It’s tiny, this fiefdom. A few acres with a skyline view that no one wants to pay for. To the north, derelict industrial buildings and train command centers. To the south, Sacramento Avenue and a nondescript factory where they produce something. But the fiefdom is controlled by a staff of maybe 15 city employees. It is City Impound Lot #6. And I have been trapped in it since early this morning, when I awoke to discover my car missing. It has been at least 6 hours. I do not know when, or if I will ever be able to escape. I am writing, right now, sitting in my car, listening to music. Considering making a break for it. Realizing that they have my driver’s license. My information. And not caring.
Friday afternoon, I drove back to the city from a day at my parents’ farm in Wisconsin. On my way to a far away, but free, parking spot owned by a friend, I noticed an empty, broken meter on Granville at Kenmore.
Temptation won out, and my car sat there. Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday. I babied it on Sunday, cleaning out all the trash, applauding it for having rid itself of the bird poop and road filth. I told it, the Mighty Putt Putt, that it was a king among cars. And it was. I spent the day on Granville, interviewing shop owners and meeting people. It was fabulous. On my way home, I patted my car on the hood, told it we were driving to class this morning, and noted that we’d start early on Monday because street-cleaning is scheduled for 7 a.m.
And so I went to my car this morning, thinking fond thoughts about driving my classmate to her interview, about getting coffee, about the various car-related activities I would achieve after driving to class in the Loop. It was an exciting plan, I thought. And, at 6:20 this morning, it was foiled. Foiled by the evil empire, the Daleys. And a budget gap approaching half a billion dollars. And the Olympics and the housing bust and. Everything.
Fast forward, past a few reorganization texts and a call to 311 around 9 a.m.
I caught a cab with a Nigerian man who says the job market here is so bad he and many of his compatriots are considering ditching out for their native countries.
“I want to build a house out there, back home, wherever, where you don’t have to worry about paying the rent, mortgages. I want to go somewhere where I can rest in my old age. I met an 80-year-old woman,” he said.
“She’s working. I asked her why. She said she’s still trying to pay her rent. That’s the trouble with this system,” he continued. “Old ladies are trying to make rent. I want to rest.”
I got out, hiked up the ramp into the grungy trailer adjacent to the blue fences of Auto Impound Lot #6. And stood in line for ages. The guy in front of me had a tattooed forehead. He was talking about how his car was impounded for having a couple ounces of weed. The rest of the room was Latino, talking about being impounded in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish.
Finally, I was at the window. They had my car, they said. But they needed a notarized letter from my mother, saying that I was authorized to pick up the car, as I wasn’t on the title. My mother lives in Wisconsin. My car is registered in Wisconsin. I had the $160 in cash for the towing fee in my hand. No exceptions.
I called my mother. She was home. She faxed a letter to my father. My father’s secretary faxed it to the impound people. Or said she did.
I watched. I begged the window lady, silently. Vocally. With pleading eyes from outside her window. “Get in line,” she said. I obeyed. I waited two hours in the lunch rush. I got through.
“Do you have it?” No. “Could I’ve skipped the line?” No.
I called Dad’s offices. “Where’s the letter?” I asked the secretary. “He stepped out, I’ve been waiting for him to come back to ask him which letter.”
I screamed in my head, “Class. Life. I’m trapped here. Forever stuck in this godforsaken hellhole in the middle of nowhere.”
I asked her to find the letter and fax it.
She did this time. It took half an hour for the window girl, a small angry Latina in the middle window, to find it. She filled out a pile of paperwork, all by hand. Slowly. Indecipherably. Photocopied three pages, three different ways. Badly. She found the registration on the computer. Printed it. Noted that everything was up-to-date.
She gave me a yellow sheet to get the other certificate of registration out of the car. I did, leaving my backpack with this laptop, chocolate, a variety of gear. It was dated Aug. 27, 2008. The license plates are up to date. The computer is up to date. I was hoping the trifecta wasn’t really all that necessary. I stood in the second line, talking to others about the wait time, about damage to their cars’ windows, doors, corners. I’d been there the longest, but everyone else had similar stories. Everyone on Twitter was getting sick of me babbling. Hour four. Hour five.
At hour 5.5 of standing in line in the tiny cement-floored, dirty room, they called my name.
Could I have my car back? Please?
“The registration dates don’t match,” the same small, young, angry Latina said. “No.”
“But… but. What if I call my lawyer?”
“No. I don’t care what you do, the dates don’t match. You can’t have the car.”
Incensed, I shoved the paperwork at her. She shouted after me. “Your id.”
I grabbed my ugly Wisconsin driver’s license and rushed outside. Sat down on a random cement road barrier between a pile of trash and dirt and some gravel. Started crying. Called my mother.
It started to pour.
