Thank you Mr. Petty Car Thief

I took a taxi out to some inaccessible location in the wilds of Northern Virignia recently. At the reception desk I was handed my visitor's badge and a parking pass. I gave it back saying I didn't have a car. (Thanks, but no thanks, I might have said...but I just can't) She looked at me as if I had just beamed down from another dimension. Carlessness just wasn't part of her paradigm.

I wasn’t always car free. My militant pedestrianism was precipitated by outside forces. My car was, how shall we say, liberated from my possession by an unknown thief in Alexandria in the fall of 1983. For years I’ve thought about writing a thank you note to this fellow (pardon my leaping to conclusions, but he probably was a fellow) so that he might know that he inadvertently did some good in what surely has been a pathetic life. Somehow I doubt he’s among my readers, but just in case:

Dear Mr. Petty Thief,

In the fall of 1983 I was living in Alexandria completing my last year of graduate school. I’m not sure when I last saw my car alive, because I drove so rarely. But one morning I needed it to get somewhere. At first, I assumed I had just forgotten where I had parked, but it gradually dawned on me that it was simply gone. Even then I had a hard time uttering the words into the phone to the police: My car has been stolen.

It really hurt, actually, and you should know that. It was the only car I had owned. I had received half of it as a graduation gift from my parents when I finished college; the other half I paid for. Alexandria, oddly, had a high rate of car theft, but I had always assumed that in a town full of BMW’s and Mercedes no one would bother taking my car, a 1971 pale yellow VW Beetle with a sunroof. It was already old when I got it, and I only had for a few years. With a few dents and dings, its ascetic interior and that distinctive lawnmower engine sound, it was a car that only an economically-challenged liberal arts grad stumbling to the end of an architecture degree could love.

But that morning, it was gone. Gone, gone, gone, really gone. The Alexandria police were just as nice as could be. Call your insurance company, they recommended gently, because you’re not likely to get it back. I think they knew you, Mr. Petty Thief, and they also knew their limits. My insurance company immediately offered a loaner car, which was amusing since I obviously had little need for a car. My boyfriend, now husband, and I drove that ridiculous loaner—a Chevette, of all things—all the way to Boston, stopping to visit every major work of architecture on the way: Post-Modern follies in New Jersey, ecumenical Meier in Hartford, sublime Kahn in New Haven and Exeter, and Corbusier in Boston.

It turned out the cops did find the car, or rather the carcass. You had stripped it and left it for dead across the river in the District. Mean. The plates were gone and all the vehicle identification numbers were destroyed...You were a real pro, I’ll give you that. But you forgot one little detail. There on the floor in the back was the business card of a small architecture firm in Alexandria. The police called and asked what surely must have been the strangest question that architect had ever heard: Are you missing a pale yellow 1971 VW bug with a sunroof and a William and Mary sticker in the back window? He asked his staff: any of you missing a pale yellow 1971 VW bug with a sunroof and a William and Mary sticker in the back window? No, but I know someone who is, answered a fellow architecture student.

And so I ended up at the notorious impoundment lot, thinking I would retrieve my car and order would be restored to the world. I would return to worrying about finding a parking space, not finding my car. I hope you brought a flat bed truck, said the cop, because “there’s nothing left but the paint, ma’am.” And that, believe it or not, is a direct quote.

I never went to identify the body, although the opportunity was offered. It just seemed too morbid. I left thinking that once I graduated, got a job, paid off my students loans, basically grew up, then I’d get myself another car...a real car this time, not a college girl’s bug. But, a move into the District, a layoff or two...and those student loans took a long time to pay off...and gradually it dropped way down, and finally off of my to-do list.

So there, you avaricious twerp. Your venal act was a gift in disguise. I leveraged it into an architectural tour of the east coast, a check from my insurance company that equaled what the car had cost 3 years before, a new paradigm for urban living, and one of the most memorable cop quotes this side of Dragnet. You freed me from a close call with auto-dependency. Thanks again. I couldn’t have done it without you!

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