A Little Fable About Cars, Rules, and Customer “Service”

Good evening friends and neighbors!

Today’s blog isn’t directly about baking or cooking. It’s not even especially motivational, though you absolutely can- and maybe should consider it so.

Instead, I’m going to tell you a true story- true, because otherwise I might call it a fable- about “the rules.” It’s a story about how I wound up on the business end of them, got out of a tight spot because a sympathetic voice and I decided to bend them, and why knowing when to break the rules can be the best thing you learn in life.

It starts with my 2007 Jeep Cherokee Laredo, and ends with an accident.

Here we go.



The Jeep, 2011

It all started about 10 months or so after Emily and I had moved to Portland. We had packed my Jeep and trailer with what remained of our worldly possessions, and now were slowly acclimating and ensconcing ourselves in life on the West Coast.

The first signal should have been when I went looking for insurance on the Jeep. My NJ insurance couldn’t cross state lines, and so when I tried to change my address to Portland, Oregon, the company dropped my coverage like a hot rock. It took a little wrangling, but I soon found affordable local coverage. “No big deal” I thought. “Done and done.”

No. No it wasn’t, and if you’ve ever changed states, you can guess what happened next- I sure didn’t at the time.

My friend and former roommate, Andrew, periodically packaged up and sent me mail that was still being delivered to my old address. One hefty package arrived, and tucked among the fliers, junk mail, and old magazines, were several VERY ANGRY and VERY OFFICIAL letters from the New Jersey DMV:

1. “We know you lost your insurance. You can’t be registered in NJ without insurance. Get some or forfeit your registration.”

2. “Still waiting on that insurance, champ. Final warning.”

3. “Okay buster, proof of insurance NOW, or your license is suspended.”

A frantic call to the DMV early in the morning later (because time differences are the Devil), I get some hard facts.
Yeah, you have Oregon insurance now? Doesn’t count. If you don’t want your driver’s license suspended, you gotta forfeit your registration and tags NOW. Like, put down the phone, get a screwdriver, take your license plates off, and OVERNIGHT them to New Jersey NOW, or your license goes bye-bye.”

So there I was. A non-drivable car, the sight of which could have landed me in deep trouble. Had I done my research, I might have known that all of this should have been taken care of within 30 days of arriving in Oregon. Registration, insurance, the whole mess- in between unpacking and building the IKEA furniture.
Or, it WOULD have been, except for what happened next.

We store the car in a friends garage- they run the thing every now and then, keep her tidy- and I figure, “Well, I’ve already got insurance on the thing- better get it registered! Can’t be too hard, right?”

I go to the Oregon DMV- generally a friendlier place than NJ’s if I’m going to be honest. I wait in line, hand over all my documentation and… no dice.

There’s a lien on the car. They need documents from the lien holder.

Ok, one more piece of paperwork, right? Here’s the problem:

I never took out a loan for it. I paid for it in cash out of my savings years ago.
I call my father to find out what this is about. He’s got no clue.
I get in touch with the guy who SOLD me the car, now three years out of business. He has no clue, and all his documents are in deep storage.
All these calls, by necessity, happen early every morning, by the way.
I start to get testy. My dad is too- he’s thinking fraud. He’s getting ready to call in a lawyer.

I’m miles from home, struggling to find a job, living in a pricy apartment with my fiancee (which we move OUT of during this fiasco, with the use of a rental truck), and now I’m just trying to DRIVE THE DAMN CAR I’M INSURING TO SIT IN A FRIEND’S GARAGE.

All I have to go on is the documentation from the purchase, the VIN, and the name of the bank.
I call the bank, explain the situation to their customer reps, and explain how there is NO lien, I never borrowed money from them, and I need either a lien release letter or a statement of non-interest faxed to the Oregon DMV.
This happens five times. FIVE. Every time, someone says “Oh yes, found it, on the way,” or “oh, it’s been settled, must have gotten lost in the mail, you’ll need to pay for another copy…”

Finally, I lose patience. After the 6th call- this time saying there IS no record of that car, and they can’t declare no interest in something they don’t know about- I decide this is not working.

​Every time I’ve called, I’ve gone through the bank’s automated phone tree. All the correct options send me to the shmucks I’d been dealing with for nearly a month now. This time, I purposefully make wrong choices. I want to talk to someone- ANYONE- different. My call finds its way on to their INTERNAL phone tree, and in the hands of a young woman who handles internal communications that NEVER thought she’d have to deal with a customer.

“Um… hello, how did you get this number, and why are you calling it?”
Look, I don’t know, I just want some answers on this thing, and this is the number I get.”
Wait, you were GIVEN this number? Um… what’s the problem?”

I explain the situation. How it’s been months dealing with the faces of the bank, and getting nowhere.

“Oh… well, no promises, but I should be able to pull that up. Hang on- got the VIN?”
Yeah, its ____.”
“(typing sounds) Ok, found it, its… wait. Why the hell is this marked “Done” 5 times? They’ve got the letter here and everything.”
WHAT?! They told me they didn’t have anything yet!”
“Ugh… these idiots just push through their work. You got that fax number?”
“Yes, it’s _____.”
(typing, printer noise) Aaaand there we go. I’ll fax it over tonight, and send you a copy in the mail. Looks like whoever took care of the paperwork when you bought the car just checked off the “lien” box, instead of “cash.” Clerical error.”
“….Are you kidding me?”
Nope. Everyone upstairs could see- it was an empty lien. Sorry this took so long… um, can I help you with anything else?”
“Can you pour a stiff drink through the phone?”
No, but I want one too now.”

Three days later, the letter arrived. The Oregon DMV called and said they got the fax. In the space of two afternoons, I got a new Oregon driver’s license, tags for my car, and a VERY apologetic call from the guy who sold me the car. He should have been looking at the paperwork more closely.

I got my beloved Jeep back.

The morals of the story:

1. Do your homework. Learn the rules first before you learn them the hard way.

2. The breakthrough came because I went around the established system at the bank, talked to someone who’s job WASN’T to help me, and they helped me anyway. Know when the rules need to be broken and don’t be afraid to do the right, helpful thing.

And 3. If you’re going to be a stickler for anything, be a stickler about the paperwork. Or if you can’t, hire someone who can.

Stay Classy,

​ Epilogue:

Two months after getting the car back, I parked it on the street. Overnight, a drunk driver smashed into it and drove away. The car was totaled. The lesson there can be summed up by the good captain:

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