It was a hot morning in July of 1980. It wasn't so much that the temperature was already oppressive, it was that you could feel the sidewalk heating up and the humidity tumbling down, warm and wet, even at 6 AM. I had been writing all night at my uptown office, a not infrequent activity of mine. I was working on yet another dull article for an even duller Law Journal. At that time I kept two offices—one downtown at the law school and another on 54th between Second and Third, three blocks from my apartment. I had two offices principally so that I could always have my secretary tell people that irrespective of where I actually was, I was traveling between the two of them; this had proven to be an excellent way of avoiding useless phone calls.
The fact that my uptown office was only three blocks from my apartment did not stop me from driving between the two. For a guy who lived in Manhattan I had certain oddly suburban habits. I always kept two cars, and assuming that parking hassles could be avoided, I generally drove to wherever it was that I was going. On that particular muggy morning I stopped at my favorite local deli on the corner of 54th and First. I needed to pick up a quart of milk for my coffee and my girlfriend's cat, which, like she did, lived with me. At 6 AM on a summer Saturday morning, residential neighborhoods of New York City look strangely like a bad movie’s depiction of a city in the aftermath of a neutron bomb attack. There was not a human being on the street. As I got out of my car I was struck by the utter desolation of First Avenue; no people, no cars, couldn't even see a stray cat or rat. I went inside the deli and immediately detected luscious odors wafting from the kitchen in the back. I chatted a bit with Ronnie the counterman, got the milk, a fresh stuffed green pepper and a Cadbury fruit and nut bar—couldn’t resist— and then left. I was in that deli no more than 90 seconds. In keeping with yet another suburbia-style habit of mind, I had left the car running with the keys in it. I was the kind of guy, in fact, that really never locked anything—my front door was always unlocked, as was my office door, as was my car when it was parked on the street; up until that day, I never had a problem.
When I came out of the deli, the car was gone. I was, for a moment, in a state of shock. It wasn't quite like the abbreviated version of the five stages of grief, but only because I didn’t get depressed (never do). Two things puzzled me most: first, I was really quite used to having good luck in almost every situation, especially when it came to car karma, and thus was struck by the bad luck of having a car stolen in such unlikely circumstances; second, I could not figure out who the hell could have been around to actually take the damn thing. I knew with the certainty of a born-again that no one could have gotten to that car within 90 seconds of my walking into that deli if they were on foot. Therefore the only possibility was that a car with at least two thieves in it had driven by at precisely the right moment, then the occupants somehow noticed that the car was running, and then they did what came naturally to them, serendipitously. Creeeeepy!
On the other hand, it wasn't such a big deal. At the time I had a copper-colored ‘76 Porsche 911S, and a mucous yellow 1978 Oldsmobile which had been left to me by an apparently colorblind uncle of mine. Since they took the Oldsmobile, and I was insured, I thought perhaps they had done me a favor. I’m a glass- 90%- full kind of guy. From the phone booth on the corner (remember those?) I called the cops, and very quickly two central casting nice guy cops showed up and sleepily took down my report. By the time I got home I had more or less forgotten about the whole thing, woke up my girlfriend, fed the cat, and got into the Porsche to head to Southampton for the rest of the weekend.
On the following Monday, I called my insurance company and filed a claim. I considered the matter closed at that point, except for getting a reimbursement check at some point in the hopefully not too distant future. Over the course of the next three weeks, the only way that the incident made an appearance in my mind was that every time I left the Porsche unlocked or running with the keys in it, I recall that the nice guy cops had thought that I was an idiot for doing what I did, and told me so.
Three weeks and one day after that fateful stop at the deli I had forsaken the Hamptons in favor of a brunch downtown with some old friends. It was a nice summer Sunday, not too hot, sunny enough, and lazy all around town. Coming back uptown toward the apartment, I stopped at a light at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 11th St. In front of me at that red light was my unlamented and no longer lost 1978 Oldsmobile. There were two guys in the front seat, also from central casting, for greasy junior mobster types—right out of "Mean Streets". The car still had my plates on it, and was very very dirty.
At that moment, I began to experience a sense of overwhelming jubilation and excitement. It was sort of like winning the lotto, except I was sure that the odds were longer. Even in the short space of that Manhattan red light, I started to chuckle, almost uncontrollably. Luckily, I was still able to think clearly, and I was certain that those guys could not have seen me on that Saturday morning. I knew that that street was absolutely empty when I walked into the deli. Therefore, I had an enormous advantage: I knew who they were, but they could not have known who I was! Of course, when the light went green I followed them. I was looking for a cop—wasn't I? Or, was I looking for an opportunity?
In any case, they were just driving around lower Manhattan, apparently aimlessly. After awhile, as I gained confidence, I would pull next to them at a red light. Without appearing obvious, I think, I was studying them and burning complete descriptions, right down to the forearm tattoo of the passenger, into my brain. After I followed them for about 15 minutes, the driver dropped off the passenger at a seedy walk-up between First and Second on 11th St. Of course I dutifully noted the address and stuck to the driver as he proceeded west. All the while I was experiencing thoughts out of Raymond Chandler. I was Philip Marlowe on assignment and getting the better of dangerous criminals. I was about to rescue that damsel in distress. I was invincible.
