Jul 14, 1999 at 12:00 am

by Paul L. Bancel

I felt a rush of chill air as I opened the door and stepped up onto the silver running board. The Expedition was one of the behemoth SUVs. It was August. The air conditioner was blasting. I crunched my long legs under the dash and wedged myself behind the leather steering wheel. No time to fumble with the seat button. Quickly adjusting the rear view mirror, I pulled away from the curb and into the flow of traffic. It was like valet parking. "Your car, sir." I was just taking advantage.

I punched the V-8 and surveyed the mirrors. It was only 15 miles to the barn behind my house. A month later I’d drive it to Toledo, make the connection and it would disappear. Fifteen miles and 25 minutes, that’s all I needed.

Darlene spotted the Ford about three weeks ago. "It looks like a giant catfish with a silver underbite," she said. "A Cherokee’s got that frozen grin. All teeth. The Expedition’s got the fish look."

Darlene works in the nail parlor next to the 7-11. It’s got one of those tricked-up names. "Clip and Snip" or "Cut and Curl." I can’t ever remember which one.

From her work station she can see the parking lot through the poster-painted announcements on the window. The Expedition was always parked right between the gap in "Special Every Thursday" and "$20." At 5 o’clock every day, a diminutive bottled blonde in tight jeans and a western blouse with ruffles would park her big red Expedition and run into the 7-11 to buy a pack of cigarettes. It took her two minutes. She always left the motor running.

Darlene and I were a team back in the ’80s. She still remembers. She drops by occasionally when she gets off work, and we put some sweet corn and burgers on the grill and start drinking. She likes those little Jack Daniels shooters. It isn’t long before she’s whispering in my ear, "I still got connections." One night she mentioned the Expedition.

"This car is begging for it. It will be as easy as the old days."

She had a point. Twenty years and 30 pounds ago I could smash and dash in 60 seconds. A coat hanger, pliers, a screwdriver. In 1976 I hot-wired a Cadillac in 20 seconds. A big screwdriver jammed in the locks, a couple of snips and twists and those cylinders were turning over. But that was yesterday.

Today everything’s interlocked and alarmed. A car has more computer chips than a space capsule, and it’s fucking dangerous too. Last summer Tony Gazardo tried a Lexus, the one with side air bags. He didn’t know about the air bags. Slid his flat steel "Slim Jim" down between the window and the door, and like a safecracker he put his ear against the glass. He was good. A couple of thrusts. He’d trip the latch and he’d be in, not this time. Bam! He set off the air bag. They’re full of rocket fuel. That steel rod skewered Tony in the chin like a shishkebab.

The business has changed. So have the penalties. In ’90 Darlene and I played the lost key routine at Disney World in Orlando. I’d read the vehicle ID through the windshield, and Darlene would call the dealer to get a key made.

"Our vacation will be ruined. (sob) We have to leave tomorrow. (more sobbing) We came all this way from Michigan."

We worked it four times in two weeks. She was a great desperate tourist, but times have gotten tougher. The old routines are played out, and I have two strikes on the record. We hadn’t stolen a car in three years.

Since the motor was running on the big Expedition I didn’t even have to turn the key. I hate that sound today, the doors locking automatically when you turn the key. It’s like that at Joliet, cell block nine, third tier. All the dead bolts electronically slamming in place at the same time, every day, every night. The sound echoed off the concrete and steel, a daily reminder of the confinement. Now every time I turn the key in a new car I hear it, that metallic staccato. I flinch and remember.

I can tolerate all of a car’s sounds except that one. The engine, the windshield wipers, the turn signals, the heater, the air conditioner, the automatic aerial. The ding-ding Alzheimer’s reminder to turn off the turn signals. There must be 20 different sounds in a car. The automatic seat, the mirrors. All those little motors working away like bees. They don’t bother me. It’s just that locking sound. A sledge hammer on a metal stake.

