While I labored to prepare myself for the career that would provide me with a free car every year, I realized that I would need a job right now to help pay for tuition and to finance my burgeoning attack on my liver. My sainted mother worked in the credit department at the local Sears store, but was leaving to pursue a career in nursing. She more than casually mentioned to the department manager that her favorite son, Tom, was looking for a job while he attended MSU. During my interview, I realized that I desperately wanted this job. Other than two managers, I would be the only male in a twenty person department. And the work wasn’t too hard, either. Help fill out credit applications at the counter, figure new payments on time-payment contracts, and deal with angry salesmen and customers when their Sears credit card was declined. And, at $1.65 an hour, I was able to make some easy money while searching for the future Mrs. Cavanagh in this credit commune.
This all changed for me three months into my bliss. Because I was over six feet tall, and gave off the erroneous impression that I could lift heavy things, I was “promoted” to outside field collector…the Sears term for repo man. My pay jumped to $1.75 an hour, and I was given a mileage allowance. No more working with mini-skirts and go-go boots. My new boss was an affable giant of a man who played college football while at Jackson Federal Penitentiary. There was one other “outside collector.” He was monosyllabic in his speech and the backs of his knuckles were skinned. This was going to be fun!
It was now Fall of 1970. It was the time, as Gordon Lightfoot so correctly put it, …”when the gales of November came slashin’.” This was that special time of the year in mid-Michigan when everything outside appeared in only two colors, gray and black. This made driving the backwoods of Michigan, on your way to repossess a lawnmower, that much more cosmic. For those of you who have never done it, being a repo man, the physical embodiment of someone’s bad fortune, sucks out your soul. A few examples of what made me study harder and graduate as soon as I could…
My boss and I had to repo a washer and dryer. The customer had decided he didn’t want to pay for them because he didn’t “want them any more.” This would be what we called a “hostile repo.” When we got there, the customer curtly told us that the appliances were in the basement and we had to go through the side door to access the basement. Once we entered through the side door, there was another door that led to the basement stairs. There were ten steps that led to a landing, where the stairs turned 90 degrees and continued for another eight steps down to the basement floor. We propped open the basement door and began. The dryer, being lighter was the first to go. My boss had me go first, pulling it up the stairs. He was below, lifting and pushing. When we had grunted and groaned our way to the top, the basement door suddenly closed behind me, trapping me between the door and the dryer. I could hear the customer on the other side laughing. My urgent pleas to open the door went unanswered. I told my boss to brace himself while I released one hand to grab for the door knob behind me. I was able to open the door and quickly grab the dryer. We got it to the trailer and went back for the much heavier washer. I folded a piece of paper to make a doorstop, to prevent the door from mysteriously closing again. Once again, we huffed and puffed our way to the top of the stairs. And, once again, the door slammed behind me. My boss was livid. “Tom, count to three and let go of the washing machine.” “I can’t,” I objected. “You’ll be crushed.” “Trust me on this,” was his reply. I started my count…One…Two…Thr It was then that my boss let go of the washing machine, grabbed the bannister, and swung underneath it out onto the basement floor eight feet below. The washing machine began its death roll tumbling down the first portion of the steps, dials and hoses flying off. It hit the wall at the turn of the landing going about 85 mph, leaving a washing machine-size hole in the sheetrock as it ricocheted down toward its doom. It was airborne for the last eight feet before hitting his furnace and exploding into hundreds of pieces. My boss got up, dusted himself off, and said to the shocked and dismayed customer as we left, “Sir, I’ve decide to let you keep the washer.”
One repo, however, convinced me that this was not the life for me. One Saturday, I returned around 6 PM to turn in my paperwork. My boss asked me if I could do one more repo if he paid me overtime. I agreed. The name on the worksheet was Jimmy Ray Somethingorother who had purchased merchandise for $390 from the Sporting Goods department. The sheet didn’t describe the item, but I guessed golf clubs. Jimmy Ray lived at 43329 Darnell Rd. just outside of the small farming community of Dimondale. I could make the run, throw the clubs in the trunk, and still get to a party I wanted to attend. One of those wonderful storms where you can’t tell if it’s raining or sleeting had come in. By the time I got on the road, it was quite dark outside and the visibility was poor. I made my way to Dimondale, but could not find Darnell Rd. After an hour of driving around in circles, I stopped at a gas station to ask for help. He told me that he thought that Darnell Rd. was the new name for “old county road 329.” After another 45 minutes of aimless searching, I decided that the golf clubs could wait. I drove back to the gas station to call my boss and tell him I was heading for the party. When someone at the office answered and I said, “Hello,” I was taken aback by the response. “He’s alive, he’s alive! Hey everyone, Tom’s OK.” My boss got on the line. “Where are you? Are you alright?” Being a curious sort, I asked what was going on. About ten minutes after I left the office, a Michigan State Police officer came to the credit counter and asked to speak to a manager. He wanted to know if we had a street address for a Jimmy Ray Somethingorother who might be living in Dimondale. We did. My boss told the officer that he had sent me out to that address for a repo. The officer asked what the merchandise might be. My boss said that he thought it was a set of golf clubs, but that he’d go into the back and pull the sales slip. My boss was ashen-faced when he returned and gave the sales slip to the officer, who immediately shouted out, “Oh my God, he’s got a gun!” Jimmy Ray hadn’t purchased golf clubs. He’d purchased a .357 magnum and 200 bullets. Turns out old Jimmy Ray was an escapee from a prison in Kentucky. The state trooper relayed the address and the fact that Jimmy Ray was to be considered armed and dangerous to State Police headquarters. He also mentioned that there may be a hostage (me!!) involved. I left for the party and Jimmy Ray shot it out with the police.
I was only seven months away from graduation and wasn’t going to screw up getting the free cars by being a repo man any longer. I gave my notice the next day.
Next: “Sir, Your Mother Wants You To Call Home.”