By Bruce A. Smith
Back in the 1980s, I needed to sell one of my company’s pick-up trucks. It was a beat-up ol’ Ford with 154,000 miles on it, and I had put an ad in the paper asking $1,000. I was amazed how many guys called figuring this thousand-dollar beater with 154K on it was going to be a dream machine. Sigh.
So when I had a live customer, a guy much like myself, who wanted to buy the truck as a run-around rig for his masonry business, I was glad to accept his $650 offer.
Down we went to the garage to take the plates off my truck and put on the ones he had brought. “Took ’em off one of my other trucks until I get this one registered,” he said. Then we went back to my kitchen to sign-over the title and exchange the money. Surprisingly, he whipped out a check to write the $650.
“Wait a minute, buddy. This is a cash deal,” I said.
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s a good check,” he answered.
What could I do? No one else wanted the truck. Do I take a chance? Do I trust the guy? He seemed like a nice guy and I enjoyed his company. Heck, it’s only 650, I thought, and I DO want to get rid of the truck. Finding parking for it was a hassle and I wanted to get on with more important things in my life.
So, I accepted the check. We shook hands and off he went. A week later my bank informed me that not only was it a bad check, it had been written on a closed account. I had been totally set up and conned. I was angry and embarrassed. The warrior in me said that this sucker was gonna be sorry that he even thought about screwing with me.
I called the police. Of course, that was a joke. After my anger towards them settled down I called my insurance company. Heck- it’s like a stolen vehicle, I thought, and the money from an insurance company is just as green as from a legitimate buyer. And so they know, which is why they told me the matter was a civil dispute, a contractual disagreement that had to be resolved in the courts.
I filed my subsequent complaint at the local small claims court—a place many contractors like me know well in the off-season as try to collect on unpaid accounts. My court date was set for two months down the road, but I didn’t really think I was going to have a shot at getting my money back—after all, why would the guy show up in court? But maybe I could get a lien on his business assets. It was all a long shot, but for a $7.50 court fee, it was worth a try.
The phone number the guy had written down on his check happened to be a good number. In fact, it was his sister’s In addition, it had even been his until his sister threw him out of the house for pulling too many stunts like the one with me, or so she said.
With the phone number, however, I knew what general area he lived in. That was good for my anger. I went cruising in his neighborhood in the hopes of spotting my truck and snatching it back. No such luck, however, and after a few trips through his part of the county I gave up. Nothing happened for a few weeks, then Fate played her hand.
Passover that year fell on the same weekend as Easter. In my Judeo-Christian household that meant all my kinfolk were at my place for the weekend.
Fortunately I have a stepdaughter who is an insomniac and goes to bed at dawn. That meant she was still up when my business phone rang at 6 am on Easter Sunday. The answering machine clicked on before she could pick up the receiver, so she just let the caller place his message on the tape. Then she came upstairs to wake me and her mom.
“Bruce, I think you’d better get up. One of your trucks is gonna get towed.”
I bolted out of bed. All of my vehicles had been in the garage since the beginning of the weekend, so I knew it was the stolen truck that was about to be towed.
I ran downstairs and listened to the message. It was a guy with a heavy Greek accent who hadn’t had his wake-up coffee and it was tough to discern what his name was exactly or his phone number—but it was clear he was the owner of a diner and my truck was blocking something in his parking lot.
So, I checked the yellow pages for a restaurant in the town where the guy’s sister lived. BINGO! I found the diner and called the number. The Greek guy answered. He still hadn’t had a cup of coffee, but his attitude and English both improved when I told him I’d be right down and move the offending pick-up.
“You will?” he replied with perfect diction.
“Listen, mister, you’re doing me a favor,” I said.
I got down to the dinner in about 40 minutes—not too much traffic on Easter Sunday in suburban Long Island, NY.
I remember it was a beautiful, sunny day. I felt like a warrior about to snatch back a member of his tribe who had just been taken hostage. I thought about Entebbe, too. After all, we had just had our Passover Seder the night before.
When I arrived at the diner I immediately saw my truck. But it had about a half-a-forest of evergreen bushes sticking out of the cargo area in the back. I could see why the owner of the diner was so upset. Anybody walking by in their Easter outfits could get snagged by all the branches.
I walked inside to see the owner. By now he had had some some coffee. He confirmed it was my guy who had left the truck the night before, saying he couldn’t get it started and would be back in the morning.
AHHH- I had beaten him to it! Being a company truck my telephone number was painted on the side and the guy had apparently been too discombobulated to remove it, so the owner of the diner knew how to get in touch with me.
I put my spare key in the door lock. It fit! Inside, though, the cab was a mess. Coffee cups, Micky D wrappers, and tons of sand and mud lined the floor and seat. I felt violated seeing my truck so badly trashed. Anyway, I put the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine turned but didn’t catch. Rhrummm, rhrummm, rhummm, a few more tries, and nothing. The fuel gauge read empty so I switched tanks. Low, but still some fuel. Still the engine didn’t fire. I popped the hood to see if all the electrical connections were good. Everything looked okay. Turned the key again, but now the battery sounded like it needed a rest. It had to be out of gas, or not getting gas—even if the second tank read okay.
I poured in a gallon of fuel from a spare can I carried, and sure enough the truck started right up. I left my other truck in back of the diner and drove the stolen rig to a gas station and filled it up. Mission accomplished. Victory shouts and war hoops all the way down Route 109.
I parked it at a friend house a few miles away and took a taxi back to my second truck. Then I returned home to get a second driver to ferry the stolen rig back to home base.
Later, when I was cleaning out the truck, I discerned what had happened. I found the key to the auxiliary and main tanks off the key ring and buried at the bottom of the cab in a foot-well covered by mud and sand. Apparently, the guy had lost the key and couldn’t put any fuel in the tanks. As a result he drained the main tank completely and switched into the auxiliary, driving until it was almost bone dry. However, when he pulled up to the diner he parked on a slight incline, nosing the truck uphill. The auxiliary is a long, slim tank that runs along the underbelly of the truck, so when he parked uphill the fuel that was left sloshed all the way towards the rear of the tank and away from the fuel lines in the front. All he would have had to do was put the truck into neutral, coast backwards a few feet to level ground, let the fuel flow forward and the engine would have fired.
Isn’t it amazing how it all came together? Remove one little piece of the puzzle and I wouldn’t have gotten my truck. Fortunately my stepdaughter was awake and heard the call. Fortunately my phone number was still on the truck and the owner of the diner called it. Fortunately the thief parked uphill and had written a legitimate phone number on the check.
As my friend Dennis, the mechanic for my trucks said when I told him this story: “Bruce there really is justice in this world.”
Picture courtesy of Karelina Resnick