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You need a car.

That kung-fu-chopping guy on the Metrobus has taken to challenging you to “death matches.” And the security-guard job you just snagged in Richmond sure isn’t going to drive itself to your doorstep.

You also need money—yours is already rationed to the T.

What to do? You’re honest enough not to fall in with the District’s car-theft fad. You’re not so honest that you’d sell a kidney on the black market to register a car, buy insurance, and pay any old fines you might have. Living is hard enough.

No big deal. D.C. can provide. There’s an immense, self-perpetuating river of unwanted autos coursing through town. It’s a simple matter to dive into the flow and pull out a keeper. From there, getting on the road is a matter of mastering a few basic skills. You’ve got to work the temp-tag market like a used-car dealer. You have to perfect playing dumb for the benefit of the police. And you must know how to control your panic while a mushroom cloud is erupting from the engine of your hoopdee.

Illuminating these valuable talents is the purpose of this guide. Reading further, you’ll find out how to buy a working auto for under $100. You’ll learn how to license, ride, and even rid yourself of this car for a mere $150 more.

And the best thing is, you won’t have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles for any of it.

Trolling the Auction

Finding a cheap auto is sometimes as easy as looking in your back yard. Or back alley. See? There it is. Who cares who left it there? Get it before the Department of Public Works does, but maybe after that streetwalker finishes conducting her business inside.

If you want something with a little more road value—or less urine—you’ll have to travel farther. You could go to one of the city’s hundred-something used-auto dealerships and ply your bargaining power. This tactic has its advantages, as you’ll see later. But why not first try your luck without the meddling of middlemen?

The dealers themselves go to auto auctions, and the area around Washington is saturated with them. In terms of price, though, you can’t beat the home team. DPW has a twice-monthly auction of abandoned vehicles, at which the bids start at $75.

To get to the DPW Storage and Auction Facility, you travel down long, snaky Shepherd Parkway into peninsular Blue Plains.

“Warning: Trained Attack Dogs,” reads a sign at the entrance gate. The only animals hanging around are swarms of cats, though, and they’re mooching, not attacking. So walk right in and give your refundable $100 deposit—cash only—to the folks inside the corrugated-steel customer-service shack. Then join the rest of the crowd strolling amid the hundreds of autos in this vast, dirt-floored arena.

In here, it’s all pretty smooth and sweet.

The auction facility stores vehicles that either went unclaimed for more than 14 days at the DPW’s Addison Road Impoundment Lot or were towed from public or private property by virtue of looking abandoned. A car looks abandoned, according to the DPW Web site, if it lacks tires, a battery, or tags, and has “extensive damage” or “harbors rats, snakes and other vermin.”

You probably can already smell the deal waiting for you here.

To make things better, the facility offers a great selection, thanks in part to a population swell that’s been terrific for towing companies. “We get about 7,500 vehicles a year,” says DPW analyst Jeff Dickerson.

D.C. until now has depended on the free market to carry away its excess steel. That’s where you come in. About one-third of the cars get sold at auction, and often for less than what the DPW pays to tow and retitle them.

Making an attempt at profit, the agency recently sent several employees to two-week auctioneering classes in Ohio. These speed-talking demons have gotten really good at kicking up the bids. But if you know beforehand the kind of cars you’re likely to find inside the lot, you won’t be rooked:

Cars that were abandoned because their transmissions dropped out on the road and other disaster victims. These are fairly easy to distinguish. Shun models with scabrous, crumbling shells of rust. Ditto the “car-be-cues.”

Cars that were stolen and never reclaimed. Also easy to distinguish, with their windshields marked “Stolen.” All of them are usually worth a second look. Many car thieves have pride—they won’t jack just any old ghetto sled. Just make sure the ignition’s still there.

Cars that were abandoned because payments got to be too much. With local dealerships charging 28 percent monthly interest, it’s no wonder you’ll see a few autos sticking out like gold crowns among decayed teeth. The problem with these cars is that everybody else will see them, too, including all the dealers in attendance. So don’t plan on buying one without a fight.

You can’t start the cars (the keys come post-purchase), but your senses should give you a pretty good idea of what to avoid. Let your nose steer you away from cars reeking of swamp dreck. (Auto upholstery is notoriously difficult to de-stink.) And though it looks solid enough, there’s probably a good mechanical reason that Toyota Camry is covered in pitiable graffiti: “HELP ME PLEASE,” “I’M ALL BROKE DOWN,” “PLEASE TOW,” “I NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE.”

Once you see a car with four tires and not too much body damage, pop the hood. Sweep away any old chicken bones and snakeskins inside, and inspect the wires for rodent damage. Review any cargo. If the vehicle’s got garbage bags of clothes loaded in the trunk, as does this ’96 Diamante—hey, gifts for the in-laws! If it’s a mountain of Corona bottles in the bed, as is the case for the Chevy pickup, avoid it. You’d need to buy a Weedwacker to chop the grass growing up from the bottles, and that’s a secondary expense.

