Jacked

What do our cars do when they get stolen?

I didn't laugh or cry last Saturday morning when I realized my car had been stolen from outside my apartment. I stood, and I looked to the left, where I remembered last parking it Thursday night, and then I looked right, where I thought maybe a little glitch in my memory had parked it instead. Then I looked left and right again. Left, right, once more, then back into the house.

I'd never had a car stolen before, because I'd never had a car before. I moved here in September from New York City, where a car is a detriment and a hassle. In the six years I lived there, I knew maybe three people with cars. One of the reasons I moved here was I wanted a car. There was no more multiculti Benetton-ad thrill for me in the moldy Petri-dish environs of the subway, and I'd long ago ceded the bus to the elderly and the fat. Three words I used to hum in my head during my last months in New York: my own car. That and dining-room table. Four wheels, lots of room for eating: America. When I got here, I bought a 1999 Jeep Cherokee. Buying a car was a much more complex process than I'd realized (Emissions test? Personal-property tax?) but I loved her. Lucy I named her, and I loved her. Now she was gone. Just gone -- poof! No more car!

I dialed 911 and was transferred to a local precinct. An operator took down my information blandly and told me that an officer would call me back to finish compiling information for the report. "Nobody's coming to the house?" I asked. No. Back in December, when I came home from a Rams game around midnight on a Sunday to find that my apartment had been burglarized, one cop had shown up and then left me alone to wait for the fingerprint guy. When my place in Manhattan was hit three years ago, six of New York City's finest lingered in that little studio apartment for two full hours, and a detective came by the next day. This ain't New York.

I followed up with the call to my insurance company, then started phoning friends for sympathy. An hour or two later, a cop called me and said, without explanation, that she would dispatch an officer to my residence. He came, looked at the spot where my car had once stood, jotted things down. I told him I'd heard that Cherokees don't get stolen (in fact, I'd heard that from the lone cop who'd shown up after the burglary in December). He said something about how "they" -- that is, the general underbelly of society, I guess -- have finally figured out how to jack Jeeps, whose ignitions are tougher to crack than those of most other makes. Jeep-thieving is now on the rise. I told him I'd heard that lots of stolen St. Louis cars are found, that thieves here aren't looking to strip parts or do business with chop shops. He literally snorted.

I ran the same idea past my insurance guy when he called me back. He said that about 50 percent of all stolen cars are found here but that only 50 percent of those are drivable.

That night I told my sad tale again and again at a friend's birthday party. Everyone said not to worry, that I would get my car back. The birthday boy himself said he knew five other people who'd had their cars stolen in St. Louis, and all five had gotten their cars back. Someone said they'd heard that there's a spike in vehicular thefts in this city when it rains. Others suggested that I get somebody to drive me around Forest Park to look for it.

But really, when I woke up Monday morning I wasn't feeling any glimmer of hope for Lucy's return. Instead I'd resigned myself to the chore of buying my second car eight months after I'd bought my first.

Around 10 a.m., there was a knock on the door. It was the same cop who'd come by on Saturday.

"They found your car," said he.

On the North Side, he added. Parked on the street. A cop was on the scene, presumably to make sure no one tried to steal it again. A "Who's on first?" exchange ensued.

Cop: "You have to drive up there and get it. The officer's waiting for you."

Me: "OK -- but I don't have a car."

Cop: "Yes, you do -- we just found it on the North Side."

Me: "Yes, but -- I could call a cab."

Cop: "Call a cab?"

Me: "Yeah, you know, so I can go get my car."

My next-door neighbor walked past and put an end to the hijinks by offering me a lift. Over to the North Side we went, to the neighborhood around Kingshighway and Natural Bridge. As we pulled up, my neighbor glanced at the cop parked in his cruiser and whispered, "Rose, he's cute -- you should find out if he's married."

From a distance, Lucy looked fine. The front license plate was half hanging off, was all. But on closer inspection, Lucy did not look so good. The front bumper was mostly undone, and part of the rear one jutted out at a 45-degree angle. The entire right side of the car was curved inward like a parenthesis, punctuated by a single severe, inch-thick gash. There were nicks and cuts all over, the right headlight had been beaten in and the entire rear end was frosted with grass and mud. From the back, the car looked like a Gilligan's Islandhut on wheels.

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