Sunday, March 09, 2003

Here's a story about things entirely outside of my control, recently printed in the INDY. I am trying to improve my writing, so critique is most welcome.
Dude, Where's My Car?
A pedestrian tale of a stolen automoile
. . . by Ari Johnson
[Photo by Aiko Wakao]

Any moment, they will come for me--perhaps arrest me—for driving my own stolen car. Within less than a week, my car has been stolen, abandoned, towed, and returned to my possession—all before the Providence Police had time to process the paperwork recognizing the theft.
It began in ebbing lunch hours at the Ratty. As I lounged, taking in the last of a plate of soy nuggets, my roommate spotted me, strolled over with his tray, and sat down. He dug his fork into his chicken pot pie, and, raising it to his mouth, remarked distractedly, “Your girlfriend called. She said she couldn’t find your car in the lot. I think she said she is going to take a cab to the train station instead.”

Coming from my roommate’s calm voice, through a half-conscious soy nugget haze, this information took a little while to process.
The lot at the Anthropology department where I park has only a handful of spaces.

My girlfriend knows exactly where I park.

She was with me the last time I parked the car.

In that same spot.

Camry! Come home…
I snapped out of the haze, threw my tray on the rack, and ran down Thayer and up Power to the Anthropology Department, where I got a fresh gaze at the big empty space where my car should have been.

My first instinct was to question my sanity. My 15-year-old car, parked within the seven-foot-high brick walls surrounding the Anthropology department lot, stolen? I wandered around, desperately looking for my car on streets I had not even traveled.

Finally, I gave in and called the Brown Police to file a report to be passed along to the Providence Police. The reporting officer took some information from me, then asked if I had questions.

“What are the chances of getting my car back?”

“Pretty slim. It’s probably already stripped down by now in some chop shop. The old Toyota Camrys are some of the most commonly stolen cars in the country. Camrys have been around for so long, their parts can be used on all sorts of different models. Also, when those locks get old and wear down, it gets so that almost any Camry key will work.”

I smiled wryly at this. My car had over 150 thousand miles on it, and was approaching its fifteenth birthday. Rust had begun to creep around the edges of the shiny brown body. The thieves and I might be the only ones with any appreciation for the car—in a way, it tied us together.
Whatever insurance could cover would certainly not pay for a new vehicle. So over the course of the next day, I reconciled myself to a car-less existence. I even managed to distract myself with other matters, like class, until I returned home.

I opened up Eudora to find a message from my dad. He had received a call from the Captain of the Central Falls, RI Police Department, about 10 minutes north of Providence. Hours after I had first realized it was stolen, the Central Falls police had discovered my car abandoned behind a tenement, and towed it to Lemyres Towing and Collision Center.

I called the Captain in Central Falls and asked him, “How am I going to get the car home? Is it still drivable?” I pictured a barely-recognizable skeleton, completely stripped, tires missing.

“The car looks fine,” the Captain told me. “There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.”

What was going on? Why would anyone go to the trouble of stealing my car out of a walled lot only to abandon it unscathed two towns over? The most likely conclusion I could think of was that the thieves had needed a vehicle to commit some other crime. I resolved to try to find out the next day, when I went to wrestle my car back from three police forces and a tow company.

The Providence Public Safety complex rises up against I-95, an image of modern efficiency: Fire Department, Police, and municipal courts all in an enormous glass structure. Inside, I learned that it takes several days for the Providence Police to process the theft report they got from Brown. “We have no record. Your car has not been stolen,” the officer at the vehicle recovery unit told me. With some persuasion, he agreed to call Central Falls, and give them clearance to release the car to me.

Adventures in Central Falls
I set off with my friend Adam, who graciously volunteered to give me a ride. Through a small maze of old industrial buildings, we eventually came to a ranch-style brick building that housed the Central Falls police. The lobby was small. On the counter was a binder with Polaroids of puppies and kittens up for adoption.

The officer on duty at Central Falls quickly filled out the forms I needed to pick up my car from Lemyres tow shop.

“So what do you think happened?” I asked the officer.

“They probably just needed a ride home,” he replied.

My images of drive-by shootings and midnight pillaging faded. “Really? Does this happen often?”

“All the time. People will steal a car to get home from Providence, and sometimes they’ll steal another to get back. And not just in Providence. This happens all over the country.”

“That just doesn’t really make sense. Why would anyone go to the trouble of stealing cars just to make a ten-minute commute? It must be a lot harder than catching a bus.”

“I think the best answer that I can give you is that”—the officer looked up from his paperwork—”they’re assholes.”

Adam and I went out to get the car at the tow lot, and spotted the manager working with some jumper cables. The battery had been drained, and the tank was almost bone-dry. I walked around several times, looking for damaged or missing parts, but the exterior appeared untouched.
When I peeked into the passenger side seat, I saw what looked like a minor natural disaster. I saw the maps and papers of my glove compartment strewn wildly across and under the seats, which were both careened back almost to horizontal—I imagined the driver reclining with eyes just above the height of his outstretched hands on the wheel.

The thieves had taken nothing and damaged nothing, but they had left quite a bit behind:
1. An open backpack held some highlighters, The Little Book of Macs, another computer programming book, and a sketchbook filled with anime-style original drawings.
2. Among the papers on the floor I found a folder with more anime art, some original, some printed off a computer, and what seemed like a syllabus for a class.
3. Next to the gearshift leaned a large metal bat, scratched across its body with signs of heavy use.
4. On the back seat lay two disembodied car stereo speakers—but when I examined the car, I noticed that none of my car stereo speakers had been removed.

I felt very much in the midst of a crime scene, but there were no police around. In fact, with the paper trail still inching along back in Providence, my car hadn’t even been officially stolen yet. No police would be coming to take fingerprints and collect fingernail samples. And I needed to get the car home. I left things as they were, put my seat back into the full upright position, and headed back to College Hill, wondering who had last sat in my driver’s seat, and what hands had last held my steering wheel.

Back on campus, the Brown Police took a follow-up report and confiscated the gifts my thieves had left for me. One officer expressed particular interest in the metal bat, in light of the numerous recent assaults reported in the area.

I left 75 Charlesfield dazed and bewildered. What had happened? Where had my car been, who had taken it, and what had they done while they were in it? Any day now, the paper trail will catch up downtown at the Providence Police station, and they will process the stolen vehicle report. Then, long after my car has been recovered, maybe it will be discovered stolen. And maybe they’ll spot my plate the next day I go out for a ride, and come after me.

Car-E” Johnson B’04 is wanted in 49 states.

copyright © 2002, The College Hill Independent
last updated 03 05 03