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WHEELS OF MISFORTUNETWICE-STOLED TALES OF GRAND THEFT AUTO

I fell in love with the car the first time I saw it, and would have bought it even if it hadn't run. It was a 1986 Chevy El Camino, a workingman's Cadillac, a car good only for passing other vehicles and looking cool in, a vehicle, in all other respects, of complete and utter impracticality.

That's why I loved it. Its big V-8 got terrible mileage. It was uncomfortable to sit in, and murder on your lower back on long trips. Tall passengers had their legs squashed because it had a bench seat, and I'm short. Its bed was so low, you couldn't haul anything in it, and there were no brackets with which to tie anything down. It didn't drain, either--after a rainstorm, the bed looked like a swimming pool. And the El Camino's rear end was so light, it spun its wheels on gravel, in the rain, anywhere but on flat, dry pavement.

It was totally useless. In other words, it was a work of art.
I bought it one day two years ago when I was living in Florida. The eminently practical Volkswagen diesel truck I had been driving for seven years and 90,000 miles ripped its third clutch cable and all of my patience on a dirt road in the cattle country near Lake Okeechobee. I had just put a new radiator in it, as well as many hundreds of dollars' worth of fuel filters, alternators, belts, fans, hoses, bells and whistles, and it had left me stranded one too many times. "That's it," I said. "Tomorrow I'm buying a new car."

The El Camino was the first American car I had ever owned. It was the first car with air conditioning, cruise control and a radio with "scan" and "search" buttons I had ever called my own. The boys who rolled my groceries out to it stood in awe. When I pulled up for an interview in front of the home of a Florida redneck, I got respect.

As soon as I moved to Phoenix last fall, it was stolen.
It would have been unusual if it weren't. I have since learned that car theft is the most popular leisure-time activity for a large segment of the population in the Valley of the Sun. Phoenix's car theft problem is getting worse faster than any other place in the country. More than 12,700 vehicles were stolen here last year, almost twice as many as in 1988.

I was just one more case rolling down the assembly line. The experience taught me a lot. All of it was bad.

I would love to have a videotape of myself going out to the carport next to my apartment building, 8:30 a.m. one Monday in early December. I know I did a double take. I think I may have even rubbed my eyes. Then I walked back into my apartment and cried.

Then I called the police.
Then I cried again.
The police bureaucracy is a fabulous animal. It is staffed entirely by human beings who have no first names, who insist on being addressed as "officer," and who speak in the flat, effectless tone usually associated with severe forms of mental illness. You will not enjoy discussing the disappearance of your vehicle with these people.

And it will not take long to ascertain the painful truth: The police have not the slightest interest in recovering your vehicle. If they do recover it, it is by accident. And you will wish they hadn't. You will wish, fervently, that your car had found a good home somewhere in Sonora, with someone who would wash it every Sunday.

Alas, two days after I talked to a policewoman with no first name, my phone rang. It was 5:45 in the morning. It was dark out. Needless to say, I was asleep. "You have to claim it within a half-hour or it will be towed to a police impound yard," the voice on the phone said. My neighbor at the time, luckily, was a waitress who went to work at 6:30 a.m. I rushed down to her apartment, shrieking, "They've found my car!" She was just exiting the shower. Together we dashed down to the corner of Roosevelt and 12th Street, where my poor baby was sitting in the middle of a lawn, his face in a large bush.

"Oh, my God!" I wailed, jumping out of Vicky's van. "Oh, my God!" Two of his four headlights were missing, like eyes gouged out, and his left front end was crumpled in, like a face that had taken a wicked punch. Parts of his steering column were hanging loose. A tire was flat. For some reason, his spare was on another wheel. He looked like hell. Bizarrely, he was still running.

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Anna Dooling