It's 2 a.m. on Tuesday, and the Saguaro Mobile Home Park across from Tiffany's Cabaret on 32nd Street is as likely a venue as any for Whitey the repo man.
Tonight Whitey is looking to nab a blue Pontiac Grand Am, a car whose owner is weeks behind on payments owed to a Van Buren car dealership.
Whitey pulls his tow truck into the court and slowly rolls past a line of somber single-wides. The only evidence of life is a few flickering TV-blue windows and a timid, mangy dog zigzagging the driveway in the truck's headlights.
These flimsy, wheeled homes smack of their occupants' desperation and struggle--the kind of adversity that inevitably invites in guys like Whitey: guys who make a living reminding people of yet another opportunity blown.
And here it occurs to me that perhaps the owner of said blue car wouldn't want Whitey and his big Dodge one-ton tow truck backing up to his car. Who would want his car hauled off? What if the person in the trailer has a gun? And if he does, what will stop him from using it?
"If he's got a gun, it's okay," says Whitey, smiling in a way that clearly shows he digs the adrenalin this gig offers. "I've got a bulletproof vest. And nobody has shot at me yet."
I look down at my chest and see its protection: a Rolling Stones logo on a worn-out tee shirt.
When we arrive at the trailer matching the address on the fax the car dealership sent Whitey, there is no blue Pontiac, no light on inside the trailer and no gun. Oddly, a letdown.
The guy obviously knew someone like Whitey would be coming around eventually.
The car, according to Whitey, is probably ditched a few blocks away, as they commonly are in similar situations. We drive around the court's gravel driveway, then the proximate vicinity, looking behind Dumpsters, bushes, in driveways. Nothing.
For Whitey, an empty call like this is not an exception, it's more the rule. Most nights see little or no action at all, others see plenty.
"It'll show up there, man," he says calmly, heading off to the next pickup. "It'll be there. And I'll get it. Tonight, we will get a repo."
During his three-year roll as a repo man, Whitey--who doesn't carry or own a gun--has stared down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun, been threatened countless times with bodily harm, and has even had women offer up their bodies. It's a job loaded with a kind of Old West vigilante romanticism, and Whitey fits the part: smooth, Botticellian features, long sandy hair, boyish smile.
"I really like to work at night, drive around, see what's going on," he says while easing the truck around 32nd Street onto Van Buren. "Van Buren's my favorite street to drive on. My friends think I'm crazy."
Whitey has been a solo repo man since starting his own company five months ago. Prior to that, he worked for a local repossessing service for two and a half years.
Whitey charges a flat fee of $175 to recover a car.
"My philosophy is, 'Whatever it takes to get the car . . . whatever it takes.' I've gone by a lady's house for two months, twice a day--and other places she was supposed to be--before I got her car. It's just persistence."
Does he harbor any sympathy for those whose cars he repossesses? Any tinges of guilt toward those in dire straits?
"I have sympathy to a point, but I have never given anybody's car back. But the people I'm dealing with, who knows the real story."
Our next stop, somewhere in north Phoenix, yields another empty promise. In this sterile suburban neighborhood crammed with identical houses priced in the $100,000 range, the four-by-four promised Whitey is not waiting for him at the address given. At least it's comforting to know that not every car getting repo'd belongs to someone who is on the proletariat skids.
Currently, in Arizona, anyone can be a repo man. No license (other than a driver's), education or test is required. Job qualification simply requires a bit of chutzpah, a three-quarter-ton or heavier tow truck and some minor investigative skills.
It's a career choice the cops seem to frown upon, like bounty hunting. Repossessing cars is really a kind of "self-help" legal remedy, a civil matter that law enforcement prefers to stay out of. Lenders (banks, car lots carrying their own contracts, finance companies, etc.) hire the repossessors to collect their collateral in order to avoid messy court cases.
"Cops hate repo men. Cops are not really there to assist, like in some of the other states," Whitey says. "It's really just an inconvenience for them. I would never ask a cop to assist me in a repo; that'd be a joke."
But a state Senate bill passed last year makes a repo man's job easier; it says that after a 90-day default, a person must surrender the car to his creditor, or in 30 days be subject to criminal prosecution. A kind of debtor's penance. Another Old West parallel.
"It's a great state, it's the wild, wild West," Whitey says laughing.
"It's crazy. That's why I wear my bulletproof vest."
Next up is a three-story stuccoed apartment or condo thing near 24th Street and Camelback, a '91 blue Lincoln Town Car being the goal. Whitey says he has been hunting this car for a month, a car he discovered on a suspicion.
"I noticed this car once before and went back and took down the info. I researched it, and I found out what finance company it went to. I called them up and asked if they were looking for that vehicle, and they said yes."
The parking lot is filled with polished, newer cars, even a few Mercedeses. Whitey spots the Lincoln right off, sitting in covered parking.
We stop and Whitey jumps out to match the car's vehicle identification number with his records from the finance company. It matches. He backs his truck around to the Lincoln, presses a switch which electrically unloads an elaborate tow and hook setup, and hops back out to go to work.
A rent-a-cop driving a golf cart pulls up and stops. He is wearing a heavily starched uniform, at least one size up from his bodily requirements, and a countenance suggesting self-importance.
It seems we are exactly what he has been waiting for all night--an opportunity to wield some power. Deputy Fife comes to mind.
"I need to see your paperwork," he says, stepping out from his cart.
Whitey gets up and extracts all the correct paperwork from a file in his truck and hands it to the rent-a-cop, including the finance-company authorization form and default notice giving Whitey the right to tow the Lincoln, a copy of the Lincoln's title, and his own ID and business card.
Using his flashlight, the rent-a-cop looks the paperwork over, nodding his head slowly. After carefully examining each piece of paper, he hands them back to Whitey.
"You're gonna hafta let the person know what you're doing; you can't just take that car," says the rent-a-cop. "Or I'm gonna hafta call the PD."
Shaking his head, Whitey goes back to hooking up the car.
"No, it's my job to call the cops," Whitey says. "And I don't have to let these people know anything."
The rent-a-cop is all hopped up now, blurting, "I have to cover my ass. You can't just take this outta my parking lot."
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Turning and moving up some nearby stairwell, the rent-a-cop is off, presumably to inform the car's owner of the repo in progress. He returns less than 30 seconds later and jumps into his golf cart.
"I'm calling the PD. You're not getting out of here," he says before scootering off.
After a ridiculously thorough effort by Whitey, the oversize auto is connected to the tow. We get in the truck and pull out of there. The rent-a-cop is impatiently pressing numbers on a pay phone near the complex's entrance as we pass.
At Camelback we stop, turn left and head east toward sunup, with a Lincoln Town Car in tow.