I was living in the bedroom community of Lawrenceville New Jersey in the 1990s. Lawrenceville is generally a pleasant town sandwiched between the leafy opulence of Princeton and Trenton, the gritty yet historic state capital. It was the early nineties and after living for a number of years in Queens during what came to be known as the Pre Rudy Gulliani Crack and Squeegie epidemic, it was by comparison a suburban oasis void of the constant whirl of sirens , wailing of car alarms and the all too frequent crunching of glass under your feet as you approached the side of your car and realized the passenger window was shattered as were your hopes of driving a car with a stereo inside. I was lulled into a false sense of security safely outside the perimeters of urban chaos.
Trenton however had seen an uptick in crime especially car thefts. However unlike the professional variety one experiences in New York where your stereo or car is fenced to be sold for parts or shipped to some country where it could command money, the thefts in Central New Jersey were mostly done by young teens who would steal a car for a joy ride as a sort of game. Oftentimes they would ditch one car in the spot where they would steal another in an attempt to conduct however many illicit test drives they could before the sun rose on another day.
My car at the time was an Acura. I say this because for some reason, along with Honda’s it was a favorite target of the teen joyriders. I do not know why this is as there are flashier cars as well as faster , more powerful cars and cars more impressive to attract girls. Given that they would be driven only for a few hours I assumed that reliability, a major concern of mine, was not much of a consideration.
It was at 6 a.m on a Sunday that I got the call. This was largely the pre-cell phone era. A monied few had cinderblock sized car phones that required the assistance of three technical experts to install both the phone and the antennae. I was not yet among the crowd that owned one. I say this because at that time if you got a call at 6 a.m asking to speak to a Mr Grossman, the content of the call would be either bad or horrific. When a stranger asked to speak to me by name the only question was how bad would the news be and would it involve bodily injury of death to a loved one or next of kin. When the caller identified himself as a police officer and asked if I was the owner of a Red Acura I felt a sigh of relief. “Yes I told him, it is parked right outside the house”. That is when the officer asked me to check and sure enough it was not there.
It was found he said in an apartment complex a few towns away with the ignition punched out at the site where another car was reported stolen. There were blocks on the petals indicating either that we were dealing with someone with dwarfism but most likely one of the 12-13 year olds in Trenton for whom joy riding had become a popular game. For all the parental concern about “Grand Theft Auto” I can honestly say that I believe the video game to be a more wholesome version than the real life version played by these pint sized hooligans.
After being assured that the car was structurally sound absent the lock and ignition, and that I was not being called because of a serious injury or death , I assured the officer that I would take my wife’s car to collect any personal belongings, survey the damage and get it towed to a service station. I promptly went back to sleep after writing down the address where the car was found.
Sundays were my days to recharge and get caught up on sleep. At the time I was conducting benefit enrollments at hospitals which typically meant keeping very irregular hours to meet with all of the employees. Changing schedules so abruptly, working random combination of a first , second and third shifts, and sometimes two or three in a day, takes its toll and I probably slept till 10 a.m , a good four hours after I had first received the call.
I showered , got dressed and made my way to the recovery site driving my now ex wife’s mini van. Without getting into details I would have a hard time categorizing which “Hammer and Thumb” category to include that story but lets save that for another time.
I drove to the site but saw no car resembling mine. I drove to the police station in Pennington, the neighboring town where the car had been found and asked for the officer who had called earlier that morning. He had finished his shift they said at 7 and a tow truck had been called shortly thereafter to tow the car to an impound lot in Trenton where the car would be held until its rightful owner claimed it. That rightful owner was me.
I suddenly remembered all the things that were in the car. The technology age was just unfolding and the idea of one’s personal contacts, schedule and plans for the week in a notebook sized computer was deemed possible but at that point the province of very few tech savvy elite. I was not among them.
I turned from mild annoyance that my car had been stolen to indignation that the police had towed my car because the thieves that stole it and inconvenienced me had apparently also annoyed the residents of the apartment complex with their rather poor parking skills. My brief journey to arrange the logistics of it getting to a shop and taking care of all the insurance stuff now had another complication. I also realized that I had a weeks worth of appointments written in an organizer (for you young people we used to write stuff down on paper…..yes I know, it seems archaic) and would be unable to figure out where to go without it. There were some insurance forms (this was pre HIPPA legislation) and other momentos but mostly I was logistically worried about my next week of work, specifically where I was supposed to be Monday to begin the week.
