Frankie's excellent urban adventure

September 14, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance

SOMEBODY TRIED to steal my van the other night.

So why was I smiling?

My wife and I were out for the evening with friends. We spent a few hours at a downtown establishment, which I won't identify. It has suffered in recent years because many are afraid to go downtown at night. I like the place and I don't want to add to its problems.

We left at around 11 p.m. and headed back to my Plymouth Voyager, which I had parked at a meter just around the corner. As we approached, my friend scolded me for parking in a spot covered with bits of broken auto glass.

The words were just out of his mouth when we all realized the glass came from my van. The front passenger-side window was smashed in.

Stunned, we peered through the gaping, glass-rimmed hole like visitors to some exotic and slightly menacing zoo exhibit. The interior glittered under the street light with bits of window glass. As our eyes adjusted, we could see that the ignition switch had been broken in an attempt to start the car.

My first reaction was disbelief. Car thieves are supposed to go for Acura Legends, or something else flashy, or at least easy to steal. Why would they want a clunky minivan with 87,000 miles and a tough ignition? That's why I never bothered with an anti-theft gizmo. This clown must have had six friends who needed a joy ride.

As we looked around, we realized the thief hadn't touched anything else. The glove box and sound system were undisturbed. The mail I had neglected to post, including my daughter's tuition check and -- most critical of all -- my newspaper subscription payment, was intact. The venetian blinds and yard-sale coffee table my wife had purchased for her Baltimore County school classroom (teachers do a lot of that) were still there.

And when I jiggled my key into the partially demolished and badly gouged ignition switch, the engine kicked over. This guy was either a klutz, or a beginner -- in the pee wee league of Baltimore car thieves.

The news just kept getting better and better.

We could not have chosen handier companions for an evening in the city -- a 6-foot-6 Baltimore County police sergeant and his wife, Janet, a former shock-trauma nurse. A communications junkie, John pulled a cellular phone from his wife's purse and called city police.

Or tried. The city's 911 center and a non-emergency police number both were busy. Neither surprised nor stymied, John dialed Baltimore County police dispatchers and asked them to call Baltimore City and send a squad car. They sent two.

While we waited, a private security guard came by and waited with us. Then the manager of the business we had patronized that evening walked over. He apologized, told us of safer, free parking nearby, and gave us free coupons for his establishment worth $60. (Thanks. We'll be back).

Two city police officers -- one male, one female -- pulled up about a half hour after we discovered the crime. They were pleasant and efficient, although they admonished us for trying to clean the mess from the car and handling the broken ignition parts.

"We could have gotten fingerprints," one said. Right. Your 911 lines are jammed and you're going to send the crime lab out on an attempted car theft.

Slowly, it dawned on us how lucky we had been. It could have been raining. The van could have been stolen, disabled or trashed. We could have stumbled on the crooks in mid-theft and faced a robbery, or worse.

Instead, we were all safe. And while I feared for a time that I had a $500 deductible on my insurance, and would eat the entire cost of a new window and ignition, it turned out to be just $100. My fellow rate-payers will share my pain.

As someone who commutes into the city every day, and who still comes downtown after hours for the amenities Baltimore offers, I have always known that the trade-off is the inevitable Urban Adventure.

But as Urban Adventures go these days, this one couldn't have been luckier. Frankie's Excellent Urban Adventure we called it.

So I was smiling. Then I found a quarter in the gutter.

Frank D. Roylance is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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