Saga of my stolen car

Perhaps my feet can do more than stamp a gas pedal

To the person who stole my automobile, June 30, 1997. Dear friend:

I realize you have little time to hear me right now, being busy learning to drive your hot new 88 navy blue Ford Escort, license plate HTK-93E. I thought I'd offer some tips. Old car, you know. Lot of quirks.

You probably know, you have to stomp the clutch to activate the starter. It's one of those thoughtful and inevitably futile safety features now an unchanging part of American automotive engineering. This feature prevents the car from lurching forward when you turn the key. It also prevents those to whom you have lent the car from believing the car actually works, after they have driven five miles away, and switched it off, and called to say the battery died, and forced you to pedal there carrying jumper cables, only to arrive and get in and turn the thing right over. It's a wonderful feature. It brings friends together.

Also--can you believe it?--that flashing yellow light on the dash means it's time to shift. No kidding. Most people know instinctively when to shift gears in an automobile. The scream of the engine tips them off. But for those who can't take the cue, Ford has installed this very handy light. I figure pretty soon they'll install lights telling you when to use the john.

The only problem I can see: The light goes on at 70 miles an hour. Where am I supposed to shift at that speed? Is there a gear I don't know about? And often the light goes on whenever it feels like it, as if the engine had tired of its speed and wished to change it.

Oh, yes. The passenger seat always pinches your butt. It's done that for years.

All these things you will figure out alone, I'm sure. They are not the reason I'm writing you.

Essentially I am writing to thank you. I have heard we should thank those who hurt us, thank them for what we've learned at their hands. And I believe there is wisdom in that. If not wisdom, perhaps some consolation.

Thank you for taking my automobile. Thank you for disconnecting me from my friends, my family, and from the vagrant impulse to drive into the country of a sultry weekend. Thank you for killing the possibility of kayaking on the Mullica River this summer. I needed grounding and concentration. I needed an end to distractions. I could not eliminate them myself. You did.

Thank you for helping me vary my own speed, and learn again how to pedal and walk. I had always thought myself a tough traveler, needless of anything but my own feet. You have helped me become what I imagined myself.

Thank you for taking the six years of my old columns in the trunk. Probably we shouldn't look at our old work. It chains us to the past.

Thank you for helping me test the conceit that material burdens us, that we slave to the extent that we own--that a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can live without. I always wished to part with my stock of material goods, such as it is. I probably would have stopped short of the automobile. But you have advanced me further in this course than I hoped.

Thank you for helping me lose my attachments. Thank you for eliminating my false vanities. Thank you for committing my heart to the place I now live, just as Cortez burned his ships on the Mexican coast.

Thank you for giving me something to write about this week.

Thank you for clearing a parking space for someone perhaps more needy.

Thank you humbling me yet again, in a way to keep me humble awhile.

Thank you for lowering my status so that, once again, I must start over and build from the ground.

Thank you for keeping my life interesting.

Your punishment I can't even contemplate, and wouldn't even if you were caught. I imagine the punishments in your life are numerous enough already.

One thing only I hope: When you use the car, I hope you use it to visit someone who needs you.

Of all the uses I ever found for my car, this was the best and the noblest. Find someone who needs you, needs a kind word from you, needs to feel your presence in the room to know something again of peace in an often angry and violent world. I hope you will use the car to visit someone as important to you are you are to yourself. I know there must be someone like this in your life. And if there isn't, there is someone waiting to be, I know it better than anything.

Find them, wherever they are.

Go there.

Go there often.

You have reliable transportation now.

"You've got to get out of this car now. It's stolen."

So I'm walking up 23rd Street to work last Tuesday, more awake than usual. Lately all my walks have a hunter's vigilance. The day may be beautiful; many smiles may come my way; but I see only the long lines of parked cars, the endless procession of traffic. I'm searching for my navy-blue Ford Escort, which was stolen at the end of June while parked at 23rd and South.

I walk and watch. I can identify Escorts half a mile distant.

No point in it, really. There are millions of cars in Philadelphia, and at least a million of them must be Escorts. Still, I can't help it. I'm an American: Without my car I'm a peasant, an earthbound thing, a piece of clay. Only with my car do I feel alive.

Besides, I want to show the bastids they can't beat me.

I figure I might see it. The Ninth District cops tell me chances are good that someone in my neighborhood took it. I figure it's sitting on a street nearby, waiting for me. Maybe the thief will make a mistake. Maybe I'll see it passing me on the street, and run toward it and wrestle the driver out.

