The supply chain ate my catalytic converter. Now I'm a straight pipe scofflaw
Recently, I wrote about how scoundrels stealing my catalytic converter inspired half-baked fantasies of vigilantism. I wanted that to be the end of the story, but as the poet-entrepreneur Mick Jagger famously sang, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you’ll find, you get what you need.
Well, Mick, the only thing I need is a replacement for my catalytic converter. But four weeks later—and counting!—I’m still waiting for someone, somewhere to unfuck the supply chain. I’m not holding breath.
Harbinger at the gas station
After I filed a claim with my insurance company and took my car to a nearby mechanic, I had a lesser of two evils kind of choice.
Option #1: Wait a three or four months for manufacturer parts.
Option #2: Wait three or four weeks, give or take, for after-market parts.
Neither choice felt great, but I went with the shorter wait time. Charlie, my mechanic, validated my decision, saying, “that’s what I’d do if I were you.” On my way home, I was received further validation when I stopped to get gas.
“I’ve never heard a Prius make noise like that,” the man at the pump next to me said.
“Yeah, scoundrels stole my catalytic converter.”
“I figured that was it,” the stranger said. “I mean, I never heard of someone street racing in a Prius.”
We both laughed. For a moment, I even imagined myself trading paint with Vin Diesel in the next installment of the Fast & Furious franchise. Someone has to replace The Rock, after all, and I just don’t see why it can’t be me in a Prius.
“Same thing actually happened to me,” the stranger said. “Fuckers stole my catalytic converter, but I didn’t have the money to get it fixed. The deductible is five hundred bucks, and I don’t have it.”
“So you just ride around with your car making that god-awful noise?”
“Nah, man, I got a straight pipe.”
“What’s a straight pipe?”
“Hell if I know. But for like fifty bucks my mechanic worked it so I don’t need a catalytic converter.”
“You don’t need one?”
“Well, you do need one. But I can’t afford one, so that’s how it goes.”
“Thing is, I’m gonna have to get one when my registration is up because you can’t pass a smog test without a catalytic converter.”
I checked my tags. I had registered the Prius two months prior.
“Basically, I’m screwed,” he continued. “Sooner or later, I’m gonna have to pay money I don’t have.”
I felt bad for the stranger. We had both been the victim of the same crime, but what amounted to an unpleasant bill and a funny story for me was, quite possibly, a catastrophic event for him.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This whole thing sucks.”
“Yup. But what are you gonna do?”
I shrugged because that’s what you do when you don’t know what to do.
“Anyway, at least I got the straight pipe now so I can get to work,” he said. “A few things break my way, and I’ll have the money.”
I wished the stranger luck, and we went our separate ways.
Word on the street
About a week after I met the straight pipe stranger, Christina and I went to a friend’s house for a barbecue. The last time we saw our hosts, their three children were toddlers and the word “pandemic” was always preceded by the year 1918.
As we walked up the driveway toward the house, their oldest son, Will, jumped out of the bushes to surprise us.
“Oh my god, you totally got us,” Christina said.
“I was hiding in the bushes,” Will said.
“I totally didn’t see you,” I said. “You’re very sneaky.”
“I have to be,” Will said. “I’m a spy.”
“I thought you were a six-year-old boy,” Christina said.
“I am,” Will said. “I’m a six-year-old boy who is a spy.”
“Wow!” Christina said. “That’s amazing.”
Christina was impressed to be in the presence of a bona fide intelligence operative, but I wasn’t so sure.
“Will, don’t take this the wrong way. But should you be telling people you’re a spy? Isn’t secrecy a big part of the job?”
“You’re right,” Will said. “I’m not a spy.”
Then he ran off to eat some Doritos.
A little later, as the adults talked and the kids splashed in the pool, one of Will’s moms told me their son was an actor.
“He’s playing the role of the spy,” I said, “but I think that’s on the down-low.”
Will’s other mom laughed.
“No, he’s just messing with you,” she said. “He’s not a spy. But he really is doing some acting. He booked a short film the other day, and he’s got a movie that’s in post.”
“Holy shit! This kid is gonna be a star.”
Both of Will’s moms laughed.
“I don’t know about that, Michael. These are small roles. We’ll let him keep acting as long as he’s having fun and it doesn’t interfere with school. But we don’t want him to be one of those child stars.”
