The night before they kidnapped Ramona—my 16-year-old Honda Civic hatchback—I watched the movie Drive, in which Ryan Gosling plays a mysterious Hollywood stunt driver who does his best work moonlighting as a criminal getaway artist. Cruising home, in precise control with one hand on the stick and one on the wheel, I felt like a cross between Dale Earnhardt and Robin Hood, a ghost rider on the midnight streets in Zen unity with what felt like a living, breathing steed.
It's that kind of a movie. And I'm that kind of a weirdo when it comes to my cars, which made it all the more traumatic when Ramona was stolen.
My love of cars started with a '68 Buick Skylark that my dad bought for $75. It had a steering wheel like a hula hoop and handled like a butterfly in a dust devil. It was too old and weak to lay rubber, but when they chip-sealed our country two-lane, it did 360s and fishtails that left pretty patterns that lasted for years.
I didn't name that car, but I did become attached to it in the brief time my dad let me drive it. When I finally escaped my parents' house and started purchasing my own $75 cars, I gave each one a name to fit its personality. In my world, a car was a sidekick to which you entrusted your life.
There was a beastly metallic-green Dodge van with a bent drive shaft that limited its maximum speed to 45 mph. You couldn't lumber very far in the badly rusted Green Monster before the relentless vibration and exhaust fumes gave you a wicked headache. There was the Bumblebee, the Turtle, and the Fecis (a badly compromised, baby-puke-beige Mitsubishi Precis), among others.
Not one of those cars was worth stealing, and none of them measured up to Ramona. She was just a few years old when I got her, petite and curvy, and I named her after a feisty female Zapatista comandante. We went everywhere, from San Diego to the Adirondacks, from Boise to the beaches of Carolina, from high-country two-tracks to the treacherous minefield "streets" of Sonoran colonias. She could do almost anything, and get 35 mpg doing it.
Lately, though, she'd been feeling her age. The odometer crapped out somewhere around 220,000 miles. She had duct tape on the door frame and a "racing stripe" scar left by an unfortunate scrape with an ill-placed Dumpster. She would barely start on cold mornings and couldn't go on the highway anymore because of a front-end vibration that felt like the earthquake ride at Universal Studios.
As I gave my details to the suspicious cops, who interrogated me as if I was attempting some sort of insurance fraud, I had to ask, "Why in the hell would anyone steal this car?!" They gave me the usual story: Tucson is the auto-theft capitol of the universe, and a mid-'90s Honda Civic is a favorite target—yeah, yeah, I know.
But when I researched it, I discovered that Tucson is no longer the epicenter for stolen cars that it used to be. The raw number of car thefts here is about half of what it was 10 years ago, and the rate is less than a third of what it was.
I called the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority to find out why car thefts had decreased. The executive director, Brian Salata, summed it up succinctly: "It's a lot harder to steal a car than it was 20 years ago." Anti-theft technology and multijurisdictional task forces have greatly diminished the infamous "joy rides" of years past. It's easier to target the infrastructure of professional operations than the random behavior of teenage amateurs.
When the cops found Ramona the next day, I went to the towing yard to take a look. She'd been violated, the poor thing. She was missing seats, the hood and even the rear bumper, which was covered with left-wing malcontent bumper stickers. I gathered up the dashboard mementos from our many travels and, eyes welling up, gave her a final hug and, "Sí se puede!"
I was planning to donate her to KXCI FM 91.3 when she finally gave out, but I guess—as undignified as it may seem—being stolen and chopped up for parts has a certain elegiac logic to it. She expended much of her life in the service of la causa, and I only hope that whoever benefits from her discounted spoils also absorbs a little of the ethic by which she lived, which I felt so strongly on that last midnight cruise: The road is the destination, and the joy is in the ride.