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He’s smart, he’s funny, and he “steals” cars legally. (He’s also the best friend you never knew you had.) Our July-August issue’s cover story.
(Page 2 of 6)
“I’m pretty sure they’re financial editors from Time or the New York Times,” my wife said. She had seen a sign in the lobby that said “Time Finance,” or “Times Finance,” plus one other word that seemed a little strange, which made her think they were editors.
Like the acerbic Holmes wheeling on credulous Watson, I hooted in derision. Clearly she had leapt to the wrong conclusion. First of all, it was nonsense to think that one of those publications could afford to fill half of a large and expensive seaside resort with a bunch of financial editors. Hell, they didn’t even have that many financial editors. “Have you looked at Time lately?” I said. “It’s so thin you can shine a light through it. And the New York Times is a dinosaur lumbering toward extinction.”
Secondly, the men that we had seen in the lobby (and they were mostly men) were about as far removed from the pussy footing, green-eyeshade types as it was possible to imagine. They didn’t look like professional football players, but they were big men who walked about with an unmistakable swagger. Some were decked out in alligator boots and cowboy hats, others in glitzy Italian suits and wraparound sunglasses (worn indoors). There was one man in his early 20s with spiky hair and a pair of horseshoe-shaped steel earrings. No one could imagine these people tsk-tsking and making little squiggle marks over other peoples’ copy.
On closer inspection, the sign in the lobby said “Time Finance Adjusters.” Adjusters, not editors. But this odd circumlocution only deepened the mystery. When my wife asked one of the conventioneers what it meant to be a “time finance adjuster,” he just laughed and said, “Pay no attention to that, ma’am. We’re repo men. You know, we steal cars legally.”
Aha: one of the ways a bank can “adjust” a car loan if you don’t make your payments on time is to send the repo man out to steal it back from you. (On its website, Time Finance Adjusters, or TFA, describes itself as “the official association for the nation’s repo agents,” with hundreds of members in cities and towns throughout the United States.)
How to do that with the latest technology became clearer to me as we left the hotel after lunch. Out in the parking lot, equipment vendors were showing off their wares, such as the “220 Snatcher,” a complex steel assembly with moveable arms and jaws that clamp and hoist. Designed to fit into the bed or undercarriage of an ordinary-looking pickup truck, the Snatcher combines the virtues of stealth and speed. It allows the repo agent to cruise around a neighborhood without arousing suspicion and then dart in and out of a driveway with a car in tow in less than a minute.
The agent doesn’t even have to get out of the truck. As the brochure said, “All the functions of folding, unfolding, extending, retracting, raising, lowering and operating the steel claws can be done inside your truck cab using the remote.” In other words, to a trained operator with a joystick, it’s as easy as changing the channels on a television set!
What little I had learned about the repo trade to this point had whetted my reportorial appetite. As I thought about it, it seemed possible that these people might have a better perspective on the economic craziness of our time than—say—a whole boatload of financial editors. Viva Repo Man and Repo Woman, I said to myself. Knowing that their gala dinner would commence at 6:30 p.m., I decided to return to the Shores and gate-crash the party.
What to Do If the Repo Man Comes to your House
Repo agents go to considerable expense to secure the lots where they store repossessed cars and trucks. They put up tall fences topped with barbed wire and invest in video surveillance and guard dogs.
Happily for me, none of those protective devices were in place when I joined the party on the hotel’s veranda as the lone uninvited guest. It is fair to say that my presence created a bit of a stir—adding to that of the stiff breeze blowing in from the Atlantic on a slightly chilly evening. I came out of curiosity and was myself an object of curiosity in this crowd of about 150 people. Without my having to say—“Take me to your leader”—people went out of their way to steer me to certain individuals that I “had” to talk to if I were going to write about their business. As I was not, at this point, on assignment for any publication, I found myself in the interesting position of being a free-booting reporter surrounded by pirates—well, not pirates, exactly, but people who “steal” legally, and for profit—with all kinds of stories to tell about the tricky business of separating people from some of their more prized possessions.
Paul Bukur, a smooth-talking and sharply dressed repo agent from Tehachapi, California, was one of those I came to know. Like many others in the group, Bukur, now 49, grew up in the business—it being the family business. He repoed his first car at the age of 13 and received his first death threat a couple of years later—after repoing a limousine from a member of the mob. He told me: “My brother and I had FBI protection going back and forth to school that year…in the limo.” Coming after a slight pause, the last phrase was delivered with a wicked smile and perfect comic timing. Today Bukur specializes in the recovery of Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks in his area of southern California (under contract with the automaker’s credit company) and all kinds of boats (under contract with National Liqui dators, the dominant force nationally in the recovery and auction of boats). His business—like Patrick Altes’s on the other side of the country—has more than doubled in the last year or so.
Though he favors the stealthy approach of driving what appears to be an ordinary pickup when pinching $80,000 cars from delinquent debtors (“You don’t believe it’s a tow truck until I’m actually gone”), Bukur is nothing if not open in talking about what you and I can do to keep him out of the driveway. In his words:
You don’t have to worry about me jumping over your fence or breaking into your garage. I won’t go into your driveway if you have put up “No Trespassing” or “Do Not Enter” signs. And if you catch me in your driveway and order me to get the hell out, I will get the hell out.
That night and over the next day and a half (I skipped the beach and hung out with the repo men through the rest of their conference and my brief vacation) I talked to a number of other repo agents who sounded a more bellicose note. One told me that he felt “a real adrenaline rush” with every confrontation in the driveway, and another—who plied his trade in the desolate stretches of western Penn sylvania, where “you drive a hundred miles between trees”—said that there was nothing about his job that he loved so much as “talking someone out of his car”—enjoying the experience like a cat playing with a mouse. As other repo men around the table (this was at lunch the next day) rolled their eyes and laughed in deeply knowing agreement, he went over his ripostes to a whole list of pleadings:
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?