We talked some more and I learned a few more things about Will. Yes, he could act. But he was also a musician. And he was learning to speak Spanish!
“Plus, he’s precocious,” I said, “so, he’s got that going for him.”
Later on, as we ate, Will played the guitar and his sister played the violin. At intermission, I went for a second helping of pesto pasta salad. When I returned to my seat, a friend who reads Situation Normal asked about my stolen catalytic converter.
“Still waiting on the part,” I said. “Supply chain.”
Everyone groaned. Like pandemic, supply chain was one of those terms regular people rarely used before 2020. But these days, supply chain is a catchall for whatever happens to be standing between you and your goals.
“So, does that mean you can’t drive your car at all?” someone asked.
“Pretty much. My mechanic said I shouldn’t drive faster than thirty miles an hour, but that’s a joke because the car struggles to get up to that speed. Plus, it makes this awful death-rattle-farting sound. So, we’re a one-car family for now.”
“Isn’t there anything you can do in the meantime?” someone else asked.
“You can get a straight pipe,” I said. “But it won’t pass a smog test.”
I explained what I knew of straight pipe life, which wasn’t much. Then I explained that my source was a stranger I met at a gas station. After retelling what I knew of the stranger’s story the mood seemed gloomy.
“This guy didn’t do anything wrong,” another friend said. “Actually, he did the right thing and got auto insurance, but a five hundred dollar deductible is crazy if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.”
There it was, one of the most common phrases in our political discourse: paycheck to paycheck. The parties can’t agree on why so many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and they certainly can’t agree on a solution, but the phrase is a bipartisan meme. Don’t believe me? Watch any Presidential debate from the last four decades and take a shot each time one of the candidates says, “paycheck to paycheck.” You’ll be drunk inside of twenty minutes.
“This is how hard-working people end up living on the street,” my friend continued. “One stroke of bad luck, and they can’t afford to get their car fixed. Then when it’s time to renew their registration, they can’t because they can’t pass a smog test. Then they get a ticket for driving without tags. Then the tickets add up and the car gets impounded, and they can’t get to work to earn money to pay the tickets, and everything just snowballs.”
My friend was right. The stranger’s straight pipe saga sounded all too common. It also sounded a little like what Ernest Hemingway wrote about how people go bankrupt: “gradually, then suddenly.”
“This makes me so mad,” my friend continued. “I wish you could catch the thieves in the act, beat them up, and make them see what they’re doing to people.”
At that point, Christina, who is a loving wife and a relentless marketer, signed our friend up for Situation Normal and directed her to the story of my half-baked vigilante fantasies. But sitting around in broad daylight, I had a more practical take on vigilantism.
“I’m right there with you on the vigilantism, but it’s tough crime to stop,” I said. “It only takes a few minutes to steal one, and I’d have to spend every night hiding in the bushes, waiting for some scoundrels to jack my catalytic converter. But if they do show up, it’s not like I’m prepared to do anything about it.”
“You could call the cops,” someone suggested.
“They’d be gone before the cops get there,” I said. “I’d have to stop them myself, and it’s not like I’m some kind of Karate Man who only bruises on the inside.”
Everyone laughed because everyone was old enough to remember Eddie Murphy’s Karate Man bit from the movie Trading Places. Well, everyone except for Will, who sat down next to me and whispered an offer in my ear.
“Do you want me to teach you karate?” Will asked.
“I thought you were a bilingual actor and a musician,” I said.
“I’m also a spy, remember?”
“So, spies know karate.”
I didn’t take Will up on his offer to teach me Karate. For one thing, I figured my mechanic would call any day now and I’d be back in gear, so to speak. Also, I didn’t think sparring with a six-year-old kid, even a really talented and precocious six-year-old, was a good look for me.
“Michael, I’ve got some bad news,” Charlie said. “The distributor sent us the wrong part.”
“That is bad news.”
“Well, it gets worse I’m sorry to say.”
“We called them and there was a little back-and-forth, boring stuff to be honest, and anyway, they’re sending us the right part.”
“That sounds like good news.”
“It will be good news when it gets here.”
“But that’s going to take another four or five weeks.”
“What we can do is install a straight pipe for you,” Charlies said. “It’ll hold you over until we get the part, but you won’t pass a smog test.”
“Yeah, I met a guy who did the straight pipe. How much does that cost?”
