
Wearing his DWP windbreaker, he settled in near the front, tired and eager to get home to Gardena.
As other passengers piled on, the Commuter Express 448 filled up at its downtown stops en route to the South Bay.
Bolivar gave up his seat to an older woman and stood staring out at the city.
He watched other regulars arrive — the lawyer with the legal pads, the loud cellphone talker.
At 7th and Flower, the bike guy clamped his wheels to the outside rack and, in stretchy pants, helmet and cleated shoes, clip-clopped toward the back.
The bus lurched along, until at a red light, a young man rushed up. In a flash, he yanked the bike off the rack and started to run with it down the street.
The bus driver honked and honked and opened the front door — but the thief kept moving.
So Bolivar, 59, took off in pursuit — out the door, up the sidewalk.
He saw someone near the thief and yelled, “Stop that guy!”
But the person just stared and the thief kept going, now trying to hop on the bike and ride away. When his feet failed to get purchase on the pedals made for bike shoes, the bicycle started wobbling wildly.
Just as Bolivar closed in, hollering, “It’s not your bike!” the man gave up, threw down the bike and ran.
Dan McLaughlin, the bike guy, meanwhile, was perched on a step by the rear door of the bus, safely sealed in a BlackBerry bubble.
McLaughlin, a vice president at Good Samaritan Hospital, who had pedaled 25 miles from Rancho Palos Verdes that morning, kept tip-tapping away, answering email.
All at once he registered voices and what sounded like, “Bike! Bike!”
He raced to the front, gaped at the empty rack and saw his prized $2,500, carbon-frame Trek Madone down the sidewalk — in the hands of a stranger.
Then, miraculously, he watched the stranger start wheeling the bike back his way.
Both men were shaking as they met in front of the bus. McLaughlin lifted his bike back onto the rack, intact but for slightly bent handlebars.
The whole bus cheered and clapped as the two stepped back inside.
It felt electric. It felt extraordinary.
“It made your hair on your arms stand up,” said Janette Brown, who was sitting up front. She wanted Bolivar’s bravery beamed out to the world.
Brown had ridden the bus for 16 years, between the USC campus and Rancho Palos Verdes. As the bus continued down the 110 Freeway that day, she searched the DWP website on her BlackBerry.
She knew Bolivar, a bus buddy, as Chris. Last name, she wasn’t sure. She knew where he worked, though, from his windbreaker.
Under customer service, she found a generic form for email. For subject, she typed: “DWP HERO.”
“Chris Boulevard,” she wrote, had just done something amazing. But, then, every day on the bus, he did good.
“Chris, always the gentleman to us older ladies, typically gives up his seat when the bus is crowded,” wrote the 60-year-old executive director of the USC Emeriti Center.
McLaughlin followed suit on his own form. Subject: “Bike stolen! Bike recovered!!”
“By the time I got to the door of the bus, this Hero was walking back with my carbon fiber beauty!! (There is a God!!! ;) )” he wrote.
The next morning, Bolivar arrived at work to an unexpected welcome.
The guards at the front door clapped. When he entered the large room where he answers calls as a customer service representative, waves of “Woot Woot!” and “Way to go!” washed over him.
He got emails and high-fives from co-workers he’d never met, including the building’s cyclists. He’d had no idea there were so many.
The next day, the story spread to the L.A. cycling world on Ted Rogers’ popular blog, “Biking in LA.”
McLaughlin, he wrote, planned to treat Bolivar to a “thank you” lunch.
“Maybe we should all thank him, in whatever way we can,” Rogers wrote.
Bolivar, in fact, wanted the spotlight pointed elsewhere. “It got to be too much,” he said.
Still, something almost forgotten was pried loose for him that day. Creaky wheels began to turn in his head.
Once, Bolivar had a bike that brought him great joy. He was 11.
He and his father built it piece by piece in Houston, scouring junkyards for parts.
“It was a big old clunker, with big old thick tires,” Bolivar said. But oh, how proud he was.
