The Marine View Driver: More on Living With Car Thievery, Part I

In which the author describes helping the poor, getting ripped off, and cheerfully paying his way out of a game of chance.

by Mike Smith

About three years ago I took on an unusual task. Unusual for me because it entailed a little selflessness.

That’s a word which I had to look up. Selflessness is not in my personal psychological lexicon.

The duty was to be the representative payee for a man at our church who was getting an SSI check from the government for his disability. He is not unable to take care of himself but due to his condition he was able to request a money manager per se, as he was not sure he could manage his money for himself.

He was receiving $760.00 per month and after he paid his rent, his car insurance and his phone he had almost nothing left for food, etc. So I took his expenses and figured out how to lower them. First he moved in with us–he pays rent but much less than before. Then I got him out of his phone service and got him a Bush phone. It is a phone that the government pays for (via Virgin mobile) so low income folks can have at least an emergency device.

(I call it the Bush phone rather than the Obama phone, which folks tend to call it, because the program started under the GW Bush presidency. Aren’t you glad you read my column? Such an education you can get. Knowledge just seems to drip from this humble weekly missive.)

But as you guessed, my being the Marine View Driver and all, there has to be a car in here somewhere. I had him sign his car into my name so he could save insurance costs by simply being an additional party on our policy. Our agent set it up so it was all legit. Instantly, I was in ownership of another Honda. One which I’d hoped would fail soon, as I felt I was taking a risk in this little transaction.

When I called our family lawyer about all this, he said, “Wow, that is really nice of you. But just remember when it comes to Government stuff, no good deed goes unpunished.” So I waited…

Everything went along just fine. We had some normal maintenance and repair issues that our friend the non-legal owner of the car was able to get fixed. You see he also finally got a job at a local homeless shelter. Oddly enough it is the perfect job as he is uniquely suited to it. He gets raises all the time and he loves it. He in fact no longer receives any government checks. He was ironically excited when they cut him off because he thought he was going to be on assistance all his life. In short, he was able to keep his beloved car running while gaining a bit of self-esteem.

ChopChopAbout a month ago this car was stolen while he was at work. This was car theft number one for him (rookie!). It was theft number five for me. He was of course upset. I was of course relieved. We reported to the proper authorities and felt that the car was gone for good and good riddance, expecting it to be chop-shop fodder. You would think a veteran of car thefts would be a little more prepared. This would be a good place for ominous music to begin…

About one month after the theft and a new car was secured, I (the legal owner) received a notice in the mail from a towing company saying our car had been towed and if we did not want to recover it, it would go to auction. No time frames, no date for the auction, just a simple “Hello, we have your car. Do you want it back?” The tacit implication was, “If you don’t, no problem. We’ll auction it off.” There was a time frame for calling back to avoid the auction of 120 hours from my receipt of the letter.

I’ve always found it odd that anyone has that much faith in the postal system to count on my getting their letter at a determined time at which they could start their stop watch.

My incredulity is not unfounded.

I get a lot of mail from the Social Security Department due to my payee status and they all have some sort of “please respond by this date,” which is always elapsed. I’ve learned not to get too worked up about the SSI letters though because I usually get another letter that completely nullifies or contradicts the previous one. So I’m immune to respond immediately’demands.

This letter from the towing company was no different in my book. Yup, the time to respond was elapsed, so I expected to get a letter saying, “We got this much for your car, would you care to donate the proceeds to our legal defense fund for car thieves?” But no.

I got a letter a week later (“as legal owner”) threatening that if I did not come and claim my car it was scheduled for an auction one month from the date of this letter. (See? When it is their deadline they put a time they can measure.) I was to pay all storage charges accumulated up until the auction. Which by the date of the letter would put my charges at about $1500.00! And if I did not pay up, they would suspend my driver’s license until I did.

I have a commercial license and it costs about $180.00 to renew with all my endorsements, plus it is necessary to keep my job. Needless to say this letter was less friendly and helpful than the previous. Instead of “oh, fyi” it was “or else.”

I called them and asked if they would be willing to just take the title from me in exchange. I’ve done that before and it worked out slick. “No,” was the short answer. So much for slick. They are not “that kind” of towing company. Boy, I pulled the wrong lever with that question.

You see, I learned this week that there is more than one type of towing company. There is the wholesale guy that comes and takes your car to his wrecking yard. You can tell which level they are on by their truck.

Then there is the retail guy who just has a fleet of tow trucks and an office in a strip mall with 5 to 6 platinum blondes working behind the counter. Decidedly identifiable by their truck.

Tow truckThese patrician companies consist of they who have those sweet little relationships with the police, fire, and other dignified public servants. These retailers take your car and hide it, then start the meter charging $60.00 or more a day to keep it in “secure” storage. And of course since the costs accrue daily, they use the very quickest way to notify you of your misfortune. They fill out a form letter by hand and walk to the nearest mail box and mail it to you. The letter as I mentioned is good natured, helpful and assures your car is securely stored. Wouldn’t want it to get re-stolen, would we? The storage area is secure because it is not the property of the towing company. It belongs to a major and busy construction company and you have to have top secret clearance and a hard hat to go in. Even the towing company employees have to sign in for access. It all seems so inefficient… until you realize you are paying for it every day that goes by.

The inexplicable part of the equation is: you have to know the secret questions to ask and the secret order in which to ask those questions in order to move along in the game. Why divulge anything cost effective to the ignorant cash cow with a problem?

This game into which you have unwillingly and unknowingly entered is not apparent to you until you have gotten a bit further along. The towing company employees do not volunteer information when a simple yes or no will suffice. (The construction company employees yell at you to get out of the way.) No one volunteers information that may prove advantageous to you, the wad. So I plied my oldest and most reliable tactic, chit chat, in order to get some inadvertent information. After a few car jokes and disparaging remarks about those “other” towing companies, I got the information I needed to proceed to the next level in the game. This was probably the only rewarding part of the incident.

What do I mean? Tune in next week and you’ll get a gut ache.

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