When you take the leap and decide to commute great distances for business or personal reasons, and one of the twin poles in your sphere is a freeway-laced, car-obsessed place like Los Angeles, an automobile is not only a necessity. It becomes your best buddy. So imagine how devastated I felt when I emerged from my lodgings in a nice, friendly L.A. residential neighborhood at noon on the Sunday of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony and realized that my car was no longer in front of the house.
My sporty 1998 Nissan Maxima — a salvage vehicle with around 185,000 miles on the odometer and an engine that my mechanic in Los Feliz says is one of the marvels of 20th century automotives — had disappeared. “It’ll keep going and going like that bunny in the commercials, as long as you treat it right,” the mechanic asserts whenever I bring the car in for its regular service. Going and going? Apparently, it went — whether on its own or not. I had parked and locked it late on Saturday night, and now, it was gone like a ghost. How would I get from A to Z on road trips and daily jaunts without my combustible pal, its Bose speaker system blasting the music of the day?
One part despairing and one part numb, I made inquiries at the local police station, had an officer run the car’s details through their computers, learned it had not been wrongfully towed, and filled out a stolen car report. As I described the Maxima for the policeman, I acknowledged that I had left very little of value inside my ride for the thief or thieves to take — no wallet, clothing, or computer. “It may turn up,” suggested the cop, probably to mollify me. “These clowns often break into your vehicle, take it for a joyride, and dump it on a side street, where someone eventually finds it.” My friends were not so sure. “It’s already disassembled in a chop shop on the east side of downtown,” one guy surmised. “Nah. It’s across the border and headed for Guadalajara,” another said. “Somebody is gonna drive it and drive it until the engine gives out, then just leave it somewhere to rust away.”
The Oscar-viewing party at the homestead a few hours later was a less than cheery event for me. And so began a tough time in the life of your usually optimistic columnist. Grand Theft Auto was no longer a gazillion-dollar video game franchise that I managed to ignore for years; it was my burden, my cursor-move to victimhood.
By the grace of a colleague returning from his own Southland jaunt, I managed to grab a lift back to San Francisco — a magical place where a car is not so crucial an item. In fact, it can be a genuine hassle. Trying to find anywhere to park near my apartment on Russian Hill is a nightly challenge, and the proposed changes to Polk Street — expanded bike lanes, increased parking restrictions, and a reduced number of spaces — will just make things worse. That red “A” parking-permit sticker on my bumper continually mocks me as I ride around and around block after block in search of the elusive spot for the Maxima to rest. “Sure,” the sticker smirks. “You’ve got my permission to park in the general vicinity. Good luck finding an empty curb!” So one burden was lifted by the theft. But only one. I had an appointment in San Jose. Caltrain was a two-hour slog. I had a date south of Market on a Saturday night, and cabs, Ubers, and Lyfts were scarce. Still, I muddled forward.
And then, shock of shocks, I received a phone call two weeks after the crime. A woman from the Department of Transportation spoke to me: “We found your car. It seems to be in pretty good shape. It looks like they left all of your papers in the glove compartment. And a fax machine in the back seat.” I owned no fax machine, I told her. “Well, you do now,” she joked. Was it really the Maxima? She gave me the license plate number. It was mine, all right. “It may be missing a battery though,” warned the woman. According to the person who called the police about the car being abandoned on her block in a rough area of Van Nuys, she had seen someone open the hood, take the battery and head on his way.
I was admonished that the car was already being towed to a nearby storage yard, and I’d have to pay $300 to get it out. My car was stolen, miraculously recovered (minus a battery), and I was going to have to pay for its recovery — and the battery. Furthermore, I was in San Francisco, and every day I waited to pick up my auto from the tow yard in Van Nuys, I’d be charged another couple hundred dollars. I’d need to send a friend to get the Maxima, and fax the towing company a third-party transfer agreement. At least I now owned a fax machine, I thought. But no, the police had confiscated it as evidence, on the off chance that they’d find a suspect in the theft. And anyway, I’d have a heck of time using the fax machine when it was hundreds of miles away.
The payoff was wired to the towing company, and my designated representative arrived with some roadside assistance that provided a hotshot to fire up the engine. My car was driven to my L.A. digs, and left in the driveway without a battery — stolen, presumed lost forever, yet back at the house. A few days later, I returned to L.A., installed a new battery in the Maxima and drove to a screening. The car purred like a happy kitty. And the craziest thing? Whoever took it had washed and waxed it — and left me with more gasoline in the tank than there was when the vehicle was pilfered. Now if I could just get that fax machine from the cops, I’d call it a lose-win.