After letting the police know I felt victimized again by them towing the car I drove the 20 minutes to the grimy industrial area in which the lot was located. Sure enough there was my car inside the padlocked fence. I parked and knocked on the door of the small trailer sized shack that served as the corporate headquarters for the acres of wrecks, and cars in various states of disrepair that made up their inventory. No answer. I wrote down the name of the business and after getting a listing from directory assistance called it from a payphone. I received a message that their “office” was closed and would reopen at 8 am on Monday. I knew I had to be in the Vineland area on Monday but could not for the life of me remember with whom, other than it was important and it was a joint call with a coworker whose information was housed in the book I hope was in the trunk. The trip would require me to be on the road a full hour before the junkyard opened.
All that separated me from my car and the contents inside was a chain link fence with some barbed wire. I had seen Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” and William Holden in “Stalag 17” It seemed perfectly logical to attempt to break in to at least collect my belongings. I had explained to the officer that I needed to retrieve the contents from the car during the early morning call and I was a bit miffed that a shift change and protocol hadn’t allowed them to keep the car where it was. I was after all the victim of a crime not the perpetrator.
Like most Minivans the roof was taller than that of the coupe I regularly drove and which was most recently taken for a spin by vandals barely old enough to reach the petals. If I backed the car up to the fence until it was likely my legs could clear the top of the fence and barbed wire and I could easily climb down and retrieve my things. I hadn’t given nearly as much thought on getting out but figured that a survey of the premises from inside would reveal either a spot to crawl under or that I could somehow manage to climb over even with the lower roof level of my own car.
I backed the minivan to the fence so that the rear hatch abutted the fence. Much as I had calculated the roof was just a few feet below the top of the fence. It appeared that gingerly navigating the barbed wire would not require circus like agility. I climbed on the roof and threw a blanket over the portion of barbed wire I had hoped to cross and inserted the tip of my sneaker into a link of the fence and descended to the other side. The barbed wire was somewhat more pesky than I had hoped as I tore my jeans a bit and scratched my forearm but basically the plan was working.
I jumped from where my foot was perched perhaps six feet and made my wobbly landing. It was not Olga Korbut worthy as I needed my hands to break my fall but I emerged intact with no sprains. I walked to the car to inspect the damage which seemed confined to the lock and ignition with a measure of satisfaction that I had overcome an obstacle on my way to retrieving my belongings. I opened the trunk and sure enough my briefcase was there with my organizer , address book and everything I needed to conduct business. The inside of the car was a treasure trove for a detective if only they had interest in locking up 12 year olds. There were junk food wrappers from the kind of sugary sweets that a grandmother intent on making the kids hyper for mom would buy. There were time stamped receipts from convenience stores where they stocked up on food for their joyride. The blocks of wood laid on the drivers side floor board just as was explained to me. These were mere toddlers. When I asked what the odds were of finding the perpetrators (I actually used that word figuring I might get a little chummy and get favored treatment using police lingo). Nothing would happen to the kids if they were caught. They were too young to be tried and while a huge nuisance to me, it was low priority for the police to solve the crime. What was apparently higher priority was towing my recovered car so as not to create an eyesore for the residents of the apartment complex from which it was jettisoned.
I tried to look for other telltale signs. They actually left floor mats for a Honda, perhaps the car they used to joy ride before mine. They had selectively taken just a few of my cassette tapes. My tastes were perhaps a bit eclectic for the temporary occupants of the car.
I really was relieved that I could reconstruct my schedule and by either borrowing my wife’s car or renting one that I could go about my business as usual . Those thoughts were rudely interrupted when I heard barking of the most menacing kind and saw a pack of Dobermans running towards the car. I shut the door in time as they bared their teeth from outside the window. I could do nothing except listen and look as I gave thanks that they hadn’t arrived earlier when I was inspecting the trunk , my head fully ensconced inside baring legs and my posterior as inviting targets for their vice like jaws.
