THE BLOG
01/24/2013 02:09 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

Discovering New Personal Limits After a Car Theft

For those who own one, a car is probably the most important possession you have after a home. You come to depend on it, like something that'll be there when you are ready to go somewhere.

Thus, when I walked out of my house in San Francisco about 5:30 p.m. on very cold Christmas Eve to do a few errands, after spending three days mostly in bed recovering from a case of bronchitis or pneumonia, it came as a real shock to discover a big empty space where I remembered parking my car. Though it had been three days since I parked it, I was sure I had parked it there, recalling how I looked back to make sure I hadn't left the lights on. But just in case I had remembered incorrectly, I walked up and down the block and on an adjacent one. But no. The car wasn't there. So now began what I experienced as a continuing test of personal limits, which I think is the same kind of testing of limits that occurs for anyone facing any kind of loss or crisis. One has to reach within oneself to discover new sources of strength.

In my case, the first test was what to do about the two videos I was supposed to return to a Poppa Opps video store by 6:00 p.m. that night and then pick up two new ones to view over the next two days. Oh, and I had to call the San Francisco police to report the theft. At this point, I suppose I could have just gone upstairs, call the police, and gone back to bed while waiting their arrival. But instead, somehow, feeling I had to return those two videos, I managed to find the strength to walk the 10 blocks -- about a half a mile -- with the cold wind whipping around me, my furry hat and heavy jacket pulled close as I walked. On my way back, I even managed to stop for mail and at a supermarket before returning home. Amazingly, though I had been coughing regularly when awake, I didn't cough once on my long walk, as if my body knew I needed the strength to complete my mission.

Then, I called the police, telling them I thought my car had been stolen, unless there was some event over the weekend and my car had been towed. "No, your car hasn't been towed," the police officer told me, and after a minute of checking, he was back to tell me that not only was my car stolen, but just a few minutes before I called, the police had arrested the thief.

Apparently, as the officer explained, the police had found him blocking a downtown intersection, and they discovered that he was driving on a suspended license and then that he didn't own the car. So now the perp was in custody, and in about a half-hour, once they finished processing the car for evidence, it would be in the Auto Return police tow lot. I just needed to make my own arrangements to go there and get it. And shortly a police officer would be over to take a report of the theft. I hung up amazed at the serendipity of the police finding my car and arresting the thief minutes before I called.

Test two came from getting my car released by the Auto Return police lot, since there was a hold on it, meaning I need a release from the police records division. However, when I called about getting the release, a clerk informed me that I would need to come prepared to pay the towing and storage fees. How much? I had to call the Auto Return company, since they handled the return of cars and not the police. But when I called about the costs, it came as a real shock to learn how much -- about $570 -- $450 for the tow and $120 for two days of storage. And I couldn't even complain to the police about how my car was towed because it had been stolen. I just got an information line tell me I couldn't talk to anyone or leave a message -- I just had to come to room 154 to get a release and the police department provided no waivers.

At once, I felt like a double victim. First my car had been stolen; now, to get it back, I had to pay nearly $600, which felt like a double thievery. Plus I had to arrange for the cost of transportation to get to the police department to obtain the release form to take to the Auto Return company, along with the payment. And even though I had State Farm Emergency Road Service my insurance company wouldn't cover any of this. "We can cover the costs of towing your car someplace to get repaired, but not the cost of getting you to your car to get it repaired or paying for a tow by someone else," my claims adjuster told me.

Fortunately, I had an assistant working for me that day who drove me to the police department, and somehow my anger about being victimized a second time by paying for the tow and storage must of done the trick. As I showed the clerk my police stub with my case number and complained about how this wasn't fair for me to pay, because I was the victim in this case, my comments must have struck a nerve, since the clerk told me: "Okay, I'm giving you a waiver to take care of the tow," and she did. She checked off the reason for the reimbursement as the car being held as evidence of a crime. The waiver also covered my taxi to the long term lot about three miles away where my car was being held.

Finally, the third test came when I actually saw my car. After I turned in my Auto Return release at the office by the gate, I walked down a winding road to a several rows of towed cars and found my car. When I opened the door, I felt totally creeped out. It was like whoever stole my car had been having an all-nighter or sleeping in my car or both. There were several empty cans of soda, an empty vodka bottle, and a soggy Dodger jacket and Dodger T-shirt. The front seat was wet, like a can of soda had been poured over it, and the wetness had seeped through to the backseat, which was filled with soggy papers.

I found a blanket in the trunk back, the only part of the car that seemed untouched by the mayhem, and used it to cover the front seat so I could sit down. I sat there for several minutes in silence, steeling myself to deal with what felt like a swamp full of rotting plants and crawling bugs -- like something out of a horror flick.

Then, using my cell phone, I called the insurance claims adjuster and explained the situation. He gave me a few options. If the car was drivable, I could take it anywhere to get it fixed, including taking it back to my house and finding a body shop in the morning. But just the thought of bringing this creepy crawly mess back to my street felt like the last thing I wanted to do. Fortunately, there was another option -- I could drive the car to the closest body shop in the State Farm database, leave it there, and get a rental car, which is what I quickly decided to do.

There was one shop only about 10 blocks away from the tow lot, Alioto's Garage on Folsom, so I drove it there. I felt relieved when I learned that not only would the body shop repair and repaint the outside of the car, but they would detail and steam clean the inside. However, they wouldn't throw anything out. They would either put everything in a box for me to sort through later, or I could go through my car and throw out what I wanted now.

So that was the final test -- sorting through everything now, since I didn't want to face a box of soggy, mildewed papers, bottles, cans, and Dodger clothing later. Thus, after I picked up my rental car through the shuttle car service provided by the onsite rental car office, I drove back to the body shop and pulled up behind my car. Then, I sat in the back seat and managed to push down my feelings of disgust and wanting to throw up, so I could pick through and dump most of what was on the floor of the car in the trash.

About a half-hour when I left in my rental car, I felt like I was leaving a kind of Fear Factor reality show, where I had to endure a series of trials and tribulations to escape the show successfully. But now I had. I was on my way home in my clean new rental car, and in a week, I would have my own car back completely cleaned up and repainted. I felt I had passed the tests, and when I got home, I had permission to lie down, go to sleep, and work on recovering from being sick.

In turn, the experience showed me that when you have to face these kinds of tests in your life, if you focus on doing whatever life throws at you, you can accomplish what you need to do, and then feel stronger as a result. You may find you have the inner strength to walk farther than you think you can when you are in a situation where that is the only choice other than giving up. You may find that you can convince others to change their usual policies to be understanding and helpful to deal with your situation. You may find you can find the personal fortitude to deal with a very unpleasant task that needs to be done. Then, at the end, you may feel better about yourself, because you have faced and overcome the tests thrown at you.

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Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her own company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients, and has written and produced over 50 short videos through her company Changemakers Productions. Her latest books include: Living in Limbo: From the End to New Beginnings.