And then, at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 15th St., the "perp" pulled over on the right. He got out of the car, crossed in front of it, and proceeded to make a call from a phone booth. At that point, the jubilation became more like exhilaration. That phone booth was a burning bush, and I felt that the hand of God was working magic in my favor. Consistent with the mystical nature of the day, at that very moment a parking space opened up about 50 yards north of the phone booth. My car karma was back! I zipped my diminutive Porsche into the large space, got out of the car, and as nonchalantly as possible I headed south.
I purposely walked in the street on the outside of the parked cars and avoided the sidewalk. I did my best to saunter, but I’m still not sure why. The street was crowded and Union Square was overflowing with happy people, so I figured that the stupid grin I couldn’t get off my face wouldn’t attract attention. Of course, being in New York City, nobody would give a damn anyway. When I got past the ice cream truck and the roasted nut guy (without stopping!) and finally made it to the Oldsmobile I could see that it was, indeed, running with the keys in it. I could also see that while the driver's side door was open, the passenger side door—closest to the phone booth—was locked. No power locks in that car. Still grinning, I opened the door making certain that the greaser at the phone booth saw me; after all, I was invincible. I blew him a kiss, jumped in the car, and drove north on Fourth Avenue. At that point I started laughing so hard that I could hardly breathe; a condition which persisted for a solid half hour.
To my utter astonishment, the guy started chasing me down the street! Appearing reassuringly small in my rearview mirror, he was gesticulating wildly, yelling "stop thief!!!" Of course, all I had to do to elude him was run a light or two, which I did. When I was safely out of the neighborhood, I pulled over and just laughed. I laughed for 20 minutes. I could do nothing but laugh—I couldn't think, I couldn't talk, I could only laugh. Finally, I caught my breath and started to think. Why the hell did that two-bit felon chase me? What was he thinking? It slowly dawned on me that he must've left something in the car that he needed. I started to look around, and for the first time noticed that there were about 7000 more miles on the car than there were before. I then searched the car thoroughly and I found: his address book on the floor in front of the passenger seat; an unloaded revolver under the driver's seat; a few stolen credit cards and a large bunch of other people's checks in the glove box; and a suitcase full of clothes in the trunk. There was also a pair of sneakers in the trunk that fit me—of course I kept them, and I still have them. There was one more thing in that suitcase—a plastic sandwich bag with a glistening white powder inside. It was cocaine of course, about 2 ounces worth.
I started laughing again.
After a while, I called the cops from yet another phone booth. At first, and for about 10 minutes, they didn't believe me—who would? But I remembered the badge numbers of the cops to whom I had made the report, so finally the guy I was talking to believed me. He told me to go to the precinct on 21st between Second and Third to make a report. Feeling that some celebration was in order, I went first to the Gem Spa on Second Avenue at Eighth Street to get myself a hot dog and a large chocolate egg cream. In those days, the Gem Spa made Egg creams that were the fountain equivalent of a ’61 Lafite, and there was a great Hebrew National hot dog vendor (grilled, not boiled) in front. The Gem Spa was and is across the avenue from the Orpheum theatre, where later that year I would produce a bomb of a play, and thereby meet my first wife. But that’s another very long story. Anyway, by the time I got to the precinct it was clear that I was regarded as some sort of new urban hero. The cop I had spoken with had called the Daily News, and there was a reporter awaiting my arrival. Huge heavily armed cops, looking something like the banditos in "the treasure of the Sierra Madre" were slapping me on the back saying things like "great work kid" and "did you punch the guy out?"
I spent the next few minutes yukking it up with the cops and the reporter and telling my story. After the reporter left, I told the desk sergeant that there was a whole bunch of stuff in the car that wasn't mine. In keeping with an attitude that I always felt made the NYPD great, the Sergeant handed me a cardboard box and said "put the stuff in here, kid". I was more than a little amazed by this, but I figured that he figured that since I was a hero, I would obey his orders faithfully. I went back out to the car, and took the suitcase. I put the checks, the credit cards, the address book and the gun into the box. I left the sneakers in the trunk. I put the cocaine in my pocket.
I then spent the next 20 minutes making a formal report in a New York City police station with 2 ounces of cocaine in my pocket. I guess I just forgot to put it in the box.
When I got home I was in the mood for some more celebratory behavior (between chuckles) with my girlfriend, but she was in the mood to worry about retribution from the thieves and their imagined band of omniscient desperados. I assured her that the daily news reporter had promised not to use my name in the article he would write, and therefore I could see no risk; so let’s relax….But like so many other of my sexual stratagems, that didn't work, so we called our friends Nick and Anne, whose tastes unlike ours went to white powders. They came right over and we had a very pleasant evening which involved lots of laughing, lots of stimulants, and more stuffed peppers ordered up from the deli.
