Something about Harry

Something About Harry

         I didn’t notice how attached I had become to my car until thieves drove it away one night. This was a while back, but it’s still fresh in my mind, where parts of it play out in slow motion. I had parked it just off the alley next to my cottage. There was nothing in the car, so I probably didn’t lock it.

         Come eleven, I climbed up to the loft and got into bed. The loft had a skylight, which I could prop open and peer out of like a tank commander. From here I had a good view of the alley and the top of my car.

         My car-- Harry--such a well-designed little guy, was built in 1984 when Japanese cars were so much more functional and economical than American cars, but before they started getting sexy. I bought Harry used in 1992 based largely on the fact that the designers had come up with a little pull-out storage tray that slid beneath the passenger seat. Brilliant. And he was in fabulous shape. The original owner loved Harry, and was only selling him because she was moving to Hawaii. It was more like an adoption than a purchase. Once I convinced her I was fit to own a 1984 Honda Civic Wagon, she gave me a huge stack of maintenance records and a bucket of car washing stuff, stuff that the car was "used to." She handed me the bucket like it was Harry's insulin.

         Back to that fateful night. I was in the loft, reading, around eleven. I heard some rustling in the alley. Assuming it was a certain cat that was always doing its business just outside the driver’s door, I grabbed my water bottle and prepared to teach it a little lesson.

         I turned off my reading light and stealthily peered out the skylight, just in time to see the driver's door softly close. This, I decided, was beyond the cat’s capabilities.

         So. Someone's in my car, I thought. And what would you do?

         I considered that it might be somebody slipping into the car to sleep. But then I started thinking: bad guys. I considered shouting at the car. But I was worried a bit about how vulnerable I was to attack. My place was just a little cottage, with one door. This person could go through the gate and immediately have me trapped. Or they could come back the next night and hurl a hand grenade through my open skylight, right onto my bed. Or they could vandalize the car. You know, get even. That's how those bad guys are. It’s what they do. So I decided not to give away my position.

         What the hell, I thought, there's nothing worth stealing in the car. The radio sucks; there was nothing good in there at all. He'll browse in the glove box, give up, and go.

         Then I get the police fantasy. The dramatic bust on my driveway. I was on a major street in Santa Cruz, just off the freeway. Should be a snap. Be a good citizen. Make the call.

         Just the thought of it made me so nervous I switched to the present tense. My heart is going bumpity-bump. I climb down the loft ladder and get the phone. I call from downstairs so that the criminal can't hear my voice through the open skylight. I dial 9-1-1. After one ring I hang up. Is this the right thing? Maybe a friend is just leaving something for me. Maybe it’s those car-cleaning elves I’m always praying for. Maybe... maybe...

         Suddenly the phone rings, and under the circumstances it seems tremendously loud. It’s the 9-1-1 guy. "Sir, did you just call 9-1-1?" Fast call tracing. I'm impressed.

         "I just saw someone sneak into my car in the alley."

         He confirms my address and says someone's on the way. He asks a couple more questions. I'm talking low and deep so that the criminal doesn’t hear me, and I can feel my voice shaking a bit. We hang up.

         I slip back to the loft and peer out the skylight. I see a couple guys in black come down the street and go straight to Harry. The cops! With... Raiders jackets! Uh oh. They just hop in the car like they own it. They do not hesitate. They are not scared. I'm trying to get a good look, they're young, they're just generic punks… and the phone rings again.

         I scurry down the ladder and grab the phone, which I’ve put under a pillow to muffle its ring. It’s the police dispatcher. I tell her bad boys just got into the car. She asks how many. I say it might be three, or it could be that the first guy got out and back again with a friend so there’s just two. Or maybe there are a dozen guys piled in there like clowns. I can’t be down here on the phone and up there watching at the same time!

         She says maybe I should calm down a little. She says to tell her if I hear the car start up. She's going to stay on the line until the police arrive.

         Start up? Up to this point it hadn’t occurred to me that they might steal it. It wasn’t worth more than three grand, and it’s hard to imagine guys in black hooded sweatshirts and Raiders jackets going on a joyride in a tiny station wagon. Their friends would laugh at them.

