Here Comes The Repo Man

(Originally appeared in Penthouse)

The economy still isn’t great for a lot of people. But if you’re in the repossession trade, let the good times roll!

An ordinary 90-degree Monday in blistering hot August. Pawnshop after pawnshop—or gamblers’ procession museums—line the streets of recession-casualty Reno, Nevada. MONEY TO LOAN. WE ACCEPT FOOD STAMPS. Bankruptcy billboards trumpet, NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY! Outside the Grand Sierra casino a huge video marquee has the blazoned words, ANOTHER LUCKY WINNER CAROL S. $34,500. The large image of a smiley old woman announces to ordinary people—just like us—that it’s possible to strike it rich!

“The security guard here hates me,” declares Brian Turley, a chubby goateed guy with a cherub face. He laughs as I climb into his massive red tow truck to ride shotgun. “If they see me they’ll try to kick me out.”

Understandable. It must be bad business to have casino patrons’ cars repoed right from the parking lot while they’re inside gambling away their monthly loan payments.

The repo business has become a thriving boom industry in this desperate age of recession. “Put it this way—we haven’t died down in two years,” Brian says as he chugs a Red Bull to start his 3 P.M.-to-midnight shift. “It sucks. It’s unfortunate. What can you do? Everyone is having a rough time.”

As a repo man, Brian’s been legally stealing people’s cars for the past four years—landing the job without even knowing how to drive a tow truck. After graduating from college in Reno with dreams of becoming a teacher, Brian’s career plans took a curve with the economy.

“It was just a money issue,” he says. “I wasn’t making enough working a dead-end job in a warehouse. I knew I was going to make more [as a repo man] than as a teacher.”

A repo man who works on commission can typically make between $50 to $75 per car. Many companies are turning to an hourly pay structure, which is dictated by region, cost of living, and state regulatory issues. Fortuna took a spin after Brian played on the same softball team as Justin Zane, the repo boss of Zane Investigations, Inc. “One night I was drunk and said, ‘I want to go on a repo and see what it’s all about.’ I’ve been hooked ever since.”

As various lock-picking tools of the repo trade—Slim Jims, wedges, etc.—clank on the dashboard, I ask, “So, what hooks you?”

“You get to do things people normally don’t get to do,” Brian says with a sly smile. “It’s not every day you get to drive up to someone’s house and say, ‘I’m here for your car.’ ”

Brian’s also repoed boats, motorcycles, Jet Skis, motor homes, and even a tanning bed—with a personal record of 12 cars seized in one day. As a sign of the times, the tiny city of Reno boasts a whopping five repo companies, with Zane Investigations running six repo trucks, seizing unpaid vehicles for 30 to 40 banks.

“We handle things differently from other agencies,” Brian says. “We won’t get into a pissing match. You don’t want to add fuel to the fire. People fall into unfortunate circumstances—there’s no work here. It doesn’t help to call them a loser or a deadbeat. You’ve just got to know how to talk to people.” Looking up an address on a laptop mounted in the front seat, he adds in his laid-back and likable demeanor, “Everyone thinks we’re the bad guys. If nobody’s repoing cars, your auto loan would be at 40 percent. I’m just a guy doing my job.”

I’ve been here many times,” says Brian while cruising a low-income Hispanic neighborhood. “I knew this guy was going to live down here. We do a lot of repos in this area. I talked to him last week on the phone and he said, ‘Fuck you. I’m not going to pay it and you’re not taking my Chevy.’ All this for a ’96 Chevy Silverado piece of shit.”

“So what’s the process?” I ask, noting large dogs in backyards, houses with FOR RENT signs, and heads looking out of windows suspiciously.

“Whenever a repo kicks over, that’s the last resort,” Brian explains. “A customer buys a car. They fall delinquent on their payments. The bank calls for a repo order. We start with their last known address. Chances are they got evicted or did a midnight run. If they have no phone, then we’ll go to their place of employment.

“We seize the vehicle from their property,” he continues. “If the car’s there and I can hook it, we’ll take it.” He pauses. “They usually come out screaming.”

Even though it’s a long shot to find a car at someone’s home during work hours, we suddenly strike repo gold.

“That’s it!” Brian says like a kid at Christmas. The Silverado sits in front of a house with an unruly lawn and an ominous KEEP OUT sign, and it’s naively parked in full view. It will soon be taken from its owner. Swiftly, Brian backs up to the maroon Chevy. A mechan ized sling is maneuvered under the car and hooked on to the frame. Chubby Brian moves at four times his normal speed, secur i ng the vehicle with ninja proficiency in less time than it takes to load a gun. Then comes the aforementioned screaming: A mustachioed Hispanic man wearing a wifebeater comes storming out of his garage with fire in his eyes, swearing in Spanish.

