An inadvertent case of grand theft auto

All cars kind of look the same, right?

All cars kind of look the same, right?

Nobody has ever called me a girly girl. As a kid, I preferred off-roading on my Huffy bike and shooting hoops in the driveway to dressing up in princess outfits and playing with Barbie. I never rocked a perfect coif or sported the hottest fashions. But I wasn’t exactly a tomboy, either. I surrounded myself in a village of adorable stuffed animals and spent hours meticulously crafting jewelry and clothespin dolls.

As I grew up, my brother helped me get into watching* sports. I don’t know if the games themselves interested me as much as the drama and the rivalries, but nonetheless, I soon had enough background to be able to drop some sports knowledge and jump into conversations about “last night’s game.” As a teen, that was probably one of the things that lent to guys not minding hanging out with me.

My semi-sports knowledge is probably the extent of my ability to be “one of the guys.” In middle school and high school, my “Shop” projects always teetered and looked more like shoddy patchwork precursors to Frankenstein than like a step stool, wall sconce, etc. And when it came to cars, forget it. If anyone asked me, “What kind of car is that?” my best answer would have been “Red” or “a convertible.”

Despite my lack of knowledge about cars, I loved driving. Everyone knew they could count on me for a favor if driving was involved. Rides to the airport, trips to the convenience store, whatever.

On a sunny spring afternoon in 1996, my dad called me at college:

He said: “Hey, do you have time this afternoon to run to West Chester and pick up Pop Pop’s car from the shop?”

He meant: “I’ll throw you $10 if you can help me out.”

I said: “Sure, no problem.”

I meant: “Sweet, I’m short on cash and I was actually looking for a reason to blow off my Psych class this afternoon.”

He said: “Great. I have a late meeting and the shop will be closed by then. See you tonight.”

He meant: “You’re probably invited to stay for dinner, but I have to clear it with Karen first.”

I said: “Cool, see you later.”

I meant: “If I’m invited for dinner, I’m bringing my roommate.”

It didn’t take much convincing to get my roommate to take me out to West Chester in the afternoon. She didn’t have any classes that day, and we were both sick of eating gray food from the caf.

She pulled her car into the shop’s parking lot around 2pm and I went to the counter to retrieve my Pop Pop’s car.

The guy working the counter barely looked up from his ledger book and said, “Keys are on the floor mat.”

“Great, thanks!” I said.

I walked out to the parking lot, gave my roommate the thumb’s up and told her I’d meet her at my parents’ house. I hopped into my Pop Pop’s white Cadillac, grabbed the keys from the floor, and drove home.

It was a beautiful day outside, and my roommate and I plunked ourselves on chaise lounges by the pool and spent the afternoon tanning. This was the 90’s, we were young, and tan lines were still cool. (Nowadays, my skin tone skews more toward Elmer’s Glue than it does toward Bronze.)

My stepmom got home and the three of us smoked cigarettes, gabbed about all sorts of not-so-hot college and Corporate America gossip and waited for my dad to arrive. He walked in the door just after 7pm, briefcase swinging jauntily. He looked at the three of us and did some quick computation in his head.

He said: “Whose car is that in the driveway?”

He meant: “Whose car is that in the driveway?”

My roommate said: “Mine?”

My roommate meant: “You’ve seen my car about 1,000 times, are you, like, suffering from amnesia or something, dude?”

My dad said: “No, I meant the other one.”

My dad meant: “Duh, I’ve seen your car about 1,000 times; did you hit the peace pipe too hard today, little lady?”

I said: “Um, Pop Pop’s?”

I meant: “Duh. You know, the entire reason I’m at home right now?”

My dad said: “Pop Pop doesn’t have a Cadillac.”

My dad meant: “Jesus Christ, did you just f’ing steal a car?”

Yup. I picked up the wrong car from the parking lot. Because it was white, and my Pop Pop drove a white car. The keys were on the mat. What more proof did I need? I hadn’t even scanned the parking lot of the auto body shop to see if there were any other white cars around. Obviously, there had been.

I was in a state of blind panic.

I was in a state of blind panic.

While my dad and stepmom remained in the kitchen, hoping that I wouldn’t be booked for a felony that evening, my roommate and I (very carefully) drove the stolen Cadillac back to the shop, which was closed for the day. Sure enough, another white car sat in the parking lot. I parked the Caddie back in its original space, and we went to the other car, which thankfully, was unlocked. We hopped in, found the keys on the mat and high-tailed it back to my parents’ house. I had gotten away with Grand Theft! Or, I guess, Grand Mistakenly Borrowing.

Nobody was ever the wiser. The shop owner, the Cadillac owner – they were both blissfully unaware of the temporarily missing auto.

I started to pay more attention to the makes and models of cars after that. My roommate and I even went with my dad to the Philadelphia Car Show that year.


* Watching, not playing. With a complete lack of coordination, I have literally summersaulted to the ground after deciding to sport a pair of two-and-a-half inch heels.

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