Make your decision. When the DPW ground man puts his orange traffic cone on the car’s body, flash your bid number and get ready to rumble.

Rarely will the competition go above $100. Many dealers stop contending after the opening bid, preferring to procure a grab bag of cheap autos in the hope that the half-decent will balance out the wrecks. “Sometimes they’re a lemon….I call the junkyard to come get it,” says Femi, a dealer from Yaba Motors, on Georgia Avenue NW. Femi bought a dozen vehicles at the Oct. 7 DPW auction, most of them at the initial bid. These steals included two school buses and a Ryder truck filled with decaying floral mattresses. “Sometimes you put a key in them,” he continues, “and they’re perfect—they don’t need anything.”

And sometimes the perfect car comes with accessories. Like a club—not the wheel lock but the weapon, constructed from a thick dowel and a tape-wrapped hunk of metal. You might want to hold on to that. It could come in handy enforcing property rights over your temporary tag, should the need arise.

Registration: Is It Right for You?

You’ve gotten your car, and you’ve gotten it for under $150. According to D.C. law, now is the time to get insured, inspected, and registered.

Now would also be the time for your dog to start crapping gold nuggets.

Since 1983, D.C. has enforced mandatory insurance for all drivers. But damn your bargain-hunting heart, there just isn’t a cheap source of insurance in the city.

For a standard mid-’80s hoopdee—whether it be Cadillac or Volkswagen—a bare-bones liability policy at State Farm for young men runs around $550 for six months. Fair enough. Insurance companies, however, check your driving experience and record before handing out policies. If you have one moving violation (such as a speeding ticket), you could end up paying hundreds more.

How good you’ve been to your Visa also matters when it comes time to insure your auto. Though the days of redlining poor or strife-ridden neighborhoods are history, insurance companies have now started discriminating against debtors. “Unfortunately, we could run into somebody ineligible for insurance because of [his or her] credit score,” says Cary Fisher, a State Farm agent. “I hate that….It’s new—and I mean 2003—for us using [credit] for underwriting capacity. The state of Maryland does not allow that.”

The nonstate of D.C. does, though it does not allow forgetful drivers. Should your insurance expire without your immediately surrendering your license plates and registration, the DMV fines you. It’s $150 for the first 30 days, $7 for every day after that. Take note before taking the family vacation.

So check your driving and credit histories and crack open the piggy bank. And while your fingers are counting the pennies, turn your mind to the ordeal of inspection.

In Maryland, safety inspection is a once-and-for-all deal. It’s also nice that the inspection stations are privatized, as they are in Virginia, so there’s flexibility if you want to shop around for lenient mechanics. In D.C., it’s a trial by fire every two years at the government stations, which have somehow become loci for the city’s entire stockpile of efficiency.

Unless your previously abandoned auto was driven to the lot and misplaced by some bewildered soccer mom, forget about passing the emissions test, brake test, and safety inspection. Chances are that the checklist of don’ts at the station is essentially a description of your ride.

Here are some of the defects that could get you slapped with a “Failed” sticker: rusted panels, doors, fenders, or hood; loud exhaust; incorrect tag mounting; “unacceptable” window tint; damaged wiper blades; and under- or overinflated tires. “Seriously, they’re going to cut your head off,” says Femi. “That’s the God’s honest truth.”

If you do manage to pass through this gauntlet, you’ve got three ugly surprises waiting for you at the DMV’s registration counter.

The first is the excise tax. Never mind the $75 you paid for the car and the shape it’s in: D.C. taxes 6 percent on the National Automobile Dealers Association’s value for vehicles under 3,500 pounds. In many other states, you pay taxes on the bill of sale.

Second, if you’ve traveled outside the city, you’d better have driven well. The DMV clerks will run your record through the National Driver Register, and you’ll end up paying for any outstanding tickets in other states.

Al Watson, a Southeast resident, bought a 1982 Toyota this June as a present for his girlfriend, unaware of this governmental omniscience. The girlfriend took the car—but seven unpaid parking tickets in Maryland prevented her from registering it in the District. So she moved on, to Georgia. “I’m a Vietnam veteran,” complains Watson. “This city really sucks.”

Finally, you’d better make sure you don’t owe the city anything. D.C.’s 1996 “Clean Hands” Act has made the DMV a one-stop shopping outlet for all your debts to local government: tickets, child support, rubber checks. You won’t be able to register your car without becoming painfully clean.

Former DMV director Sherryl Hobbs Newman boasted that Clean Hands made hers “a premier enforcement and collection agency.” It sure did. Avoid the DMV as you would any sausage-fingered, knuckle-dragging thug.

An Introduction to Temp Tags

So you’ve decided to join the underground-car club. Congratulations. You’re not the only one. Stand at any major intersection in town and marvel at all the motorists who have no time or money for the DMV and Geico.