         Still on the line, I can hear the cops talking to the dispatcher on the radio. They're lost. They are asking the dispatcher where my block is, which side of the street, etc., and she relays the questions to me. I'm getting impatient. This is not a hard place to find. Then I hear some kind of a thump outside. Car door? The dispatcher tells me they're on the scene. Do I see them? No, I say, I'd have to go upstairs and I don’t want to be on the phone up there because they’ll hear. I can hear the police radio chatter over the phone. They're in the wrong area. They are not on the scene. Not my scene, anyway. I can hear the tension and impatience in my voice as I relay very specific, step-by-step directions. This is taking too long. When I hear their car pull up, I go up to the loft and look out. Finally, there's the cop, right next to the... the...

         Harry! Gone!

         The bad guys must've rolled the car away and then started it. I didn't hear the engine at all.

         Psst, cop, up here. The car's gone. They got the car. I'll be right down.

         Two cops, one with hairy arms and one with a hairy lip but neither with Harry. They get on the radio. They make the usual cop noises. The bad guys are gone so they slip into routine post-theft mode. Fill out report. Smoke on my porch and toss the butt on the lawn. Make a few remarks about my furniture. One sees a Safeway bag and mentions that it must be nice to have a 24-hour grocery store so close.

         "Don't worry, we'll get them." And they're gone. Have a nice night.

       The Wait

         After 24 hours, the police hadn't picked up either the car or the bad guys. I’d been told that statistically speaking, you may as well give up after two days. If they find anything after that, it’s usually not worth having. I began to lose hope. I wondered if I had a picture somewhere.

         I learned that Hondas are very popular targets for theft, because they're reliable and economical. They go to chop shops in L.A., then onto boats for South and Central America, where they don't give a frijole for police reports or VIN numbers.

         Brazil... He'd like Brazil.

         After four days I was looking into replacing the car. I did not have comprehensive insurance, so I didn't have any consolation money coming in to help. But I did have some weird comforting thoughts. At least I wouldn't have to worry about getting it smogged next week. At least I put off that oil change. Two tires were nearing the end of their usefulness. I was relieved of the burdens of ownership, and it was a bit of a relief. That was a bright side.

         Still, I was having guilty thoughts from lusting after other cars so soon after the theft. At first I thought, hey, here's an opportunity. Get a convertible. Something red. Something with wipers that don't squeak. But then I thought about Harry, somewhere in a ravine, or a chop shop. Where was my loyalty? My God, what kind of parent would I be?

         This is ridiculous, I thought. I must have watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Herbie the Love Bug too many times as a kid. It’s just a car.

         I have to admit that I have a special patient smile for people who give their car a name, because they are dorks. But my friend Dana looked at my car the day I got it and said its name was Harry. That sounded about right to me. Dork.

         We have a tendency to attribute human characteristics to almost everything -- inanimate objects, animals, even presidential advisors –- and naming them just makes it worse.

         You know how it is. We’ve all heard stories about kids who make a pet out of some animal on the farm, like a giving it a name like Cuddles, only to find Cuddles on the dinner table one day, served with fava beans and a nice Chianti. You’ve got to be careful about what you get attached to. 


         The call came on Sunday. A woman from the Santa Cruz Police Department left a message that the car was found. It appeared to be in okay shape, but (and she seemed to think this was amusing): it was in Springfield. Springfield Oregon. She left some phone numbers.

         I listened to the message a few times, but each time Harry was still in Oregon. I spoke to somebody at the Springfield Police Department and got the impression that the town was one notch more urban than Mayberry, and ten notches less friendly. Harry was in a towing company slash body shop slash storage yard... Condition unknown... Good-bye... Click.

         After many more calls I learned only that whoever was driving Harry was pulled over and arrested in a "kinda dramatic way," whatever that means. I imagined a gun battle in the street, the driver unwilling to give up such a fine car without a fight. I wondered what the guy looked like. I wondered whether Harry was ventilated with bullet holes.

         While I wondered these things I was racking up a storage fee of 25 dollars per day, plus the cost of towing to the shop from the scene of the crime. Having my car stolen was getting really expensive.