“That’s the guy who told me to go fuck myself a few days ago,” Brian confirms. A small child appears by the man’ side. Once the guy calms down in this no-win battle, Brian says to the English speaking little boy, “Tell him he has to make his account current, then he’ll get it back.”

As the Silverado is clamped down and raised, the disgraced man removes the license plates —his souvenir of the fallen American dream. This whole interaction makes me feel like crying.

“Do you think he’ll pay it back?” I ask as we pull away with his vehicle, merging into heavy traffic.

“No,” blurts Brian. “It’s just a gut feeling.”

With both curiosity and personal-safety concerns, I ask, “How dangerous does this get?”

“I’ve had two guns pulled on me and an ax.”

“An ax?”

“Yeah. And he was a big guy. I was out in the middle of nowhere on a ranch. The wife didn’t tell the husband that she took out a title loan. When we went to hook up the car, he came running out with an ax. He told me I was trespassing. I said, ‘I’ll leave, but I’m taking the car.’ He called the cops. They told him, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ ”

“And people have pulled guns on you?” I ask, thinking that parts of Reno still resemble the Wild West.

“On my first or second night of training, this guy came out with a gun and he was drunk as shit,” Brian recalls. “We knocked on his door and nothing happened. We were hooking up the car and this skinny dude came out yelling and screaming, ‘You’re not taking my car!’ He was doing this with the gun.” He mimes a gun held at my head. “I didn’t know whether I wanted to do this after that.”

“I know exactly how you feel,” I mumble, shifting in my seat uncomfortably. But there’s no time to dwell on this.

“Holy shit! That’s my Hummer!” Brian screams as an H2 barrels down the road in the opposite direction.

“How can you tell?”

“I’ve repoed it before!”

After pulling a screeching U-turn at the next intersection, we’re in hot pursuit of the Hummer. Yeehaw! The crumbling housing market has put some real estate guy’s idiotic, oversize status symbol up for repo.

“What’s the plan?” I ask, noting the towed Silverado clunking behind us.

“If we get to his house, I’ll block him in the driveway,” Brian says, intensely focused on the massive Hummer weaving through traffic ahead of us.

But it will have to wait for another day; we get the slip at the next stoplight as the H2 disappears into Reno rush hour.

“He’s going home and he’s going to lock it in the garage,” Brian says, shaking his head, knowing the scenario. “There are three types of people you repo. There’s the ones who know it’s coming—they’ll clean out their car for you. There’s the ones who hide their car. And there’s the ones who put up a fight. Three out of four people know it’s coming. They’ll keep it in a garage or at a friend’s house.”

Empty billboards dot the barren landscape near a development of new houses, most of which are in foreclosure. Turning the radio to a classic-rock station, Brian says, “Once work died down in the construction boom, all these people got stuck. They woke up one morning and there was no work. I repoed an entire fleet of cars from a construction company when the economy collapsed. They were in business for 35 years with 350 employees. No work. I did feel bad for those guys.”

Opening a chain-link fence that surrounds the repo company’s office, Brian says, “What sucks is when people try to keep their heads above water and can’t.” He mentions an old Mexican guy whose car he repoed who worked three different jobs to survive.“ ‘I’m scrubbing toilets. I’m working as a janitor after I work construction,’ he told me. ‘I either pay for my car or I pay rent. I have $300 to my name.’ Or single moms who aren’t getting child support—those really get to you.”

Filled with dozens of cars, motorcycles, motor homes, and even a golf cart, the one-and-a-half-acre repo yard is like a graveyard of financial wreckage and despair.

“About four people come back to get them a week,” Brian tells me. The bank will hold on to the car for ten days in order to give the customer a chance to get it back. If they can’t make the payment, the car will end up at auction. “It’s unfortunate to see how busy we’re getting,” Brian says. “Especially when you’ve got people trying to find work. And they just can’t. When I first started, the economy wasn’t real bad like it is now.”

We head farther from town, into the belly of rural darkness. “When I first started, I got the jitters,” Brian admits. “The first four or five cars, I had to deal with a lot of drunk asses. You can get into a bad situation really fast.”

“So how do you handle it?” I ask, noting a cluster of lights breaking the darkness ahead.

“Defuse the situation. Let them go through their yelling stage. Let them cry. It’s no different from a kid having a temper tantrum. Once they’re through, I explain what they need to do to get their car back.”

The suburban dream is about to come crashing down as we turn into a subdivision. “We got a doubleheader: two cars at the same address,” Brian explains with a small amount of delight. “We’re going after a Trailblazer and a Yukon. The Trailblazer just turned over.”

