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Beaters 

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He's up and wagging, frisky for an old dog. Smart too, knows what I'm talking about--a walk in the forest preserve. Who says dogs can't understand English?

He's out the back door, jumping up and down. Take it easy, boy, you'll dislocate a bone! But it's that kind of a morning, crisp and cool, perfect. The trusty old Chevy hasn't been out of the garage since Friday. Open the hatch, put the dog in, crawl behind the steering wheel, press that little doodad, watch the door rise up behind me. Automatic door openers are a gas.

And there it is, right across my garage entrance, a blue Cutlass beater. An ugly unwashed bald-tired cracked-windshield piece of junk absolutely blocking my way.

I get out and search. Usually it's just the Mexican or Puerto Rican automobile mechanics. My alley is a regular inner-city enterprise zone. Every third garage seems to be operating some kind of repair shop, and the customers park where they can. Usually this is no problem. People are only too glad to move their cars, even if they don't exactly apologize for putting them in my way in the first place.

But there's no one around today. Must be some kind of Latin American holiday. So now what do I do?

The dog is staring out the car window at me. You know how they do. Come on! Pant, pant, pant. Come on! As if this whole thing's my fault.

I walk down the alley. Two Polish guys are nailing siding onto a house. "You know who belongs to that car?" I ask hopefully.

Not only do they not know whose car it is, they don't even know what I said. Much good it would do me if they did. They obviously have nothing to do with the Cutlass. They've got their own pickup parked in front of someone else's garage.

Try and explain this to a dog. Out of pity I put him on the leash and walk him up and down the alley. Not quite as good as the forest preserve, but maybe that's just my opinion. He seems quite happy with the smells.

Our poor old alley looks like the set from some socially conscious movie--garbage, graffiti, broken pavement, bleak brick walls. It's the kind of place photography students used to seek out when they wanted to do something artistic. When I first moved into this neighborhood I was afraid to walk out here after dark. Now it feels like home. In fact, it is home. But that doesn't mean I never want to leave it.

Against all better instincts, I decide I have to call the police.

Always, at moments like this, I'm reminded that only a few short years ago I was the police. Not Chicago police (or the Real Police, as they like to call themselves), but certainly a sworn officer of the law who had full authority to tow any vehicle blocking the right of way. Whatever else anyone might have said about my department, we were hell on parked cars.

But Chicago police, I have learned, take a different view. In our neighborhood abandoned cars--it's a rare day when there are less than three on our block--are left to sink into the pavement and disappear, bit by bit. Some of them become famous. The rusty Maverick resting on its axles. The maroon T-bird with all its windows broken out. The caterer's truck that will cater no more. The mysterious Toyota at the end of the block. Neighbors got so sick of looking at that one they finally pushed it out into the intersection, hoping this would inspire the police. It did. They pushed it back.

So you see, I have very little confidence that anyone is going to move that Cutlass soon. It's Monday morning. I really don't need my car for sure until Thursday, but let's not tell anybody that. I'll call Chicago and start crying. Tell them I can't get out of my garage and I have to get to work! Maybe they'll feel sorry for me and do something.

Like a good citizen, I dial the nonemergency number. Call 911 for an abandoned car? I know better than that. But the nonemergency number is busy. And busy. And busy. It's like calling for cable-TV repairs. But I've got all day. Eventually I get through.

A bored voice takes the message. He'll have somebody out. When? An hour. Maybe two. No, he can't give an estimate. I should know better than to ask. Chicago police never give an ETA.

I try standing out in the alley, hoping to be there when the squad arrives. Maybe if I tell whoever shows up that I'm a retired cop they'll be inspired to get the job done. Maybe not. Maybe they'll wait until I have to go to the bathroom before they show their faces.

'Cause that's what happens. I run into the house, do what must be done, and run back. And there it is. Chicago has been on the scene. Chicago has left the scene. And the Cutlass remains.

But Chicago did put a ticket under the windshield wiper.

So it's back to the phone and that nonemergency number. And a new bored voice. I tell the story. Car. Blocking garage. Can't get to work. Gonna lose job. Gonna go on welfare. No, no, you already sent someone out. Ticket. Parking ticket. How's that supposed to help?

The bored voice doesn't want to hear this stuff. He'll send another squad. I can tell by the way he says it that this will not happen soon--if ever.

But I choose to believe. Another vigil in the alley. It's cold. I stomp my feet and size up the Cutlass. Could I possibly push it in front of my neighbor's garage? No, I could not. It's in park and will not move. What will it take to move it? I imagine myself backing the Chevy into its side, really smash the fucker. But all that will probably do is tear up my Chevy. I imagine setting the damn thing on fire, but that will probably burn down my garage.

Then I see one of the car-repair guys pulling in across the alley. A Mexican guy, I'm pretty sure. Always has a friendly smile. Drives a yellow pickup that looks like it used to belong to the Park District.

I imagine him pulling up behind the Cutlass in that pickup. I imagine him revving up the engine. I imagine him pushing the Cutlass out of my way.

"Hey, Amigo! You know who owns that Cutlass?"

Amigo smiles. Nice guy. He checks out the Cutlass. "I never see it before."

"I can't get out of my garage!"

"Ahhhh. Maybe we push him?"

We try with muscle power. Sorry. Not when the parking brake is on. "Maybe," I suggest, nodding toward his truck. He shakes his head. He knows too much about cars to fall for that one.

But it helps, just having someone I can talk with. I don't know why, but my brain seems to work better when it has company. We size up the Cutlass. Maybe we can break into it. I used to be real good at this when I was a cop. I was the coat-hanger king, and this Cutlass is one of those older models with the old-fashioned door locks.

