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 Island hut on wheels.

The lock on the driver's side door was completely gutted, as was the ignition. Juicy Fruit wrappers and an empty pack of Kools littered the shotgun seat, which was reclined all the way. Gone: my laundry detergent and fabric-softener sheets, a bag of vacuum-cleaner attachments I'd borrowed from a friend (though the vacuum cleaner itself was present and accounted for -- go figure), and a cheesy framed Kentucky Derby picture that I'd bought as a gag gift for a friend. Also gone: the Duke alumni sticker on the windshield.

The cop on the scene -- who was kind and courteous but not my type and sporting a wedding band -- told me that a man who lived a block from where we were had called the cops Sunday night to say that two of his sons had come home in a Jeep Cherokee that didn't belong to them. He also said that he was working to establish a link between this theft and a high-speed car chase that had taken place over the weekend from St. Charles all the way into St. Louis, involving police cars from several municipalities and a Jeep Cherokee. The sons were already in custody.

Lucy had had a wild weekend! I think they put about 200 miles on the car.

"Did the cop who came to your house today tell you to bring a butter knife?" the North side cop asked. He was about to teach me how to jack my own car. A pocketknife sufficed.

Starting the car was remarkably easy, really, just like turning a key the regular way. The cop recommended that I call my insurance agency before leaving, in case an adjuster wanted to look at it on-site, but I couldn't get ahold of anybody. "I'd get the interior steam-cleaned if I were you," the cop added. "I'd bet even money there were some illegal substances going down in your car this weekend."

I went home, making one stop on the way to buy a Club.

Later I dropped off the car at the auto-body shop, where I'd made arrangements to meet a guy from the car-rental place. On the ride to the rental agency, this fellow, who looked like everybody's grandfather, told me about the time his car was stolen: Three weeks after it disappeared, his insurance company cut him a check. Later that same week, he got a call from a young girl who had found his daughter's ID bracelet under the front seat of her daddy's new car. Daddy had bought the vehicle from a used-car dealership, which, when the police investigated, turned out to be part of a major St. Louis crime ring! A happy ending for everyone except the poor guy who'd bought the car for his daughter: Her honesty left him on the hook for the price he'd paid for the stolen car.

Not half an hour after I'd driven off with my rental, my North Side cop called, instructing me to "come downtown" to the warrants office, across from City Hall, to complete some paperwork.

"Miss Martelli, do you remember how I told you that the suspects' father had called this in?" the cop asked when he ushered me into the crowded waiting room. Well, here was the father.

It was an awkward introduction.

When I recovered from the shock, I asked my cop to explain what all the paperwork was about. His reply: "This is everything I had to do today because you didn't have a Club on your car."

I wasn't sure whether he was serious or he just wasn't good at being funny. "This is all I did today -- this case with you and your car," he added. It occurred to me right then that I might cry.

"It's all I did today, too," I managed. "Only I didn't get paid to do it."

Eventually, somehow, the tension faded. By the time it was just the three of us in the waiting room -- the cop, the dad and me -- we'd actually gotten to talking, first about the Cardinals, then about where all of us are from and how we got here. I gave them the short version. "You were right," the cop said to the dad when I was done. "She is a college girl."

"He knew that because his sons stole my fucking Duke alumni sticker!" I wanted to scream. But I didn't. Instead I asked the father why he thought that. "Because of how you walked," he said.

The cop was summoned into the office, then the father. I waited alone, thinking about how to best thank the father for turning in his own sons. When the cop returned, he handed me a grand-jury subpoena and said I was free to go.

I waited for the father to come out. When he did, I said, "Thank you for helping me get my car back." I can't remember whether I shook his hand.

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