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Grand theft auto times 3

Times Staff Writer

My car has been stolen.

Again.

Normally, this big-city newspaper would not follow the travails of a lone Angeleno who had his car taken from his own block.

The same is true for a car stolen twice -- that’s more of a coincidence than a news story.

But as of three weeks ago, my 1989 Toyota Camry has been taken three times in six years. And because three is a go-to device in any journalistic tale, I am now a man with a story, a roving reporter who finally found a use for those leftover bus tokens.

The Los Angeles Police Department received more than 23,000 reports of stolen cars last year, cases handled largely out of the public eye. Those crime victims typically dealt with their misfortune by contacting the police, then the insurance agent, then the rental car company, and then -- if the car wasn’t recovered -- some lucky auto dealer.

The only thing is, my car keeps coming back. And the third time around, I’ve become a bit slack about the whole routine. I don’t bother with a rental car. Although I call the police immediately, I wait a few days with the insurance company. Why stress them out? To them, I am just the Boy Who Cried Theft.

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The car I bought eight years ago would fetch $1,500 on a good day, according to the Kelly Blue Book. It had piles of notebooks and newspapers on the seats. Until recently, it was known for the piece of metal that dangled from the passenger side.

My mother, upon learning of the latest theft, sums up the car’s worth by asking in a slightly panicked tone: “Did you leave anything valuable inside?”

And yet, the less appealing the Camry is to my friends and family, the more alluring it has become to would-be thieves.

With my car gone yet again, I play the waiting game. I call the police periodically to see if it has been found. I reacquaint myself with buses, and the obnoxious ads for retractable awnings and Farmer John meat products that blare from the onboard televisions.

When I return home each night, I foolishly scan the street for my missing car, as though it were a now-repentant border collie that had run off during a walk.

I wonder if this time my car is gone for good.

I get some helpful information during one of my calls to the LAPD’s Northeast Division, where an officer points out that Camrys from the late 1980s were “made to be stolen.” This, it turns out, is an understatement.

Almost any key, if shaved properly, will turn the lock of a 1989 Camry, law enforcement experts tell me. By now, the lock on my car is so abused and misshapen that an errant tree branch might do the trick.

In fact, if you Google the words “1989 Camry” and “frequently stolen,” the first website that turns up identifies it as the “most frequently stolen car of 2000.” By 2004, it had fallen to No. 2. Should I be relieved, or are there just a lot of Camrys that were never recovered and are therefore no longer around to steal?

LAPD Officer Gonzalez, who tells me his badge number but not his first name, gives me reason to hope. “They’ll just drive it around till it runs out of gas, then they’ll dump it,” he says.

I know this to be the case. The first time my car was taken I had parked it curbside on 2nd Street downtown, not far from the Department of Building and Safety, where I was doing some research. At the time, that darkened parking spot under the 110 Freeway seemed much less expensive than a parking garage.

Three weeks later, the car turned up in an industrial section of downtown, a parking ticket slapped on its windshield. On top of the $200 impound fee, I had to replace the ignition.

The second time, I had parked it on the street a couple of doors away from my home in Echo Park. Within 24 hours of the theft, police said, it had been dumped in a parking lot a block away. A towing company had hauled it to their yard in Little Tokyo.

When I went to recover it, I encountered snarling dogs at the gate and a corrugated aluminum fence lined with concertina wire. I felt uncomfortable when the owner told me he would shave several bucks off the impound fee if I gave him cash. Still, it was nighttime, and I wanted my car before he added another day’s billing to the total. I paid in twenties.

The third time also happened on my street. As I searched for it on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I started to wonder what the deal is between me and my cars.

My previous car, which I had been planning to sell after I bought the Camry, was parked at a service station when it was caught in a gang crossfire. When the shooters were done with my 1987 Nissan Sentra, it had a shattered back windshield and bullet holes in the doors.

I told the service station employee to keep it.

When your car has been stolen three times, people frequently don’t know what to say. Disbelief is a typical response, followed by laughter. One friend cackled when I gave her the news, scrunching up her face in a Tori Spelling-circa-"90210" kind of way, as if to say: “Is there something wrong with you?”

So you can imagine the response I get when I inform those same people -- more than a week later -- that it’s back, yet again.

The 1989 Camry turned up in East Los Angeles, I am told, not far from Olympic Boulevard. At a towing yard on Indiana Avenue, my car is jump-started and brought back to life.

The vehicle, once again mine, is disturbingly tidy. No coffee cups in the front or back seats. No notebooks, no debris.

When I open the trunk, I find things that don’t belong to me. Boxes of highlighter pens and ink cartridges, and a DVD copy of “Bruce Almighty,” the cinematic equivalent of a 1989 Camry -- something no thief wants for very long.

The man on the phone at the LAPD’s Northeast Station says to just toss it all if I don’t want it.

Sitting in the tow yard’s office, I pay the $260 impound fee. Once my insurance company reimburses me, this adventure should cost me $150.

The photographer who captures this vaguely humiliating moment thinks I’m crazy for even wanting the car back. At my office, one editor suggests that I might somehow bear some responsibility for the whole incident.

I am not prepared just yet to take the rap for the theft of my own car. But I will grant that by living in Los Angeles, and in Echo Park in particular, I have taken a series of calculated risks.

When I arrived in 1996, Echo Park had a reputation as a hub of gang activity, an image cemented by “Mi Vida Loca,” a movie shot a block from my house that chronicled a group of ne’er-do-well Echo Park girl gang members.

Despite the neighborhood’s flaws, I found many good friends and many reasons to stay. And in the intervening years, Echo Park transformed itself from a place no one would visit to an uber-hip destination with boutiques and nightclubs.

Throughout this metamorphosis, I never thought crime would disappear. Still, I also did not expect that in one short decade I would see crime touch so many people I know in so many ways.

The crimes are small, like the graffiti I have personally painted out. And they are large: the 15-year-old boy shot to death a few blocks from the Echo Park home of Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti.

I remember the 9-year-old girl killed in her home in nearby Angelino Heights and the candlelight vigil that followed. I recently took a walk on the street where a 13-year-old was gunned down a week later.

From my kitchen window, I can see a stretch of sidewalk where a man was shot to death two years ago. On the day of that shooting, women from a nearby hair salon ran down the street, bringing towels to soak up the blood.

I think of my loved ones, and I know the theft of an 18-year-old car is frivolous by comparison.

So I respond to the latest urban indignity with all the usual urban survival rituals: knocking on wood, sending up a prayer, whistling in the dark. I am happy, once again, that a car is only a car.

--

david.zahniser@latimes.com


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