I've played this scene so often in my imagination that when my car goes rolling past me on 23rd street, two blocks from my house, I feel as if I've entered the dream myself. No question about it: An old blue Escort drives around the corner onto Pine and stops behind a line of cars at the light. Automatically I follow it.

My car, all right. The closer I get, the more I can't deny it. I circle it once, noticing the new lock on the trunk. The passenger door is locked, but the driver door isn't. The passenger door's inside handle hasn't been fixed. The finish is shiny and compounded, and some effort has been made to polish the chrome. The inside has been vacuumed, and there's a Club in the backseat--something I never owned.

I move to the open window and confront the little 20-something man in the driver's seat.

I get this far in my story to Val Izzo, crime prevention officer for the Ninth Police District, and I can practically hear him shaking his head over the phone.

Don't ever approach, he tells me. The little guy in the driver's seat may have a very big knife or a gun. He may get charged with theft, but you'll be lying there dead. He'll say it was self-defense.

I could have taken him, I say. I could have pulled him out through the window. I could have pulled him out through the exhaust pipe.

More head-shaking.

"Best thing to do," Izzo says. "If you're riding in a car, follow him. If not, get to the nearest phone and call 9-1-1. Give a description of the car and its last direction."

But rational thought is beyond me when I accost the little turd driving my automobile. All I see is my car and I want it back.

"Outta the car," I tell him. "Out of the car." I have one hand resting on the side mirror--loose, as it always was. My other hand is ready to throttle him.

"I bought this car," he says. He's a young, slight man in a satiny sweatsuit designed to slip his little villain ass quickly over any upholstery.

"You've got to get out of this car now. It's a stolen car."

I could pull the door open and drag him out. I could reach in and shut the engine off. Maybe he's armed, maybe he isn't. Unfortunately he's already leveled a better weapon on me: doubt.

By this time the light has changed and the line in front of him has disappeared. The traffic behind us has begun to get impatient with this little drama, and horns begin to honk.

"Out of the car!" I yell.

"I'll pull up to the corner," he says, and I make the major mistake of thinking this prick will behave in a way I consider civilized.

I take one step away from the car and it's gone. Through the light at 22nd and Pine, right on 21st at high speed.

I run to 21st and Spruce. Then to 21st and Lombard.


I call 9-1-1 with the license plate number. The guy has changed plates. Maybe if he did buy the car legitimately, the cops can find him and get my car back.

The officer who calls me back tells me they can do nothing without all seven digits of the plate. It takes me a good five minutes to grasp she's telling me they can do nothing with only six of seven digits.

Izzo, on the other hand, offers to run all ten possibilities. In fact he spends a quarter-hour on the phone with me.

"Car theft is the biggest problem we face," he says. "If we catch this guy, chances are good he won't go to jail. The reason for that is priorities. If you had a your choice between a guy who robs at the point of a gun and a guy who steals a car, you'll go after the guy who does the robbery, right?"

I don't disagree. But in fact I almost don't care what happens to the little man. I just want the car back. Izzo says it's possible.

"This guy is driving your car around, two blocks from where he stole it," Izzo says. "So he's obviously not too bright." And he did steal it, Izzo says. If he'd bought it on the legit, he wouldn't have run.

Sure enough, when Izzo runs the license plate numbers, the only one from Philadelphia turns out to be stolen. This guy took my car, shined it up, put some stolen plates on it, and now drives it around as his own.

"He's proud to tell his girlfriend of the cars he's stolen," Izzo says. "If he wants to brag that he can steal a Jaguar, tonight, he will steal a Jaguar. If we catch him, we'll find he's got 15, 20 prior arrests."

And the only way he'll get caught is if the cops pull him over for something.

Or if I find him again.

Sympathy for a car thief

I got my Escort back. The thief was arrested. Now, why do I feel sorry for him?

Just my luck. I had written another whole self-indulgent column about the Further Adventures of Ranger Rob and his Stolen Automobile (Epilogue, July 3 and 31). And then, wouldn't you know it, I got my car back.

It happened like this. My Ford Escort--stolen from 23rd and South on June 29--has been gone six weeks and it's getting to where I almost enjoy depending on friends for rides. It humbles me, I guess. People seem to like me more without my car.

