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Voices From the Wrecking Yard

I HAVE always favored the Studs Terkel approach to history: Let the common man tell us what he has lived. The learned historian holds history at arms' length and tries to fit the big pieces together to find or promote a thesis. But Mr. Terkel, in a variation of the oral tradition, invites the common man and woman to tell their stories as time and events touched them.

Not too strangely it was Studs Terkel I thought of in a string of reactions of a few days ago when our car was stolen on a Friday night and found abandoned and wrecked at the base of a city bridge on Sunday night.

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The car was a 1978 Olds Cutlass, a lumbering veteran just beginning to burn a little too much oil. But overall it was in great shape, easy to drive, reliable, clean as a whistle. We parked it on the street because permanent parking places in Boston cost more than the car.

Now, wrecked and defiled, its driving days are over.

I would like Studs Terkel to interview the person who stole it. Whoever he was, he is part of the criminal culture here in Boston which has led this city into a reputation as the ``stolen car capital of the US.'' It is a subculture of contemporary history which needs examination from the street-level point of view.

I wouldn't mind a bit if the police caught the thief before or after Studs found him. From Studs I'd like to know exactly how the thief got to the point in his life where absolutely nothing influenced him to not steal a car.

When I arrived at the wrecking yard to identify the car, I asked the owner of the yard if the police looked for fingerprints. He laughed. ``This is one of 12 yards in the city where cars are towed,'' he said. ``So far this month, 91 cars have arrived here. Multiply that number by 12.''

That's 1,092 stolen cars. In addition to being a crime, this is an industry.

It is also a staggering indictment of our national obsession with cars as it influences that part of the population which values nothing but its own satisfaction, whether it is criminal or addictive satisfaction, or both.

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The person who stole my car may have been young and out on a joy ride. I doubt it. Maybe he and his friends will never do it again. I doubt that, too.

More likely, according to the police, this kind of thief doesn't care whatever it is that comes within his grasp - a car, a VCR, shoes, watches, television sets, whatever. It is easily stolen, easily lost, or easily turned into cash. There's plenty more out there in a consumer society, and the have-nots want what the haves have.

What I would like Studs Terkel to do is find the person who stole my car and deftly extract a life history from him that might help me understand why.

I'm not looking for theories of stealing or sociological explanations. I want to know the human story of this lone person. I want to know how he got to the point where nothing influenced him not to steal a car, where none of the values that permit daily life to be livable had any bearing on his actions.

If we don't try to understand why, and mend what is coming unraveled, at what point is it too late?

My assumption is that society is losing sight of such troubled people as human beings with potential and hope. Even worse, by their actions these individuals are losing sight of themselves as people with potential and self-worth.

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