Searching for a Stolen Car

The five hulking bags of groceries are in the trunk, and I’ve got twenty minutes before I have to clock in at work. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem, but this day finds me hunkered over the duct-taped steering column fighting with a screwdriver to get my rig fired up. Sure, the keys are in my right pocket next to my wallet, but for the last couple of weeks, this has been the modus operandi for getting the thing started. The rooting around for the wedged tool in my backpack (and remembering to keep it there), followed by the ponderous task of turning the car’s starter over with a dexterity-laden maneuver that conjures black-and-white images of a smiling pair of Wright Brothers laboriously hand-cranking the spruce propellers of their early heavier-than-air creations. And if it’s dark out and I forget to bring my flashlight, forget about it. A busted ignition, I’ve come to realize, is par for the course for anyone who has been the unfortunate victim of auto theft. And while I could certainly take it to the garage down the street and get it repaired, I don’t happen to have a couple of hundred spare dollars lying around. So I figure I’ll just live with it. It’s not that big of a deal — certainly nothing like the shock of returning to Milwaukee after Easter weekend and realizing that my one-week old cruiser had been absconded from in front of my apartment. Seven days really isn’t a very long time to own a car, and since I hadn’t taken care of all of the registration paperwork yet (and had idiotically left the title and bill of sale inside the car), I was in the unfortunate position of not having any documents to present to the police. So until I was able to contact the original owner (from outside the Milwaukee area) to send me a copy of their paperwork, my car was sort of floating around out there. Although people assured me that someone probably just took it out for a joyride and abandoned it somewhere near my neighborhood, my friends’ nuggets of wisdom didn’t exactly reassure me. Was the thing racking up extravagant parking tickets? Were they playing demolition derby with it in a back alley, laughing hideously between bash-ups and disregarding my car’s liability-only coverage? The fact that the thief would in all likelihood not take the dozen or so bags of cardboard in the backseat to the recycling center was certainly the least of my worries. And since my beleaguered mind wouldn’t let me wait out the four days that it would take for the previous owner’s paperwork to arrive, I decided I had to go on a recovery mission. Using a rental car that I had secured for a late afternoon job interview, I bolted out of bed one morning at 4:30 a.m. and, starting with my block, dedicated myself to driving up and down every numbered street in Milwaukee. Back and forth for mile after mile became the routine, scanning alleys and cross streets and keeping my eyes wide and nourished with frequent pulls from a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. No Luck. So after midday job interview followed by a five-hour shift at work, I hit the streets again. And this time, I hit pay dirt. A little bit after midnight, I found the Olds innocently parked six or seven blocks from my apartment on a street that I had covered many hours before. The license plates had been replaced and my key of course wouldn’t fit into the ignition, but at that moment, I didn’t really even have the time to feel angry — the immediate step was to put a club on the steering wheel and bring my mechanically gifted roommate over in the morning so I could bring it home. My friends, it turned out, were right about me finding it close to home, but they were wrong about the absconder wanting it for the sole purpose of a short jaunt around the town. The gas tank was full (it had been on empty); a smattering of audio tapes, cigars, and fast food bags and wrappers were in the front seat; and, incredibly, the thief had rewired the previously-busted fuse box and outfitted my moribund stereo with functional speakers. Apparently, despite living less than a couple of hundred yards away from my apartment, they were under the impression that they could put a couple of bogus license plates on it and basically take it over. Next time, just ask me for a ride.