Ghosts in Tow Trucks

Under dark of night, stealing cars with the city's finest.

Repo men
Rule No. 1: "People can't hear you, but dogs can."

So Nick tiptoes into the backyard of a West Side house, ducking under the lit kitchen window. The only sound is the snow crunching under his boots.

He finds his target -- a green Bonneville, tucked behind the white two-story. As he creeps closer, a motion sensor douses him with light.

He stands in the spotlight unfazed as he sizes up his foe, then slip-steps back down the ice-covered driveway to his truck. The diesel engine roars to life. Nick backs it into the narrow driveway, squeezing the massive Ford between the side of the house and another car. He hooks onto the rear bumper of the Bonneville and lifts it off the ground.

In the glowing window just a few feet from the truck's windshield, things seem poised to go terribly wrong.

Once, when he was lifting a van in Cleveland Heights, the owner came out as Nick was strapping it down. "I'm gonna count to three, and then I'm gonna start shootin,'" the man had said.

"I was like, 'Yeah, whatever,'" says Nick. "And then he pulled a gun out and started shooting his own van."

In the rearview, Nick's bulging arms move quickly, but he doesn't rush. He's top-heavy, like a bodybuilder, with curly auburn hair growing like vines behind a barbed-wire-patterned bandanna. His size alone is reassuring.

But this is hardly a stealth endeavor. The motor grumbles noisily, so close to the house that it has to be vibrating the walls. Nick knows nothing about the Bonneville's owner -- only that he or she stopped making payments, and the bank wants its car back.

After two sweat-dripping minutes, Nick climbs back into the cab. Just like that, he's gone.

He pulls out a Winston and fires it up, gazing proudly at the prize in the rearview mirror. That rush never goes away.

Late one night back in 1999, Nick saw two men slinking around his backyard. When he confronted them, they told him they were repo men, looking for his ex-wife's van. He delivered the van to them; they offered him a job. At first he moonlighted while still working days at a tool-and-die shop, but the hustle was in his blood. "It's the thrill of the chase," he says. "You walk back there and tell me what was in your stomach . . . better than sex."

Today he's the owner of Lakeside Recovery. It's a tough living. (To forestall retaliation, he asked that we not use his last name.)

Nick once worked for 41 hours straight, pumping his body with Pepsi, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and coffee until he was hallucinating. "We picked up some cars, man, but jeez, you push yourself to the point of oblivion, and you really are seeing shit," he says. "You know you're tired when your face is burning. Seriously, when your face is on fire."

Nick pulls his rig into a Parma BP station, his home base. He stashes the Bonneville in a dark corner of the lot until morning, when he'll tow it to his own lot. Darkness is something he can't afford to waste.

Mike, Nick's partner, is affectionately known as "Afro Man" or "Bear," depending on whom you're talking to. He squints through eyes encased in wrinkles, as if he's been living under these fluorescent lights for years. Chuckling from deep in his round belly, he talks about the good old days. Like the time he went out to D.C. to collect a car -- and found a dead body in the trunk.

One night the pair was grabbing a truck in Euclid. Its owner readily gave up the keys, but he wouldn't let Mike drive it. "Ain't no nigger gonna drive my truck," Nick remembers the guy saying, just before he knocked him out. He drops in that last detail as if it could have been left unsaid, as if he'd stamped a letter before mailing it out. "I just cold-cocked him."

Nick spreads a sheaf of papers out on the table -- addresses, VIN numbers, license-plate numbers, and keys. He gives Mike half the accounts, fills up a paper cup with black Colombian -- "That shit puts freakin' hair on your chest" -- and it's time to make some money.

There's something strangely serene about driving in the middle of the night. It's 3 a.m. and I-480 is barren, the sherry glow of the street lamps sparkling off the wet concrete.

Usually Nick rides alone. He says it helps him stay centered. "Your only friends are your radio and your cell phone," he says, lighting up another Winston. "Having somebody in the truck gives you a sense of security. You lose your confidence."

The conversation wanders away from the job. He tells how he met his wife on the phone. She worked at a collection agency in South Carolina, feeding him accounts. Their conversations grew longer and deeper. They started e-mailing and eventually decided to meet.

Nick hopes he can get home by 6 a.m., before she goes off to work. She begs him to work less, but she knows to save her protests for the morning. Getting into an argument on the prowl is the worst thing that can happen. The second you lose focus out here could be the second you get yourself killed.

In the parking lot of a Maple Heights apartment complex, Nick runs into problems. He's spotted the Mercury Sable. It's parked under a carport, between a wall and a wooden post -- too narrow for his truck to fit in.

Plan B: He grabs a Slim Jim and a box of master keys. He pops the lock and climbs in, trying the keys one by one. The Sable's not giving in. Nick hears a car start, then people walking around the lot. This isn't going well.

After running through most of his keys, he finds the right one. The dash lights come on, but they're accompanied by silence. The car's dead. Nick slips it into neutral and pushes the car out of the garage. It's his third trophy of the night.

A few hours before, he lifted a car from a complex on East 93rd. He was in and out so fast -- under 30 seconds -- that it's hardly worth mentioning.

At about $265 per car, it's not a bad haul. Nick's personal best was eight cars in seven hours, a night he rehashes like a storied fishing trip. There's a lot of cash to be made in this business, he says -- if you've got the stomach for it. You're dealing with people who've hit rock bottom. Repo men get fat during the Christmas season and when factories close.

"It's really hard when you know a woman's husband's just been laid off, and you see the kids standing there. But if you don't do it, somebody else will, you know. It's a job."

Sometimes Nick recognizes the names on his orders. One was an old friend.

"I ended up calling him and saying his name came across my desk, and what did he want to do about it?" He offered to help the friend with payments, but the guy was so far behind, he just gave the car up. When Nick got paid the repo fee, he forwarded it to his friend.

"You never wanna leave someone with a bad taste in their mouth, 'cause you never know when you're going to run into them down the road," he says. "Everybody is susceptible to falling on hard times."

It's just after 5 a.m., and three very angry people will soon be waking up. Nick wants to check out one more lead. He's searching for a gold Taurus in a high-rise complex on Walford Avenue. He rolls slowly through the endless rows of cars, but can't find it.

Daybreak will come soon, but the coming night is Christmas Eve. Nick will see his wife when she gets home from work. He'll eat dinner, take a nap, and run some plates on the internet while he waits for the city to fall back to sleep.

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