Captain Hook

Meet the repo man. He wants to steal your car. He has a legal right to steal it. And you don't have a chance.

But this is South Florida. Not everything he comes across is so innocent A like the 30 vials of crack cocaine in a Cadillac. "We called the police, and they said to just flush it down the toilet," Negron recalls. "I waited to see if the guy was ever going to stop by to claim his personal belongings, but he never did.

"Obviously we find all sorts of things in people's cars," he continues. "We've found rubbers, both used and unused. We've also recovered an assortment of sex toys. Usually the people don't come back for them. I guess they're too embarrassed. It's amazing what people keep in their cars."

If repossessing cars could be considered a science, the 31-year-old Negron would be a star professor. "I look at each car like a chess game," he says. "Sometimes I get checkmate in one or two moves; sometimes it takes me a lot longer."

In many cases, the lender or car dealer can provide Negron an address and even a duplicate set of keys. The trick in those situations is to pick up the car with as little fuss as possible. But often a great deal of fuss is involved.

For example, unknown or false addresses, which are not uncommon, force Negron to play detective. If his access to various Florida state computer banks fails to lead him to the "skip" (the repo term for someone who has moved but left no forwarding address), he must learn what he can about the individual's personal habits.

Maybe he discovers the skip is divorced and his ex-wife has custody of the children. Next Negron tries to find out what he can about visitation rights. Is the skip going to stop by on the children's birthdays? Perhaps he's likely to show up at his ex-wife's home on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with presents for the little ones. Almost any heartwarming family affair can provide a great opportunity to repossess a car.

If the skip hasn't been married, he may be close to his mother or father. In that case, the answer may be to stake out the skip's parents' house on Mother's Day or Father's Day, or better still, on their wedding anniversary. "It's not that I like taking the car on a holiday," Negron confesses. "It's just that the holiday may be the only time I can find it. In plain English, if you are a scumbag and you don't pay your bills and you think you are going to get away with it, you're wrong. I'm going to get you. If they were trying to work out arrangements with the bank, that's one thing. But the people I'm talking about are hiding. They haven't made a payment in six months or a year. They've moved without telling the bank their new address. They've left their job. I don't feel sorry for them."

And where does Negron get the information he needs? Besides computer files and other public documents, he draws on such sources as alert neighbors or estranged relatives. For good tips, Negron might pay a source $50 or $100.

Of course, sometimes a repossession falls right into his lap. When he was first starting in the repo business five years ago, Negron picked up a car whose owner brought along a friend when she later stopped by the office to claim her personal belongings. Negron and the friend hit it off immediately and soon began dating. They had been seeing each other for several weeks when Negron was overcome with curiosity about his new girlfriend's car. (From time to time Negron randomly checks with a national computer system used by repo men to see if cars -- especially those with out-of-state plates -- are being sought for repossession.) Sure enough, when Negron checked his girlfriend's car, he found she was several months late on her payments. "The relationship wasn't really going anywhere, so I broke up with her a short time later," he recalls. "About a week after that I repossessed her car."

Maybe it was the movie Repo Man, the 1984 cult classic starring Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton, that forever branded recovery agents as bizarre characters. Estevez played Otto, a new-wave punk who learns the ins and outs of repo work from Bud, a bitter middle-age man who, thanks to liberal doses of pharmaceuticals, never sleeps and is constantly on the prowl for cars. Together they search for the ultimate repossession -- a beat-up old Chevy Malibu with four dead space aliens in the trunk. The bounty for the radioactive car: $20,000.

As they cruise the streets of Los Angeles, Bud solemnly recites to Otto: "'I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm.' That's what I call the repo code, kid. Don't forget it. Etch it in your brain. Not many people got a code to live by any more."

As they contemplate the oath at a stoplight, Bud notices a group of people milling about on the street corner. "Hey, look at that," he says. "Look at those assholes over there. Ordinary fuckin' people. I hate 'em. You see, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations."

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