         So now I had to figure out how to arrange a one-way trip to Springfield before the storage fees exceeded the value of the car. After much research into trains and buses and such, I lucked into a somewhat cheap flight to Portland, which is two hours north of Springfield.

         Luckily, an old pal from Eugene, which is next to Springfield, was willing to pick me up. Things were finally going my way.

         When Peter and I arrived at the towing company slash body shop slash storage yard, we peered through the fence and saw Harry parked amidst all sorts of mean-looking Monte Carlos, Camaros, and Fairlanes, all primer gray or monkey shit brown or dull Bondo red. He looked terrified, trembling in the center of the yard, standing as far as possible from the other cars. He sat there like a mistakenly arrested debutante in a cell full of seasoned streetwalkers.

         The folks at the towing company slash body shop slash storage yard thought it was pretty amusing that I'd had to come all the way from California. The main mechanic, a plainspoken, considerate guy, shook my hand. He was so dirty I couldn't tell where his arm ended and his shirt began, but he was regular folk and I liked him right away. He had all sorts of recovered vehicles stories. In his opinion, I got off easy.

         We walked out to the yard, our shoes crunching in the broken windshield and oily gravel. Harry looked pretty damn good. No bullet holes. The plates were missing, but otherwise the exterior was fine.

         Inside, though, one could start compiling a personality profile of the perpetrator. Cigarette butts and ash were all over the carpet, and mostly empty beer cans were strewn everywhere. The beer had leaked into the carpet and the seats, soaking the butts. All this had been baking in the Springfield sun for days. The windows were rolled up, and I’m half surprised they didn’t melt from the odor. It smelled bad. Really, really bad. Drive it right into the lake bad.

         In the back of the car, Peter and I used a stick to pick through the thief’s stuff: some clothes; a bag containing wonder bread, peanut butter, and jelly; some cheap tools; and a blanket. The guy at the towing company slash body shop slash storage yard told me that according to state law, I could have anything the perp left in the car.

         I tossed almost everything into the trash, but was excited to find evidence of the identity of the thief, including a baseball cap with an address under the bill, and a high tech watch storing phone numbers, names, and birthdays. It also told me the time in many cities around the globe. It took me a while to figure out how to operate the watch, and I toyed with the idea of calling his friends on their birthdays and telling them their pal was a car thief, but I figured that they already knew. Besides, what if it was a stolen watch?

         Peter decided that the pants might fit him, and that a pair of felon's pants could really round out his wardrobe. Neither of us wanted the remaining six cans of the MeisterBrau twelve-pack or the heavy metal tapes, and so I paid the bill at the counter beneath a huge "no checks" sign and left.

         I followed Peter back to his house with all the windows rolled down. The steering wheel was sticky, the clutch felt funny, and the speakers were blown. At Peter’s house, I pulled out all the floor mats and hosed them down. I wiped all the inside surfaces. It didn’t seem to help. These were baked-in smells.

         The drive home was chilly, since the windows had to be down. After crossing the California border on Highway101, I stopped at the Trees of Mystery tourist trap and poked around the gift shop while giving my nose a break. It was here that I bought the cedar shavings. Cedar is a natural deodorizer, absorbing stinky scents as much as masking them. Though I don't much care for strong smells of any kind, the aroma of cedar seemed superior to what I'd been dealing with for hours, and I tore open the bag and scattered the contents throughout the car.

         The cedar scent was so strong it made me woozy for a while, but with the windows rolled down the lines in the road came back into focus. In the rear-view mirror, I could see bits of shavings float around behind me before being sucked out the windows. I prayed I wouldn't be pulled over, because explaining away a car full of fragrant wood chips would be awkward. Drug smugglers might use such devices to thwart pot-sniffing dogs, and here I was on the road between Arcata and Santa Cruz with no license plates. "Out of the car, hamster boy! Paws on the hood!"

         After I got back home, it was weeks before I could get into the car without lingering odors gagging me. I still had to change the oil and the tires, and I had to give up my fantasies about a different car. But Harry had exhibited a plucky willingness to overcome. We had shared an adventure. We had history. We had a lot more miles to go before we’d be parted again.