The next day came quickly, and I actually was on time to teach my 9 AM contracts class, which the Dean had assigned me as a form of punishment. He knew me well enough to know that there was not much I was capable of at 9 AM; but happily one of those few things that I could do at that hour was teach. Sure enough, the daily news contained a good-sized article about the incident inside the front cover, claiming that exhaustive research could not find another case of a man stealing back his own car—ever, anywhere. And in this, my first exposure to real New York media, I found that the article was accurate and that the reporter had kept his word, as my name was not mentioned. He did however mention that the protagonist was a twenty-something law professor, and that the car was a 1978 beige Oldsmobile. He must've been colorblind too. I then discovered that several of my students were also colorblind, as many of them approached me to say "hey don't you drive a beige 1978 Oldsmobile?". Truth is, I was quite pleased to admit that I was the guy who had pulled off that stunt. It made me feel like the irresistible man of danger type—Rick Blaine in "Casablanca". I felt like donning a white dinner jacket and lighting up a cigarette. My students, always seeking to avoid talking about class-work, spread the word about that Sunday incident instead, so that by noon the entire school knew about it. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but it sure seemed to me as if the female population of the school regarded me in a slightly different—and better—way than they had the week before.
The next day I was interviewed by the National Law Journal, the chatty publication about law schools and lawyers, who took a picture of me and the car and published a full-page story the following week. By that time, my girlfriend's fears notwithstanding, I had become quite starry eyed and really wanted my name associated with the event. Also, on Tuesday, the holy New York Times wrote a small story (without my name, dammit) about it in the local news section, and the Daily News did a small editorial. It was only one paragraph but it started "we don't know if it was legal, but we certainly applaud the actions of the law professor who last Sunday took the law into his own hands. He stole his car back from the thieves who had stolen it from him. His attitude and actions are a lesson for us all—in this city we must all be enforcers of the law." Naturally, over the next week or two, I got calls from some right wing groups wanting me to make speeches about vigilantism.
My 15 minutes of fame actually lasted about two weeks. After the hubbub caused by the Daily News and the National Law Journal, people—including me—generally forgot about it. In fact, a month after the event my only reminder of it was a call from my friend Nick, who had enjoyed with his wife the contents of that sandwich bag, telling me that they had finished it and it was wonderful stuff.
But then I got a call. It was from a guy who worked in the fraud department at Mobil. He sternly explained to me that several hundred dollars worth of gas and merchandise had been charged on a stolen Mobil credit card used by someone driving a light yellow (closer, anyway) 1978 Oldsmobile with plates registered to me. Before he started really threatening me, I told him the whole story. He of course didn't believe most of it, but when I gave him the NYPD case number for grand theft auto, he became less suspicious, gave me his address and phone number, and asked me to send him a copy of the police report. I put it in the mail that day, along with a copy of the Daily News article.
I thought nothing of it at the time, but a few days later I started to ponder it. I called the guy back and asked him if he had received the police report. He was friendly this time and told me that he had received it, and apologized for accusing me. He also asked me in awe (I loved it of course) how I had managed to do it. I told him this story in great detail and then asked for a favor: would he send me the records relating to the usage of that stolen credit card and my car? He said "sure, but why do you want them?" I replied that it was just idle curiosity and that I was not seeking to take any action, and he told me that he'd get them in the mail right away.
A few days later a thick package showed up; there were more than 40 separate charges on that one card. As I opened the package, I started to feel just a smidgen of that same jubilation—I was about to find out where the thieves had been. Excitedly, but carefully and thoroughly, I examined each receipt. I discovered that within a few hours of the theft gas had been bought at a station off the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Allentown. Some days later in Phoenix Arizona, a new tire had been purchased and installed. There were a bunch of charges in and around Phoenix, but the most interesting charge had come, according to the scrawl of a gas station attendant, at noon on the day of our second rendezvous. A full tank of regular had been purchased at the Vince Lombardi service area off the New Jersey Turnpike.
I realized at that moment that if the walk through this particular looking glass had not already been strange enough, it had become positively macabre. From the receipts I could ascertain that I was pretty much the last person they had run into before they left town, and the very first person they ran into when they got back into town, after having been gone for 3 weeks.
I was brought up a Catholic, baptized and confirmed, even a member of the choir and an altar boy. My parents, however, had stopped going to mass every Sunday before I was born. In fact, the only time they showed up in church was for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. They always wrote a check for the year and put it in the collection box at that mass, as a way, I always thought, of hedging their bet. I myself had lapsed by the time I was 14, and generally thought of myself as a sophisticated agnostic, whenever I thought about such things at all—which was quite rare. But I knew that there was no such thing as an atheist on a deathbed and I assumed that I would be no exception.
When I looked through those receipts, I had the stereo tuned to a rock station. After I had reconstructed the path of the thieves, and was just sitting there thinking, the DJ played Led Zeppelin’s "Stairway to Heaven"………….. and it made me wonder.