"An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations."
— Repo Man, 1984
At 5 foot 9 inches tall, Gary Autry doesn’t cut a towering figure, but his broad shoulders and bulk give the 42-year-old former high school linebacker a commanding presence. He wears a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, drives a gigantic tow truck, and listens to "new country" at full blast. A wad of sunflower seeds stuffed into a cheek, he squints into the sunrise, waiting for me.
"No mood for silly crap today," he shouts over the radio, spitting shells as I hop into the cab. A standard greeting from my old neighbor. "What about non-silly crap?" I offer, adjusting the radio volume downward. "A more sensible and judicious order of nonsense?"
"College boy," he calls me whenever I need help fixing anything from my swamp-cooler to my car. He delights in my utter lack of practical knowledge. Today, I owe him for his recent help with home maintenance matters.
First, we hit his office. Hedged in by chain-link and a hodgepodge of autos, the repo company Gary works for is housed in a doublewide in the wasteland of junkyards and auction lots flanking Albuquerque’s South Broadway Avenue. Inside, a yellowed certificate of membership in the repo industry’s foremost trade association, the American Recovery Association, hangs against wood paneling. Beneath it sits a computer monitor, where a researcher named John rifles through police records.
"They (the debtors) know they’re wrong," John says. "We don’t get assignments after a few late payments. We’re the last resort."
As last resorts go, repo companies can turn a decent profit if they work quickly and continuously. In the back of the office, a third employee, Ana, organizes accounts, deals with clients (banks and car dealers), and adds a welcome air of femininity. "Be careful, Gary. This one deals dope and has threatened to shoot," she says, describing our quarry.
Back on the road, as my nail-biting habit flares up, I ask Gary how he so nonchalantly faces such daunting enterprises. "No matter what," he says, "people can see reason. You just have to help them see it sometimes, gentle but firm." Indeed, repo work is as much psychology as it is detective or bounty-hunter work.
Of course, a degree in lunacy helps, and Gary’s curriculum vitae is impressive: He once fired a gun at his TV because the Sacramento Kings lost a playoff. Another time, he branded himself. The canvas of his bicep didn’t quite yield the desired aesthetic, but like the cattle that once grazed his great-granddaddy’s pastures, he now bears the mark of the Diamond S Ranch. It occurs to me that Gary can transform adversity into calculated adrenaline, an asset in the relatively new repo industry.
In the past, lending criteria made it difficult for those with poor credit history to get new cars. Repossession was rarely a necessity. But by the early 1990s, franchises offered skewed loans for risky borrowers — loans with no money down, or zero interest. The resulting financial house of cards is stacked on the shoulders of the poorest, least-educated consumers.
Including, I suspect, the one we’re looking for today. We’re traveling into Navajo country, where the scenery distracts me from the unpleasant business at hand. Mesas and plateaus are visible 100 miles away; it’s like driving through a painting that does not move as you accelerate into it at 90 mph. Hard to believe communities are out there, hiding in the cracks; that people are watching TV, paying bills, neglecting to pay bills.
"This one lives on the rez," Gary says as we approach Gallup. "We’ll be lucky if there are plates. They don’t need ’em on the rez."
"We take their land. Now you want to take their ride?" I ask.
"It’s not their ride," he replies, taking the bait. "It’s stolen property."
At the Gallup Mall, where the debtor works, we are lucky, I suppose, to find a 2001 Escort with a plate that matches the description. The VIN matches, too. The ashtray is stuffed with cigarette butts; a dreamcatcher hangs from the rearview mirror.
I unhitch the winch and bring the chains when Gary goes under the bumper. After securing the car, he hits the lift button. I nervously scan the parking lot.
On the way back to Albuquerque, we stop in Grants, stash the Escort, and get the jack under a 2003 Ford Explorer. But with only one tow, how can we get two vehicles? Enter Gary’s negotiating expertise. He taps at a debtor’s front door. A large man wearing a bathrobe answers. Words are exchanged. Gary returns with keys.
"Some folks know they’re sitting ducks," he says. That the Explorer contains nothing of value supports the statement. "Plus, it’s nighttime, neighbors home. If he’s gonna be difficult, cops come, a scene. … I had to paint a little picture."
Driving back to the lot in the Explorer, I open the windows and fill my nose with sage-scented wind. Ahead of me on I-40, Gary calls my cell to ask if the hazard lights fastened to the back of the Escort are working.
I stall for a moment, and, playing devil’s advocate, ask Gary how he’ll feel come the time his soul is repo’d. "We’re all high-risk borrowers on the lease of life," I add.
He thinks a moment and then waxes philosophical: "When I go, I hope I’ve logged a lotta miles. ’Cause life ain’t about driving a car you can’t afford, or having the latest, greatest model. It’s about being able to drive on, even if you’ve been banged up some on the way. …
"So, are my goddamn hazards on, or not?"