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The Cars Issue

Gone In 194 Seconds

Three Russian kids in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn encircle a Subaru wagon, jabbing their notched shop rulers under the weather stripping and pounding into the doors like a giant sheet-metal gangbang. Horny as fuck with no place to go, New York Russians...
December 1, 2001, 12:00am

A scene from Grand Theft Auto III.

Three Russian kids in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn encircle a Subaru wagon, jabbing their notched shop rulers under the weather stripping and pounding into the doors like a giant sheet-metal gangbang. Horny as fuck with no place to go, New York Russians are putting auto theft up there with lighting a joint as the best way to get the weekend started. And what’s to deter them? For the past 60 years the mechanics of opening and starting a car haven’t changed, giving little deterrent to any troubled teen who’s learned red and black wires go together from their brother. We spent three weekends with kids aged 15-26 and discovered how irrelevant law enforcement has become. They have imported decades of experience from the Soviet Union and, compared to back home, the retribution for being caught is nothing to worry about. If they go to jail they can get something to eat and, if they’re lucky, get into some good fights. “For me stealing cars is just another drug,” says Yannis, one of the younger boys we interviewed. “Like you have potheads and drunks, we are car thieves.” He’s right. Their rooms are adorned with car accessories, their clothes have car logos (usually Mercedes), and ninety percent of their conversation revolves around the technical aspects of bettering your time. Even when they stay in and play video games it’s all cars. We caught them with a pirated version of Grand Theft Auto III, a game where car thieves travel all over the city moving up the criminal ladder by completing various missions. They hang out in Eastern European-style discos with marquees advertising “table tennis inside.” They wear soccer tracksuits and listen primarily to shitty hip hop and high-energy dance. Considering the current climate of Moscow is right up there with 80s South Central and the serf rebellion of the 1230s, their nihilism makes perfect sense. We spoke to them the day of the WTC tragedy for example and they seemed perfectly oblivious. When asked if they knew what was going on, an older boy who calls himself Romanov said “yes, two buildings fell” as he made a squishing gesture with his hands. He had the mannerisms of someone that had become comfortable with catastrophe. By Wednesday they were back on the prowl. After joining them on one or two runs we understood the rush. With girls on lookout swiveling their heads back and forth like little chipmunks, the pulsing aura of the moment is completely palpable, the adrenaline bumping though the system full force. A red-faced 20-year-old named Dimitri comes across as the alpha-thug, transfixing us all with his near intoxifying defiance in tearing into the driver-side door. Shudders run through his clenched jaw as the expired speed bounces around inside him like lightning waiting to be grounded. Furiously slipping his metal strip around euphoric rage, the door finally gives in. Neighbors seeing this sexual tension are apt to put the hose on the would-be thief to separate him from the car rather than call the police, so the thieves are not scared. We were petrified, however, and decided to run away. What Cars Are At Risk?
Straight up, Japanese cars are the easiest to steal. It all depends on the speed with which a thief can gain entry and take off with a car. No one wants to spend more than five seconds because the car owner, a neighbor, or (worst-case scenario) a patrolling cop car could surprise them in the act. The reason Hondas and especially the Toyota Camry are so frequently stolen is due in part to the ease with which they can be jacked. Nowadays, all new model cars are computer-controlled, with about half coming equipped with an encoded key system. Basically a radio transmitter in the housing of the ignition key (where your thumb goes) is sensed by electronics on the steering column. Without confirming the key’s electronic code, the computer will not let the car start, despite it being in the ignition and turned over. Aside from the country of origin, the age of the car is also important. Models from the 70s and 80s are much easier to steal than today’s models. First off, they are unprotected by encoded keys, which didn’t get popular until 97. Secondly, added features on the car were less spectacular, leaving the electronics rather simplified and easier to hotwire. Car theft reached its zenith in the mid-80s due in part to the fact that any joker with a leftover abortion hanger could jack a ride. Now that desperate Eastern Bloc kids have snuck over, the trend is back. How Protected Is Your Car?
When you get towed, the tow truck driver slim-jims your door and puts it into neutral. Hence, car manufacturers won’t make it any harder to gain entry. It’s completely impractical to manufacture cars that are very difficult to open. There’s a hundred differrent ways to slim -jim a car, but for hooligans an even easier way to get at the rod assembly is to use a flat screwdriver to pry and leverage out the door lock. Through the hole one can easily see and hence pull on the correct mechanism to open the door. Of course, most kids in the Polish area of Greenpoint, Brooklyn just smash the glass. If you drive down their main street, Manhattan Avenue, you see the entire road is shimmering with tiny pieces of broken car windows. As far as the club providing protection, “it comes off by looking at it with a hard stare,” says Sammy Garcia, a 23-year veteran of auto security. All steering wheels are constructed entirely of plastic so the more common alternative is just to cut the steering wheel and remove the club. Now We’re Rolling
Cars used to have steel steering columns which were hard to break into, but now so much stuff is crammed in there that every model has its own custom plastic column. Now all electrical wires connecting to the ignition switch are accessible by smashing the steering column with a hammer. Inside these are six or seven key wires - battery, starter, fuel pump, computer, steering lock, dashboard, etc. The battery feeds all the wires with the ignition switch being the regulator that connects them together. Surprisingly, the color of the starter wires is for the most part standardized, taking out the guesswork. All a thief needs to do is figure out which wire is the starter. Then they can connect all other wires to the battery, to power the car and finally turn the engine over by sparking the starter. Pistons Poppin’,
Ain’t No Stoppin’ Now
Of course the Eastern European kids we talked to often ignore the fine art of hotwiring and just opt for sheer brute force. The strength of a lock is in resisting turning, not against being forcefully pulled out. There is only a plastic retainer, one eighth of an inch thick, keeping the locking cylinder in the steering column. A dent-puller, which is a long bar with a sliding weight, is screwed into the keyslot, and the momentum of the lead weight sliding the other way yanks out the locking cylinder. Without the lock in place, a flat screwdriver can be inserted to turn over the switch’s slot, which the cylinder once connected to. With this method cars behave the same as if a key started it. If it has encoded key protection, all a thief needs to do to defeat the system is cut the black wire in the three-wire ribbon cable located under the dash and measure the resistance between the black wire and the yellow starter wire with a volt meter. They then touch the two wires with the matching resistor and the vehicle will start. This sounds complicated, but if you’ve been doing it in Russia for five years it only takes about 20 seconds. Jump back, what’s that sound?
The most basic way these thieves deal with car alarms is to pop the hood and clip the wires running to the horn. As further insult, kids can just short out the alarm’s fuse by dropping a penny into the cigarette lighter and flashing the lights on and off really fast. All the above operate off the same electrical circuit, so even smashing out a headlight blows the alarm. Car tracking security measures are also rather pointless in combating joyriders. Lo-Jack, otherwise known as “After-the-Fact,” is a completely moronic invention that is perfect for locating a car the next day, after it’s been soiled and stripped barer than a pledge during rush week. Most thieves don’t care about resale value. “If we were nice we would take the time to drive it into the East River so they could get the insurance,” says Yannis, “But why bother? After they pay a portion of the repairs the car is still fucked. If someone tried to do that to me I would shoot them in the head right there on the spot.” ABSINTHENYC