The Repo Man Made Me a Badass Biker
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The Repo Man Made Me a Badass Biker


This post was originally published on February 5, 2015.

With no sleep and just two weeks off booze, I bought a beautiful car I couldn’t afford. This was in 2007 at the beginning of my first round of sobriety, and I was floating on a majestic fairy-pink cloud, joyfully sustaining myself off the two AA meetings I’d attended at the Bliss Café in Hollywood.

Two weeks earlier I destroyed my previous car while driving with a probable .15 blood vodka level after leaving my friend’s house at 6 am. While hauling ass at 140 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood, I hit a speed bump, rocketed into the sky and crash landed so hard on the asphalt, the oil pan got a huge gash. Oil dripped out of the pan faster than I could get home, and the engine immediately burned up. There was no way to salvage it. Luckily, that drove me into AA, but unlucky for me, I had no car.

So I walked myself down to the VW dealership a few blocks from the old Victorian house where I lived as a graduate student at USC. I wasn’t interested in a new car per se, figuring I might score a certified pre-owned vehicle for $5,000 or something.

But when I walked up to the dealership, an iridescent emerald green Beetle pulled me to the showroom—almost against my will. I gazed into its paint and admired the black faux leather seats just as a gregarious Russian-Armenian salesman sneaked up behind me.

“So, you like the car!” he exclaimed. “Let’s take it for a test drive.”

What’s the harm, I thought, secretly knowing that if I drove that adorable Beetle I’d probably get hooked. But with little presence of mind and no concept of living within my means—I still didn’t have a sponsor—I brushed the concern off.

Despite its V-4 engine, the little car had incredible horsepower, and it zipped around the corner so smoothly even with its manual transmission.

I have to have this car.

Of course I needed a loan, and with shitty credit and an income in the 30K range, I wasn’t having much luck. For two hours, Aram, my devoted salesman, called every bank known to God to try and get me a deal. He stayed at his desk, sweating in the May heat, never taking a break, persisting for two straight hours.

Finally, someone bit.

“So here’s the deal. If you put $3,000 down and agree to 15% apr and a five-year contract we can get you the car,” he said.

Now I don’t usually have $3,000 of expendable income, but I’d just lied on my tax return to reap a huge refund (if the IRS is reading this, don’t worry, you’ve already audited me and I’ve already paid you back), so I had the cash ready to go. The total monthy payment, after that ungodly interest, would be $370. Not too bad. Unfortunately, I didn’t foresee an upcoming relapse that would cost me my job.

Ecstatic and somewhat petrified, I rolled out of the dealership in this beautiful new vehicle, so exhilarated I took a joy ride up to Oxnard on PCH in a semi-manic state to bask in that wonderful new car smell and show off my new wheels to other motorists who I’m sure did not give a damn.

By the time I really bottomed out in the fall of 2009—when I finally did get sober—I had no money and no job and there was no way to make the payments. Months of bills had piled up, and I was threatened with repossession.

Not wanting the VW repo man to come take the car away in the middle of the day or night without my knowledge, I voluntarily “surrendered” the car, which is essentially the same thing. This big burly guy banged the door during a Wednesday afternoon, pushed a bunch of papers in my face, and, with a large truck blinking with more flashing lights than a firetruck, towed my dream car away.

I was mortified. Surely the neighbors would know my car was being repossessed, not towed due to a dead battery or faulty engine. The car looked brand-new after all, and I stood there, watching them drag the thing away, hating myself in ways I hadn’t expected for being such an irresponsible idiot.

But how the hell would I navigate the enormous Los Angeles sprawl without a car?

I didn’t want to take the bus. I hated the bus, not because it was “beneath” me or anything asinine like that, but because it took forever. To get anywhere I needed at least two lines, and in LA the buses don’t fly by every five minutes. Thankfully, I had an eco-minded friend in the program with an 27-gear road bike collecting dust in her backyard, and she pushed it on me.

This would have been a very happy ending if I actually knew how to ride a road bike, let alone a road bike with 27 gears, but I did not. I hadn’t gotten on a bike since I was eight years old, when I took a gnarly and traumatic dive while riding down my aunt’s steep asphalt driveway. My chin ripped open, as did the skin around both my elbows.

After that, I tossed my bike aside and swore I’d never ride one again.

But with no car I had few options, so I accepted my friend’s bike and took it up to the top of a quiet hill near my house (and I live in a very hilly neighborhood), where I attempted to mount the thing.

Immediately, I crashed over on my side, right in the  middle of the street.

Pissed, I got up, dusted off my scratched-up knees and tried again. This time I was able to stay on, but as I tried to pedal I wobbled to the right and the left and crashed again. Muttering expletives, I got up again, looked around and hoped no one was watching the ridiculousness.

Then I got on again.


And again.


Finally, I started gaining momentum, just enough to accidentally ride over the hill, heading downwards at what felt like 60 mph toward an intersection. I squeezed on the hand breaks, but they didn’t seem to work and the bike started jiggling, just as it had before I hit the pavement when I was eight. Unable to stop, I whizzed right on through the stop sign and thankfully the motorists weren’t texting or playing Candy Crush on their cell phones, so no one smashed into me. By the time the road flattened out, my nerves were fried.

I almost died!

Maybe it was because I was so newly sober, maybe it’s because I’m a Capricorn, or maybe it was because I was still under 35 and thought I was somewhat invincible, but I just kept getting on that bike, determined to master it, even though I kept crashing and embarrassing myself all throughout the streets of LA.

But three months in, I was whizzing down Hollywood Boulevard, zooming between cars and passing Metro buses with the finesse of a seasoned rider. I became obsessed with biking, learned how to fix flats and learned how to master all those 27 gears with ease. It was incredibly rewarding—and equally entertaining—to see the payoff of my determination. And of course, I was helping keep our planet nice and green.

Thanks, repo man, for giving me a hobby I never knew I wanted.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.