And they're not even locked! It took me all this time to figure that out? Good thing I retired when I did.

There's a little thrill that comes with opening a stranger's car. One of the perks of a cop's job is you get to do this legally. You find all sorts of strange and loathsome things. Papers, beer bottles, kids' toys, dog bones, dope pipes, old sweaters, dirty magazines (usually the kind in which naked young men proudly display their cocks), used hypodermic needles. But never anything valuable. By the time a cop gets interested in an abandoned car, all the good stuff is usually gone.

This one is no different. Papers, junk, a stale smell. Just like in the old days. Sliding behind the wheel, I feel a warm rush of nostalgia. Being a cop had its good days and its bad days, but an abandoned-vehicle assignment was definitely one of my favorite jobs. There were so many interesting things to do--call the dispatcher, run radio checks, figure out a plausible excuse for towing it (safety hazard was always good), call for a "hook," wait for the tow driver, crack a few jokes with him, and direct traffic while he tows the wreck out onto Irving Park Road. After driving around in circles half the day, towing a vehicle was a definite social event.

All these things are running through my mind when I make a most interesting discovery. This car has had its ignition punched.

For the uninitiated, punching out a car's ignition is the first step to starting it without a key. A step usually taken by folks who are accustomed to posing face forward and then sideways before police cameras.

And so, another warm rush of nostalgia. I'm beginning to remember how it felt to recover a stolen car. A recovered steal was twice as much fun as a plain old abandoned vehicle. You could easily kill an hour on a steal and still wind up thinking you'd actually accomplished something. Even the lieutenant couldn't ignore such concrete proof that you were actually out doing your job. So how come Chicago didn't see this punched ignition? How come I didn't see it!

But at least I have an excuse. I'm retired.

Retired or not, I've got the feeling back--that sense of power and purpose that comes with being an officer of the law. I take command. If Chicago wants to blow off this investigation, I'll handle it myself. I immediately begin sorting through the papers that are scattered over the front seat. I recognize the pattern. Someone has emptied the glove box looking for valuables and scattered its contents. In short order I find the stubs from several utility bills, several envelopes addressed to an address on George Street, and an auto-repair receipt. No wonder Amigo doesn't recognize this car. The owner has been taking his business to Auto Express.

I show the papers to Amigo. "Know this guy?"

Amigo shakes his head. "I can drive over there," he suggests.

"Maybe I should call him first."

"Oh, no, no, no. I can drive."

For some reason Amigo wants to do it. Is he expecting a tip? Shame on me for thinking such a thing. He clearly only means to be a good neighbor. Besides, I can see that he's caught up in the excitement of recovering a stolen car. He would make a good cop.

Best of all he speaks Spanish, and the name on those receipts is definitely Latino. Telephoning that address might not be such a good idea for a linguistically challenged gringo like me.

So off Amigo goes in his yellow Park District pickup. I settle back into the Cutlass and wait.

Boy, those stupid Chicago cops, I'm thinking. On my job, on my job anyone who ticketed an obviously stolen car without checking it out would at the very least become an object of mirth to his (or her) fellow officers. And sometimes get into actual trouble. I'm thinking of the time the night shift locked a car into a little forest preserve grove on 31st Street without running a radio check. Which would have told them that the owner of the car had been reported missing after he left the house promising to kill himself. Two days later we fished the poor man out of the creek. You think those night-shift guys weren't in trouble?

No sooner do I think this than I'm out of the car, checking the trunk. It's locked of course, but you never know. Can't smell anything, but that doesn't mean someone isn't stuffed in there. Wouldn't that be something? I'd like to see these Chicago guys blow off a dead body with a parking ticket!

In this way I do pass the time. Finally here comes Amigo in his yellow truck, and he's got a man with him. The man is the owner of the Cutlass, and he speaks almost no English. Luckily I have Amigo to translate.

"Is this your car?" I ask in my best retired-cop voice.

"Si! Si!"

"Is it stolen?"

"Si! Si! Last night!"

"Did you report it to the police?"

A long conversation between the man and Amigo. All in Spanish. They could be saying anything.

Then he turns to me. "Si! Yes. To police!"

I mutter, thinking the worst of Chicago's finest. But I have to be fair. Not every car with a punched ignition is stolen. Stopped a guy once myself--he was driving a GMC Jenny, punched ignition. I was all set to clamp on the cuffs. Then everything turned out legal and fair. He'd hot-wired it himself to steal it back from the finance company. Don't ask, I tell you it was all legal.

I'm not too sure about this Cutlass guy. Now that my cop bones have been awakened, I'm starting to think like a cop again. Why should I believe him? Didn't Lieutenant Cannici always say, "The eyes believe what they see, the ears believe what they hear?" And don't the ears hear a lot of lies?

So let's not stand here trying to find fault with the Chicago Police. Let's just get this job done.

"Can you move it?" I ask.

"Si! Yes!" The Cutlass guy pulls a screwdriver out of his hip pocket, inserts it into the steering column, and he's ready to go. He's so good at this I can't help but believe he's done it a time or two before. The next question becomes, maybe, just maybe he's the one who stole the car?

I take another good look at the rusted Cutlass with the stuffing sticking out of the upholstery. Nah. Nobody stole this car.

So this is going to be another of America's unsolved mysteries. Why is this man driving around with a punched ignition? How did his car come to be parked behind my garage? What are he and Amigo now saying to each other? Do I really have to know?

He pulls away from my garage, grinning. Amigo is grinning. I am grinning. Everybody is feeling just fine.

It's just like the old days on the job. A morning well spent, even if the dog did miss his walk.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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