Crickets at three in the morning on Chicamauga Avenue in West Atlanta and the fog had lifted enough so that Ken could see the blue BMW naked in the driveway and he figured he could snatch it if he moved fast. He parked his truck on the fractured asphalt and walked toward a shotgun house with brick-red shutters and geraniums along the front walk. When he reached the BMW he saw a small red light above the dash, flashing like a firefly, warning of an alarm to wake the dead. And through the flood of adrenaline, Ken the repo man felt something like fear.
Photograph by Gregory Miller
This strange transaction would ramify through several economies. Sleeping at their home in Suwanee, Ken Lynam’s wife and five young children were relying on him for their sustenance. In turn, the nation’s slumbering financial system rested on men like him. Without the threat of repossession to cajole the debtor into making payments, there could be no car loans. And without car loans, hardly anyone would buy a new car. A legitimate industry depended on legal theft.
The repo man’s fear had little to do with the physical work. The work was not so hard. His strong hands could pop a Lexus without a key and coax it into neutral with a pocketknife. He could take a Chevy from a country double-wide and escape by driving backward up a winding hill in the dark. He had at least three tricks for breaching gated communities, including a metal sheet that fooled the gate into swinging open. These were all mechanical problems, soluble with a known set of rules.
But those rules would go out the window if the debtor showed his face.
Ken peered inside the BMW, gathering information. The debtor had left a trail of mundane evidence: a CD near the stereo that said Mix 7/2009
in black marker, a Styrofoam cup in the cupholder, an open bag of chips on the floor, a white apron and a black bow tie on the backseat, a round metal restaurant name tag that said Darell
. Ken had no inclination to imagine Darell as a real person who ate and drank and listened to music and would wake up later that morning with no ride to work. Over time he had been inoculated against stories of loss or personal hardship. This was one reason he didn’t like facing the debtor: It was, at best, a waste of time for everyone.
He remembered the woman who asked him, with a certain implication, “Is there anything I can do for you? Anything? I mean, anything
?” There was not. He remembered the woman who told him, “Please don’t take my car. I’ll miss my chemotherapy appointment.” He doubted she had cancer, because she looked utterly healthy, but it didn’t matter. He would have taken the car either way. She came to the lot after squaring up her accounts and she got the car back. About three months later, the car came up for repossession again. There was a note on the order. It said Debtor is deceased
For what it was worth—nothing, as it turned out—Ken believed most of the debtors’ stories. He had been one of them. The repo man came for his family minivan and Ken went outside and played the trump card most debtors don’t even know they have. He told the repo man to get off his land, and the repo man did.
Now debtors everywhere were getting smarter and more desperate. They were burying cars in dirt and snow, chaining them to telephone poles. National statistics said repossessions were at an all-time high, but company owners around the city said business had fallen. Farrish Holbrook, Ken’s boss at Atlanta Locators and Recovery in Tucker, said the banks had gone soft, because they already had too much bad debt on their books, and they were begging debtors to make their payments. Repossession was like a nuclear bomb: Neither side wanted to see it go off.
On a good night, Ken could snatch five cars and bring home roughly $250. This had been an awful night. In seven hours he had gone after ten cars and found none, despite searching entire neighborhoods, which meant he had made no money for groceries or rent. He had actually lost money, if you counted the $7.90 for the large Baconator combo with a small barrel of Coke to keep his eyes open.
Beyond the red firefly on the dash, what concerned Ken right now was the temperature of the BMW’s hood—still warm—and the indeterminate light coming from the shotgun house. Was someone watching? He made sure the steering wheel was locked, so the wheels would stay straight as he towed the car. He checked the emergency brake. Good. It was off. He checked the VIN and compared it with the number on the repossession order. Good. They matched. He checked the BMW’s model number. 525i. Good. It was not an all-wheel drive, which carries its own set of nightmares. This BMW was a rear-wheel drive, which was perfect, because the car was parked facing the house: When he picked it up by the rear wheels, the front wheels would roll free. Now he just had to hook it up.