Stealing the Expedition went quickly. Darlene called me on the cell phone, I hustled around the building, got in and drove off. The blonde went nuts when she came out. First she lit a Salem and then stormed the nail parlor, "Call 911! Call 911!" The cops stopped taking notes when they found out the motor was running.

A cop takes notice when a car has been jacked with a gun. A few years ago a husband and wife worked the want ads in the West. They’d find a big Mercedes in the suburbs for sale. When everyone was having a drink at the kitchen table and signing over the title they’d pull out a gun as payment. They did Denver, Salt Lake, Phoenix. Shipped the cars out of Seattle to Asia in containers marked "Machine Tools." Eventually their tactics got them noticed. The feds stung them in Boise.

A tow truck’s an easier steal. Steal a tow truck to steal a car. Those forks go out and the car is gone in a blink.

For $5000 I could buy an electronic box that fools the car’s computer, but I haven’t had a steady job in years. Some guys just take more chances.

The blonde’s big Expedition had everything. I liked the automatic seatbelts. With the swoosh of an elevator door they tug you into position. That’s another sound. They save a lot of condemnation. In ’62 our neighbor buried her daughter’s mouth in the metal dash of their Chevy. She never went to another PTA meeting, but Christ all of us kids did it. We jumped up and down on the front seat more than we sat on it.

I don’t like all the new buttons, seek, scan, set. I don’t need to be an airline pilot. Give me an old radio. Give me simple. Give me knobs. With knobs I could tune in WBZ in Boston or WLAC in Nashville on a clear night. I liked the old cars, their simplicity. My mother’s aunt had an electric car. We’d ride it on occasions, town centennials, Fourth of July parades. She’d go around the block to the right to turn left. Three rights to make a left. Simplicity.

But you’ve got to watch it with these SUVs. They’re not so simple. Not only are they electronic as hell, but they roll over as quickly as a fly-bitten horse. One moment you’re in the saddle and the next you’re jumping for your life. Pay attention or it’s James Dean time. You have to pay attention stealing cars. No distractions. No tickets. Drive the speed limit.

James Dean took his eye off the road once too often. He saw the guy too late. He turned left right in front of Dean. The guy survived to tell, but he never said a word of it for the rest of his life. I think of Dean when I steal a car. He’s a reminder. Dean’s car was a sideshow attraction for a couple of years, the death car, and then in the ’60s it just disappeared in a boxcar somewhere in Kansas. One crumpled aluminum Porsche.

I keep my eyes on the road. I don’t let the siren song get me anymore. Once it was a black Jaguar in Chicago. I hooked up with another just outside of South Bend, and we made it to Detroit in two hours and 10 minutes. It did 115 with no effort. I was younger. I lay there in Joliet staring at the paint peeling off the ceiling thinking about that car, thinking about how I would do it again.

Darlene says she didn’t see me get in the car, and I didn’t take notice of her either. There was no time. Leaving the 7-11 I quickly ducked into traffic and cruised smoothly for about five miles. The traffic cleared and ahead I could see two cars stopped at the next light. I was doing about 35. There were four lanes. When the light changed the first guy in line stalled. Probably vapor locked in the heat. A guy in a dusty van tight behind him on his bumper waits only a moment. I can see it all. I accelerated to pass them, but just then the guy in the van whips into my lane. Instinctively I gave him the horn. The medium honk, the "you asshole" honk. He flips me off out of his window. I throw up my hands in disgust. This has taken two seconds, and I knew what was coming next. I road rage knew what was next. He slams on his brakes right there in the middle of traffic. I was ready, but the car behind me wasn’t. A smash, a lurch forward and the boat hitch on his van drove right into my catfish’s mouth. I was hooked. He didn’t get out, and I didn’t stick around.

Darlene says a couple of plainclothes cops came back when they found out she’d done time for bad checks. The asked her why she called the pay phone on the corner just before the car was stolen. That was a couple of months ago. They asked her if she had a boyfriend, but Darlene’s a good actor. They haven’t been back.

She’s watching again. It’s June, graduation. She says there’s a teenager with a new Grand Cherokee that comes by every day. The car’s begging for it.