Quiet. Dark. Families huddle comfortably in their homes. Lights flicker from TV sets. American flags hang on porches. The only sound is the low hum of the repo man’s tow truck. Slowly we pass a two-story house with a kiddie pool and toys littering the walkway.

“There’s the Yukon! And the Trailblazer is right in front!” Nervous adrenaline starts to pump. Brian calls for backup. “Jared will take the Yukon and I’ll take the Trailblazer. Both of them are going to go!”

Parking the tow truck a few blocks away, we get out and walk silently but swiftly through the pitch-black neighborhood. We are about to legally steal both these cars, using tactics real car thieves would employ. No wonder people come running out swinging axes.

In the window a shadowed mom-head is illuminated only by the light of a TV. Brian quickly flips on his flashlight to confirm the VINs on each vehicle.

“It’s them!” he whispers.

We walk stealthily back to the tow truck and get inside.

“Now we wait.”

Knots twist in my stomach. Pounding heart. Sweating palms. A silhouette of a black cat crosses the road. My mind races with all possible outcomes to this situation—most of them extremely bad or just plain horrific. Which creative weapon will now be used to ward off the repo man? “Do you get nervous?” I ask, breaking the heavy silence.

“No, I get antsy. I just want to get this fucking car so I can get another one.”

“What’s the game plan?”

“Hook ’em up and wait for them to come out,” Brian says. “It probably won’t go over very well. They probably will be really fucking pissed. We are taking both their cars. I imagine this guy’s going to come out of his house and go, ‘What the fuck?’ But it’s the nature of things. You never know people. They could be the nicest people in the world or world-class motherfuckers. We’ll find out in five minutes.”

As the waiting continues, I ponder whether this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. Then Jared—a heavily tattooed guy whose dog rides shotgun in his tow truck—finally arrives.

“I’ll go in first,” Brian relays like a general leading his troops into repo battle. “The Trailblazer is in front of the house and the Yukon is in the driveway.”

We move out. As if backed by strains of “Ride of the Valkyries,” the neighborhood is now filled with the foreign hum of two towtruck engines. Within seconds we’re at work on the Trailblazer and the Yukon. Movable parts clank loudly as the vehicles are lifted off the ground in front of the house—in wide view of the neighborhood. What exactly are Nevada’s gun laws? I wonder.

First, a shirtless, tattooed neighbor with a hanging belly—like the kind you see on Cops—emerges from behind a trailer in the driveway.

“Are you guys repoing those?” he asks, unfazed. Lights are abruptly flipped on in the quiet suburban home. A frantic, pudgy woman comes running out in tears. She cries into a cellphone, “Honey, they’re taking the cars! Both of them!”

Sobbing rings through the silent neighborhood as the economy claims another casualty.

“Our payment’s not due until the 26th,” she pleads tearfully.

Brian patiently tells her to contact the dealership that provided the loan. “You have ten days to get it back.”

Jared and Brian help the woman empty both cars. A child seat. Baby toys. Dolls. All are shoved into garbage bags. Heavy sobs and many tears.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Jared solemnly assures her, putting another handful of dolls into the garbage bag.

“I’m freaking out!” the woman cries loudly. “It’s my only car!” Worse: “I have a son in a wheelchair!”

A Hiroshima bomb of depression races through me. The woman turns to plead her case. I look down, not knowing what to say. The Yukon is clamped down. So is the Trailblazer. Tears flow into the river of recession.

As the last remains of baby toys are pulled from the Trailblazer, the woman suddenly breaks into a crazed, awkward laugh.

“We wanted them to come get this one,” she says twice, referring to the Trailblazer. “We’re ten payments behind.” More laughter mixed with tears.

Tonight there are no axes or guns. After we pop the trucks, it begins to feel like people are expecting the repo man to seize the status cars they could never afford, bought with loans they could never repay.

Blue Sage Court is in Stead, a neighborhood near a power plant, next to a huge, empty field where you might occasionally find a corpse or two. As we’re hooking up a Jeep Liberty in a driveway, the bathrobe-clad nextdoor neighbor (who has been drinking beer in her garage) runs to alert the occupants. Dogs begin to bark loudly. A few moments later, a large bald guy with a worried face emerges. A big-haired woman stands by his side. He keeps repeating, “My wife just lost her job a week ago. I can pay half, I just can’t pay the full amount. I made a $500 payment last week.”

Once again, Brian patiently tells them what to do. There is no resistance as the Jeep Liberty is towed away. What’s next to go? The house? The tanning bed? Sanity?

“Stead just got bitch-slapped,” Brian says over the phone as we drive away, just a guy doing a job during life in wartime. “All in all, it’s been a pretty good day.”