“They won’t do it. They won’t let me have my car back. I’m still in the fucking impound lot. The stupid fucking cunt who runs the stupid window won’t give me my car back.”
I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘cunt’ to my mother before. I did. Again. And again. Screaming.
I don’t do well with low blood sugar. I become incensed. Unreasonable. Beyond whiny.
“Call the Wisconsin DMV. See if they can fax you your registration,” she said.
“But they won’t fucking give me my stupid car and I don’t have any food and I can’t think and I missed school and I missed the whole day and I got nothing done and and and …” It went on, in that classically overwrought, low-blood-sugar screaming whine that I try so hard to contain in public.
“Calm down,” she said. “You need to focus. Freaking out is not going to help you here.”
I’ve been a single woman, alone, in foreign countries in similar states. I’ve survived. But Impound Lot #6, its prison-like atmosphere, the boys trading drugs for money outside the door of the trailer, talking about their industry. The men inside talking about babies on the way and arrests for drugs and prostitution and drag racing and traffic violations.
And the impound people smashing windows, tossing cars around with their demonic, inconsiderate forklift.
“Will they pay?” asked one man of the gatekeeper. “They broke my window. Will they pay?”
The gatekeeper was noncommittal.
It was getting to me. I was the only white girl in the room, most of the day, and one of the few people who didn’t speak Spanish. The tow-truck guys were friendly, mostly because they wanted my business. “What if we tow it out for you,” they kept saying.
The Putt Putt worked though. The lights came on. The engine ran. All four tires were spinning. There was only one gate, and an imposing older black man in between me and freedom.
I went back into the trailer. Asked the girl for the yellow sheet. Headed back out to my car. And I went into the trunk and broke into the candy stash. And then I sat, watching the rain bead on the wax crayon on the windshield.
Twenty minutes, eating Japanese chocolate intended for my little brother’s girlfriend. Charging my phone. Listening to NPR. Starting this essay. A yuppie bubble in the middle of an impound lot next to a train yard, looking at the Loop in the distance. It was a good moment. A necessary moment.
As I was walking back in, the man at the gate started hassling me. This was hour 6.5 of my stay. I was not in the mood.
“You done with whatever it was you was doing in there?” he asked me, walking faster to catch up with me.
I headed for the trailer, avoiding a confrontation.
“Yo girl, I think you need to let me see your paperwork. You didn’t have all that stuff with you when you went in there. No where near that much stuff,” he said. “You need to let me see your paperwork else I am going to make sure that you do not get that car out of here until you’re 40.”
I turned around, crying. “I’ve been here for friggin’ ever. I’m going inside. No.”
I kept walking, hoping to make it inside. “Yo, girl, I mean it. You better show me that paperwork. Better yet, come with me. This is a police pound. You know that, right?”
“What, what are you going to do? Look at this friggin’ paperwork.” I handed him the papers, which floated out of our grasp, into a puddle.
The rain spat down.
“You were supposed to just get your registration out of the car,” he said. “All that stuff is not your registration. You need to come with me.”
“Ma’am,” he said, addressing one of the older black women in the back of the trailer. “This girl, she’s been here for a minute and she went out to the car to get her registration and she came back with all this stuff and then she wouldn’t give me her paperwork. I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
I’m teary-eyed. Big green-brown eyes peering out from hipster-esque bangs at this older woman. Pleading.
“I’ve been here for six hours. Did a fax come in from Wisconsin with my registration? The numbers are right on the car and on the computer – just not on the paperwork. I’ve been here for ever.”
“Wait now, wait a minute,” she said. “Lemme see.”
She went out of sight, came back with a handful of paper, and a highlighter. She circled the date on the registration from the computer. The one the girl printed at 11 a.m. when I got there. “We be fittin’ to let your car outta here. You need to go to the window in the front,” she said. “Just go to the window.”
I went to the window, hands shaking because of the blood sugar and the emotions. It’s bad without food or coffee. It gets worse with stress.
The same small, angry Latina was guarding the middle window. I stood there, staring at her. She wouldn’t look at me.
Another woman, who’d been there for nearly as long as I had, jiggled through my line of sight, flirting with her guy. I could not be distracted from my mission.
I stood there, staring for 20 minutes. The Latina wouldn’t deal with me. The same black woman wandered through. I waved. I made sad eyes at her. I waved again. She came closer. Said something to the Latina. Magically, my paperwork, and the proverbial “Payment Form” appeared. The greasy $160 burning a hole in my pocket shivered in anticipation.
She filled out the forms. Indecipherable. I didn’t care. “Sign here.”
I signed next to the Sharpied X.
“Go straight to the cashier.”
Two larger, older black women were in the cashier window, safe from the evils of the public eye, shuffling papers. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. An eternity. I handed over a wad of twenties, grocery money transformed.