I could only relax (as much as one could when there are junkyard dogs growling at you from the other side of a plate of glass. After what seemed like hours the dogs retreated and seemed to run off in the direction of their little doggy hut which provided some protection from the late autumn chill. This was to be my make or break moment or I would need to sleep in my vehicle until morning. I noticed the several NO TRESSPASSING signs clearly visible. Hours earlier I hadn’t thought of myself as trespassing given that I had been trespassed upon by teen car theives while fast asleep.
There was a heightened sense of urgency as I climbed onto the roof as I thought I heard dogs in the distance as I climbed up first on the hood of my car and then onto its roof. It briefly dawned on my that I might damage my car more in attempting to use it as a step ladder than it incurred when being joy ridden. That thought quickly turned to terror as it appeared as if there were dogs charging towards me. After throwing the contents of my briefcase over the fence , I inserted a foot into a link in the fence and steadied myself by hand on the post closest to the blanked I attempted a Fosberry Flop over the blanket figuring the ground 8 feet below could harm me less than two Dobermans For those of you who knew as little about pole vaulting as me at the time this technique basically involved falling backwards over the bar but in the Olympics as far as I knew at the time the bar contained no barbed wire. . My Lower leg caught the barbed wire as did one forearm. While rolling over the blanket I tore a nasty gash in my back but was determined to flop to the ground. realizing that landing on the roof of my now ex wife’s car would create a different set of problems that I also wished to avoid. The first of those being additional car repairs and the second being explaining the logic or absence thereof that caused me to break into a junkyard.
I fell to the rocky soil below. The hand that initially broke the fall hit a rock which hurt like a sonofabitch at the time but caused no real damage. My shirt was torn up as were my pants and there were gashes. One on the side of my face, my arms, legs, and back. I was proud however that there were no bite marks anywhere on my body and I could still walk erect and if called upon procreate.
I got in the minivan and drove home. From the upper level of the house I heard the words I longed for. “The owner of a junkyard called and said you were trespassing on his property. Someone saw you climbing a fence and called him and you left him a message on his machine earlier saying you needed to get inside to retrieve something from your car. He described what you were wearing and I told him yep that was you. What kind of idiot does that?”
I wanted to say “the kind of idiot that marries you” but thought better of it. “The kind of idiot you chose to marry” was how it came out. I pondered how I would return the call and what I would say. I was after all going to show up to an important appointment with scratches on my face and hands, was wearing tattered bloodied clothes all to avoid looking inept at work for not knowing where I was going. I thought about the absurdity of the situation. The 12-13 year olds that stole my car were not worth prosecuting. The 30 something who tried to retrieve his belongings from the car they stole was a criminal because the police couldn’t wait a few more hours to tow my recovered stolen car.
A calm came over me, not unlike George Costanza when he trudged into the sea to help a stranded whale because not doing so would reveal that he was not the Marine Biologist he purported to be. I was not a criminal but a victim of crime and I would not let the tables turn on me. I may be bloody, tattered and may have cheated the incisors of junkyard dogs after a dumb plan was proven to be even dumber but I was not on the wrong side of the law.
I called the number. He answered in a smarmy voice indicating I had trespassed on his property and he intended to press charges. I let loose a torrent of frustration and unrehearsed rant that ended with “if you want to get in front of the court and explain why after I instructed the police to leave my car where it was and was told that I could retrieve my belongings after my car was vandalized by youths that I was told are too young to prosecute. If you want to charge me with breaking and entering to open the trunk and doors of my own recovered stolen car than you be my guest.”
He calmed down and said something akin to “just don’t do that again”. I assured him I had learned my lesson, that after the scrapes and bruises and a brush with his junkyard dogs I had no intention of trespassing on his property ever again.
I picked out some clothes to change into, and headed to the bathroom to take a shower marveling how the scratch marks on my body resembled Chinese Characters and that if I looked them up it might provide some apt word or phrase that would impart meaning to what happened. As I felt the hot waters stinging bite on the fresh wounds I thought “No, pearls of wisdom, just stupidity”