Last Sunday my friend Nina takes me grocery shopping at the huge Pathmark on Grays Ferry Avenue. And what do we see in the equally-huge parking lot but my little blue Escort, now into its sixth week of life without me. It sits empty, with its windows open and its lights on, as if calling out to me.

Thinking quickly, I begin to stammer.

Nina, however, swings into priority action mode.

"Get in and drive it out," she says. "I'll call the cops."

She runs for a phone. I slide behind the seat and slip my old ignition key into the new ignition switch. Impasse.

But Nina hasn't yet begun to fight. She proposes to barricade my car in place with her truly gigantic 1979 Pontiac, her Pontiac of the Apocalypse, an automobile with a gross metric tonnage equal to that of some freighters. I helpfully point out that this strategy might end with her death when the thief returns. She says she'll leave the car as a barricade and get personally out of it. And does.

The cops arrive.

No sooner do I explain the story to officer Lila Barrett of the 17th District than the "owner" of the car approaches from the store, carrying ice cream and a child.

Ice cream and a child. Great.

It's the same little 30ish black guy I'd confronted on July 15th when I saw him driving my car on 23rd near Pine. Now he's arrested.

Nina, ever the competitor, is already stretching for a few victory laps around the parking lot. She wants to take his ice cream as the spoils of war.

Meantime, I have gone into the Ford's glove compartment and taken every document I can grab.

The thief goes off in his own police cruiser.

Nina, officer Barrett and I head to the South Detective Division in extreme South Philadelphia, to make a report. Waiting there, I go through some of the thief's papers found in my car. I find pay stubs--this guy just got a job in King of Prussia. I find receipts--he apparently didn't like the sandals he got from Pay-Less Shoes or the toaster he got from Wal-Mart, because he returned them both. I also find a title to the car in his name, and a bill of sale for the car.

This is starting to burn me.

The bill of sale shows he "bought" the car in mid-June-- two weeks before it was stolen. The bogus title lists a Vehicle Identification Number that matches the VIN in the windshield, but not the one in the door frame. Whoever stole it--this guy or someone else--managed to make it look legitimate on paper, if you didn't look too closely.

I also find five or six moving violation citations. This man was stopped for everything from having an expired inspection sticker to suspicion of driving a stolen automobile. Yet somehow he got away each time.

Things go fairly smoothly at the Detectives' office, and by 11 p.m. I have my car back, along with the new key.

And already I'm starting to feel guilty about ruining someone's life. This guy has a child. Judging from a church pamphlet I found in the glove compartment, he apparently goes to church. From his pay stubs, I know he doesn't make much money. And now I have inherited a bunch of his stuff when I took possession of my car.

Once again, Val Izzo, crime prevention officer for the Ninth, puts my head back on straight.

Don't feel sorry for this guy, he says. He knew it was stolen--and if he didn't, he should have. He probably stole it himself, Izzo says. And just as Izzo theorized earlier (see Epilogue, July 31), the man proved to be a resident of my neighborhood. He'd been stopped at least five times in my car, and each time he went free. If he can bamboozle a police officer, he can bamboozle the car's owner.

So the mighty Escort sits outside my house once more, collecting parking tickets. I haven't bought a Club yet, but I intend to. And I'm contemplating what I've learned.

Call me naive, but at the Detectives' office I saw a bunch of cops working hard in a stressful job, with all of Philadelphia's craziness (and none of Philadelphia's civility) raging around them. Nothing so impressed me as how pissed they got for having been unable to unite me with my car sooner. Amid all their other troubles, they found time to be thorough and even polite. And this in an office with extremely bad air conditioning.

Call me Pollyanna. Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised to find the law enforcement people I encountered--from the police detectives down to the Pathmark security guards--so eager to see justice done. But they were, and it was good to see it.

Still, that title.

The car's mine, no question. The driver they arrested was the same guy I'd encountered at the stoplight several weeks ago. He had changed plates at least twice since he acquired the car, both times using stolen plates. So he wasn't exactly of sterling character.

But damned if my conscience can't find a way to make him a fellow victim in this story. Even if he knew the car was stolen, maybe he just needed the car long enough to get straight. Maybe he was trying to put his life back in order. Maybe by catching him, we screwed up his life still further.

Izzo says forget about it. We have so little defense against car theft, be happy the good guys won for a change.

"We don't have time to investigate car theft as we would like," Izzo says. "You had your car stolen and you got it back. Be thankful for the break."


© Rob Laymon 1997

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