He called the bike Sky Blue, because it was — and in homage to a fictional crime-fighting aviator on TV at the time.
“I was the Sky King of the streets back then. I kept law and order with all my buddies,” Bolivar said. “Me and my bike, we were quite a team.”
The secret superhero in Bolivar never disappeared. It’s what set him off after McLaughlin’s bike, windbreaker flapping like a cape.
“I thought, this guy cannot possibly get away with that. He just can’t. That’s too brazen. In broad daylight with 60 witnesses looking at him?” he said. “It was just too wrong.”
His DWP supervisor, Ramona Browne, said she somehow was “not surprised” that Chris would take such a risk for a stranger.
At the DWP, he goes to such great lengths to help old and sick people struggling to pay their bills that she calls him “the poster man for customer service.”
In a different life, she said, this unfailingly happy and humble person would “be that secret millionaire who would slip you money and pay off your debts and never tell. He’d be anonymous. You’d never know.”
But the bike part of the Sky Blue mystique mostly had been filed away and forgotten.
Bolivar and his wife, Rhonda, once bought mountain bikes but left them in the garage. Eventually they put them out front with a sign that said, “Free.”
But then, after the bus incident, came lunch with McLaughlin, emails back and forth, and another bus moment, when McLaughlin rose to thank his bike’s savior in front of all their fellow riders.
Soon, sitting next to his new friend on the bus, Bolivar once again had bikes on the brain.
He started quizzing McLaughlin about the bike world, about different types, about lingo.
McLaughlin, a serious cyclist since college, shared photos, including one of him with his fiancee on their tandem.
Bolivar turned 60 that March. He and Rhonda, who works as a caregiver for the elderly, set out to shop for his gift of choice.
They came home with a shiny, candy-apple-red Schwinn tandem with white seats, as well as coordinating red-and-white tracksuits and shoes.
Suited up, they set out — and collapsed, utterly exhausted, after eight miles.
At one point on the ride, the bike hit a bump and fell, leaving Chris, who landed first, banged up and bleeding.
“I couldn’t believe how beat up I was over this little, small, little bike ride,” he said. “But I was happy we had the bike, and we weren’t going to let it defeat us.”
You fall down, you get up.
In 31 years of marriage, the Bolivars had been through a lot, including a hazy time when they were drinking and drugging their days away.
Both had transplanted to L.A. when young, children of the great migration of African Americans moving out of the South. Rhonda’s family had come from New Orleans.
Both had for a while gotten swept up in flower power, as Chris, after high school and the Marines, chased the dream of making it big as a drummer.
One day in 1981, he said, someone invited him to a Crenshaw church “and, blitzed out of my brains, I get up and go with him.”
The preacher asked if anybody was on drugs, ruining his life. He said God wanted to help — and something in Bolivar surrendered.
Two weeks later, Rhonda had her own conversion experience.
They started going to church. They cleaned up. They nested — spending much of their free time at home, puttering in the garden and cooking together.
Now, the tandem has taken them out in the world, which seems to them to have opened its arms in welcome.
They go on organized bike rides — along the L.A. River, in Palm Springs. They ride downtown during CicLAvia. Sometimes, they ride with McLaughlin, 57, whose wedding they attended this month.
“Now we’re all sporting Spandex,” McLaughlin said, laughing, when they were together for his hospital’s annual Blessing of the Bicycles in May.
The Bolivars are out on the bike every weekend, these days easily managing 42 miles.
They stop for yard sales — but buy only what will fit in the bike’s basket. On beachside bike paths, they stop for ice cream cones and to stare at the ocean, which they had rarely taken the time to visit before. They also stop to introduce themselves to neighbors, near and far. They hand out glossy cards with a photo of the tandem and their phone numbers in case anyone needs their help. They call it their bike ministry.
“People wave at us, so we stop and talk,” Chris said. “One guy had lost his wife and they used to do things like this, so he said it was very precious to him to see us.”
One day on a bus, Bolivar’s life opened up.
“I am glad that God had me at the front of that bus,” he said.