Crazy Ray's

Editorial Notebook

December 20, 2003|By Robert Benjamin

THE DARN CAR trunk won't latch. A 13-year-old econo-import says one thing. A 13-year-old econo-import with its trunk taped shut says quite something else. This calls for a journey to the end of the Earth - Crazy Ray's, of course.

Pay a buck, sign the waiver, pass through the gate and, as far as the eye can stand it, Crazy Ray's presents a hideously beautiful field of broken dreams - 13 acres of mud topped by the broken, bent, smashed, corroded, stripped or burned remains of 3,000 vehicles, all for the taking, piece by piece.

A journey into Ray's is part scavenger hunt, part mechanical test ("'U' Pick It!" Ray's beckons, "'U' Pull It!") and part foray into a world that, like death itself, few choose to see.

This Ray's - there are two, and a third opens next spring - is hidden behind fences right by U.S. 1 in Howard County's commercial southeast corner. Mirroring the industry at large, it opened more than 40 years ago as a largely unregulated mom-and-pop junkyard and now is an increasingly regulated "automotive recycling center."

Joe Duff, a.k.a. Crazy Ray, bought the place five years ago and shortly turned it into one of the state's first retail you-pick-it places, where seven days a week you can pluck anything from a whole engine to, well, a trunk latch. You just have to find it.

You want imports? Tromp 100 yards straight ahead, cross a small bridge (yes, a small stream runs through Ray's), take a right and there are row after row of Hondas, Toyotas, Subarus and the like, plopped amid the mud and debris, each a victim waiting to be further victimized - for about 90 days till they're crushed, shredded and reborn as raw materials for new autos.

Some are stacked on bald tires, some just sunk in the muck. All are missing something - their glass, or seats, or engines, or bumpers, or back end. And every 100 or so cars, there's some guy bent over, tugging or chopping, removing one more piece.

Every part has its price. Ray's publishes a four-page brochure with an alphabetized taxonomy. ("Take one," says the cashier. "Then you'll know as much as we know.") An ABS module is $40, an A/C compressor $20, and so on, down to "Yoke rear-end drive shaft," $10. The average purchase for this Ray's customers is a mere $10.

More than 16 million new cars are sold in the United States every year, all brightly unblemished. But across the country, about 10 million junks end up each year in places such as Ray's, the raw material for an industry with revenues of at least $8 billion a year. We're a voracious society, to say the least, perhaps most so when it comes to cars.

With pressure from environmental inspectors and sensitive neighbors, junkyards across the country are folding or consolidating. But this industry literally pioneered recycling, provides steel for new cars (now built of 25 percent recycled materials) and lowers insurance rates by providing cheaper used parts to repair shops and some salvage income to insurance firms to offset payments to owners of total-loss wrecks. Junkyards may not aesthetically please - though the most modern are paved, clean and organized - but they serve a real function.

Ah, but there it is, right between a twisted Beetle and more or less a station wagon, the very make and model of that 13-year-old econo-import. Its trunk is even open and, as anyone can see, its latch is in good shape.

A nasty pool of brown water half fills the trunk. To remove the latch involves sinking in ooze while wrestling with frozen bolts. Someone's clothing is piled nearby. It's cold. But in the netherworld known as Crazy Ray's, this is truly a thing of wonder - all for only $5.25, plus the buck to get in.

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