Apr 16, 2009, 07:07AM

Getting Suckered in L.A.

Things were going so well...

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Photo by Clinton Steeds

When you're on top, there's nowhere to go but down—and last week, I was on top.

For me, this meant a 12-year-old BMW convertible and enough beer to fill the fridge. It meant living in a tropical paradise (if, of course, you believe that L.A. is a tropical paradise). It didn’t mean a bank full of money, or even really any love to speak of. It was a very modest top, perhaps, but I was there. I was held at the top by a nearly unbroken string—I hadn't made a regrettable mistake in over a year.

There's no good time for a streak like that to end, so it might as well have happened on a cloudless April day. I was driving home from lunch with the top down, talking illegally to a friend of mine (for those of you who don't live in California, our nation's most liberal and progressive state, we've now made it against the law to have cell phone conversations in our cars).

Not wanting to break the law for too long, I pulled over to the curb of a side street to finish my conversation. As I exchanged the last of my compliments, a white GMC Yukon with clear brake lights and hula-hoop-sized rims pulled past me.

"Hey, boss. You need some help with that dent in your car?"

My BMW had, for the record, been mistreated in the past, but because I bought it second-hand (or maybe third-hand?), the craters and valleys in its left flank didn't really bother me. Unfortunately, in the three weeks I'd owned the car, I made the classic mistake of personifying it. Being German, I named the car Hans. And Hans didn't much care for the dent in his side.

But it wasn't like I had a say in the matter anyways; before I could answer the man, who was about my height but thicker, with black facial hair and droopy eyes, aged between 35 and 40, jumped out of his white Yukon clown car with five or six accomplices, talking fast about a free sample.

Before, “Well, if it's free...” had formulated in my brain, one of the underlings, this one between 5'6" and 5'9", with a ponytail and a mustache, began to jerk at my car with one of those As-Seen-On-TV suction cups and slathering a pink compound on the peaks and valleys of the dent.

While he was working, I met the rest of the posse. Mike, their ringleader, explained that this was their day off work at EuroSpec Motoring on the corner of Pico Blvd. and Houser (90019). We circled my car identifying the dents and the scratches gathered over Hans' long lifetime. Soon, I thought, the dents would be gone and the car would officially be mine. All I needed to do was wait 24 hours to clean off that pink compound.

Oh and, of course, there was the small matter of paying the gang their due for the work they had put in. Proudly, I talked Mike down from $700 to a much more reasonable $250. You couldn't, we both agreed, get anyone to fix even a mirror for that price. So I drove off to the bank, with the Yukon in tow, happy to make a withdrawal from my already-withdrawn account.

Of course I thought scam. The whole thing seemed shady, right down to Mike's droopy eyes. For minutes during my “tune-up” I was thinking that the whole thing must be a sham, I just couldn't work out how, like a child staring for hours at a Magic Eye without seeing the hidden picture.

Truth be told, I thought the true scam was being pulled on The Man. I felt like I was getting away with something, and there's no better feeling than that. In fact, it wasn't until I started to pick off the pink compound covering the dents that my delusions faded.

First, the mystery pink compound was Bondo. Taking it off was nearly impossible without stripping my car’s silver paint in the process. My roommate suggested that my car's new Bondo paint job looked like pink bubble gum. I suggested he fuck off.

His next suggestion was a bit more constructive: go visit the guy at his shop and see if you can get him to remove the Bondo. I thought it was dangerous, but worth a try. An hour later, I was at the corner of Pico and Houser, trying to interrupt a man in blue coveralls from ripping off a young couple over a brake pad repair. Though he seemed criminal, the man was merely a creep. And unhelpful—I didn't get a straight answer about Mike, just a curt brush-off.

Looking desperately around the shop, with its many garages and many other blue coverall-clad mechanics wasting time, I settled on two young, tattooed men in the first bay. They were casually working on a green Porsche 911 when I walked up and said nervously, “Hear me out—I think I got scammed and I was told by the scammer that he works at this shop. I just want to know if the guy works here or not.”

A day later, the three of us were drinking Red Stripe and picking off the last of the Bondo together. The two young guys worked on Porsches for the auto dealerships in the Valley together for years and finally struck out on their own. The idea of a con artist posing as an off-work employee of their new business pissed them off almost as much as it did me. They made brave and tentative plans of slashing Mike's tires if we ever saw the Yukon again. I nodded, safe in the comfort of two new friends in a city built on cons and confidence.


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