“We’ll do it for free,” Charlie said. “I feel bad. I told you to go for after market parts because it would be faster, but now it’s looking like that’s a mess too.”
“Free? Are you sure? We’ve been managing with just the one car.”
“Yeah, it’s no trouble on our end. I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for the part, and I don’t want to leave you in a lurch if you need your wheels and your wife is using the car.”
Charlie made a good point. Shit happens, after all. Heck, shit happening was pretty much the theme of my catalytic converter saga.
Straight pipe scofflaw
When I brought my car into the garage for my straight pipe, I found Charlie talking to another customer about her stolen catalytic convertor.
“It sucks,” Charlie said. “But if it’s any consolation, you’re not alone.”
“Tell me about it,” the woman said.
Charlie looked at me, and I told her all about it, from my half-baked vigilante fantasies to my fear that supply chain limbo would never end.
“What a mess,” she said. “I can’t believe the cops aren’t doing anything to stop this.”
“One hundred percent,” I said. “Someone is buying these stolen catalytic converters. There’s no such thing as a non-profit theft ring.”
“Absolutely,” she said. “Follow the money, am I right?”
I nodded. I didn’t know this woman, but together we had managed to do what dozens of law enforcement agencies operating in Los Angeles County couldn’t do: identify a plan to take down Mr. Big and put these catalytic converter thieves out of business.
“Now all we need are badges,” I said.
“Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges.”
I liked the cut of this woman’s jib. I was just about to ask her if she wanted to form a posse, rent some low-emission horses, and mount up for justice, when Charlie interrupted.
“That reminds me, Michael, I need to tell you something about the straight pipe.”
“Technically, it’s illegal.”
“Huh? I thought it just means I won’t pass smog inspection.”
“Right. In the state of California, it’s illegal to operate a vehicle that doesn’t pass smog inspection.”
“Yeah, that tracks.”
“But don’t worry. I’m going to give you my card. So, if the cops hassle you… they shouldn’t hassle you, but if they do, because you never know with cops, I’ll vouch for you.”
“Vouch for me? Does that work?”
“Yeah, I’ve had to do it a couple of times. It always works. Well, one time it didn’t. But that cop was just being a dick.”
“The customer went off on him about how he wouldn’t have gotten a straight pipe if the cops did their job and arrested people for stealing catalytic converters.”
“Follow the money,” the woman said. “Take down Mr. Big.”
“Yeah, well, don’t tell the cops that,” Charlie said. “Those guys are on a power trip.”
The way Charlie explained the legal downsides to the straight pipe life, not to mention the environmental consequences, the situation felt like a real clusterfuck.
“So, you’re telling me there’s a better chance of the cops hassling me for a straight pipe then there is of the cops actually catching the people who stole my catalytic converter?” I asked.
“It’s messed up, isn’t it?” Charlie replied.
“It’s fucked six ways from Sunday, is what it is,” the woman said.
“So, you still want the straight pipe?” Charlies asked.
“Yeah, I might as well join the crime wave,” I said. “If you can’t beat the scofflaws, might as well join ‘em.”
Stick around and chat about the story!
I love hearing from readers like you because it makes writing Situation Normal so much fun! If you enjoyed this story, please let me know by leaving a comment below. Or, if you’re the type of person who likes a prompt, consider the following questions:
“Will” is an alias because the real life kid is a minor, and possibly a spy. Is Will a good alias, or should I have come up with something more on brand like Mitch Mata Hari, James Beard Bond, or Jumpin’ Jack Flash Ryan?
Unless there’s an emergency, I’m not driving my straight pipe Prius because I don’t want to put anymore smog into the air, so we’re a one-car family for now. Are you a one-car family? No car family? Any tips?
Prior to 2020, how often did you have conversations about supply chains?
Throughout this story and the previous one, I’ve made the case that catalytic converter theft is an economic crime, and that law enforcement should follow the money and take down Mr. Big. But I don’t see that happening. Do you think the cops are just lazy, or are we dealing with some real Keyser Söze shit?
Do you think I’ll get a replacement catalytic converter before Labor Day?
Support Situation Normal by sharing it!
Situation Normal grows because readers like YOU share these stories. Please forward this email to a friend (or enemy), post this story on social media, discuss it on Reddit, link to it in your newsletter, or hit the share button 👇
Still wanna show your support?
Hit that ❤️ button 🙏👇