A Rocky Relationship

         I’ve tried several times to get rid of Harry, but it’s not so easy. I suspect that I’ve finally got some good car karma and I’d be a fool to mess with it. I bought him at 170,000 miles and he’s now at 245,000. There are a lot of little things that don’t work so well any more, but in terms of being reliable, economical transportation he’s always been right there for me. I can see Harry fifty years in the future, nothing but a metal sled with a small motor in front, starting up each and every day.

         This reliability doesn’t come from my pampering. There has been no pampering. I totally take Harry for granted and do the barest minimum of maintenance. So I catch myself thinking that maybe it’s personal. Maybe Harry just likes me. Ditching him now would be like abandoning a puppy in the woods.

         Actually, I tried that once. A few years after the unscheduled trip to the Northwest, I embarked on a solo road trip up the spine of the Rockies. Just a boy and his car for a month.

         The seats folded in a way that gave me plenty of sleeping room, and the Rockies have plenty of national forests in which to explore and camp. This involved a lot of off-road driving, much of which seemed beyond Harry’s limits until I gave it a try. A lightweight car with front wheel drive can actually do pretty well up there.

         I thought Harry might not be able to make such a rugged trip, so I packed light, expecting to hitchhike home after laying him to rest in Montana. I thought it might be a romantic end to a long and colorful relationship.

         But Harry did great and got me home again, where we led a peaceful life until he got totaled three years ago. 

         I used to think that “totaled” meant a car had structural damage that couldn’t be repaired. I learned otherwise after some hoodlums rampaged through my neighborhood with baseball bats smashing windows on random cars, including mine. It turns out that with an older car, you just need a repair estimate that’s greater than the value of the car.

         This is when I learned that the insurance company and I had very different ideas about what the value of a car was. Harry was in much better shape than the blue book values suggested, and I knew I couldn’t buy as good a car with the settlement amount. They offered Harry back to me for salvage price, and so I bought him again, replaced the glass myself, and ignored the dent in the side where the creeps had kicked him. He got a new set of plates, too, his third set since I’d had him.

         I figured our relationship was really on borrowed time, but I really wasn’t driving all that much anyway, so a few more years passed until the little things really added up and I decided to look into getting some new wheels.

         That little car was having trouble starting, needed an oil change, the front shocks made funny noises, and when I took my foot off the gas he sounded like a stunt plane in a dive. The repairs were likely to exceed the value of the car by a mile. And he wasn’t exactly making the ladies swoon. They wanted to be picked up in something newer and nicer.

         Ironically, some of them would later complain that I have a fear of commitment, but that’s another story.

         Yes it’s stupid, but I felt bad for Harry. After all we’d been through I had hoped he would die of natural causes in his sleep. As it was, it felt like selling him would be like sending an elderly relative to a cheap retirement home. Is this how I reward loyalty? However, I had to draw the line somewhere. And the first step was to do some research into something new. 

         Trying to decide what kind of car to get when you’ve been driving the same thing for so long was tough - trying to balance cost, gas mileage, load capacity, and of course the dick-enhancing qualities of horsepower and all wheel drive was exhausting. I did a lot of research, and took a few test drives. Nothing really stood out.

         Meanwhile, old friends were saying, “My God, you still have Harry?”

         Then we made up. I made him a deal: If I could get him up and running well again for peanuts, we’d stay together until something serious happened. So I put on my overalls and attempted a number of automotive repairs that were way above my head. Miraculously, I was successful, and Harry’s once again willing and able to do my bidding.


         All this sounds like I’ve totally gone over the deep end over a car, but consider a recent survey by the International Carwash Association that 11 percent of the 32 million polled say they love their car more than their significant other. And an on-line survey by Progressive Auto Insurance says that 17 percent of men polled were planning to buy their vehicles a present for Valentine’s Day.

         Considering the sources, these statistics are suspect at best (I heard the International Carwash Association picked Kerry by 12 points). But they do make me feel a little more normal. I wrote much of this story sitting in my car, so every little bit helps. Right Harry? Harry?