At 4:19 p.m. one Wednesday evening, a torrent of cars races up and down Southern Avenue SE. In a half-hour, 50 cars bearing temp tags pass by, about a tenth of the total volume.

Temp tags: Your passport to free city driving. Where are they handing them out?

To find out, try asking around the neighborhood. “I bought my truck eight months ago,” says Bernard King, a 40-year-old Southeast resident. “That motherfucker’s got a V6. Tuneup came with it, everything.”

What didn’t come with it, though, were tags. “They don’t give you no tags unless you got insurance,” says King. His wife, whom he planned to make a present of the truck, had an unpaid moving violation and could not afford insurance. “So [the dealer] says, ‘It’s up to you. You can take it off the lot—but get your own tags.’”

King took it off the lot. “I’m trying to keep my baby out here,” he explains. “I got to get my daughter and her something to eat.” He asked his friends where to get tags. The search took him to the house of a Southeast woman, who offered a wide spread of counterfeit plates.

“She had Virginia, Maryland, D.C., everything,” says King. He bought a counterfeit Maryland 60-day tag and fake registration papers. “They cost about $80, but she said they already had registration, like they were legit.”

That woman has since been busted, but King has heard of another dealer in a nearby project. “You just ask them, ‘Where the tags?’” he says. “They wrap ’em in newspaper.”

If you don’t know anyone in the loop, you should try visiting the local mom-and-pop dealership. You know, the one that keeps the same cars in its small gravel lot year after year. This August, 5th District police detectives stormed six of these dealerships in search of illegally issued temp tags. (Only one man was charged, for fraud.)

“Dealers can get 10 tags from the DMV a day,” says 6th District Officer Kevin McConnell. “They get these 10 sets of tags and they sell them, from anywhere between $80 and $160.” Though dealers are supposed to log each auto sale with the DMV, McConnell says he sees no evidence that cars are coming with the tags. “I don’t understand it. There’s no way these dealerships are selling 10 cars a day. I don’t think Koons Ford is selling 10 cars a day.”

The DMV is keeping mum on how it processes and distributes temp tags. “The problem here is that the other lead agencies aren’t talking. That’s the impression we’re getting on this end,” says agency spokesperson Rhonda Cheatham Woods, referring to the mayor’s office and the police department.

Blame assessment notwithstanding, there are more temp tags than ever to monitor. Although the city’s dealerships are losing out to development—the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs licensed 219 in 1999, 179 in 2001, and only 127 in 2003—the DMV is handing out more and more dealer tags. In 2001, 38,879 dealer tags hit the street. Last year the count jumped to 45,438, and at the beginning of this November the tally for 2003 was already 62,000.

Either Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ 100,000-new-residents wager is turning out to be a brilliant success (census data for the past three years give no indication that this is the case), or your chances of getting on the road are getting better every day. Just go see your dealer.

“Most car dealers are shoddy people, shoddy ex-cons. It’s a shoddy world, the car business is,” says Keevin Dabreu, an independent D.C. dealer. “A dealer’s not going to turn away $175 for a temp. They’re not going to do it.”

Dabreu says the average crooked dealer makes around $1,500 a day selling temp tags. “The DMV doesn’t have time to track the sales,” he says.

Scrupulous dealers issue their customers—the ones with proof of insurance, mind you—two temp tags and temporary registration papers. When their stack of tags gets low, they go to the DMV with their sales records and pick up a new stack. Scrupulous dealers lose a lot of money this way.

Cannier dealers would never dream of wasting a set of two tags on a single customer. “You issue a temp tag to Vehicle 1, and that’s the one you register with DMV,” says William Howland, chief of staff for the deputy mayor for operations and manager of the city’s nascent temp-tag task force. “Then the second tag you issue to Vehicle 2, and you don’t register that tag.”

Really dirty dealers don’t even sell cars—just tags. When they need more tags, they forge sales receipts and get more. Or they claim their tags were stolen. “We come to do the report for stolen tags.” says 4th District Officer Ernie Davis, “and they take the report numbers down to DMV [and] get some more tags to replenish their level.” Police computers will recognize the “stolen” tags for about three months. After that, the dealers can safely sell them, too.

“What you got is a social problem, and the dealers are gaining from it,” says Dabreu. “You can’t pass inspection, can’t pay insurance, and you got to get the kids to school…so you’re gonna do what you gotta do. And the easiest thing to do now is go get temp tags for a cheap, $500 or $600 car. If the car lasts you two or three months, that’s better than using public transportation for a month and burning up about five hours a day.”

FYI: The first two numbers on a dealer tag indicate its series. Don’t get stuck with an old one—cops notice. Davis says he pulled over a guy earlier this month for sporting a “15” series. (The DMV is at around “100” now. ) “He told me his name was Jerry Lee Lewis,” says Davis.

Dealing With Honest Dealers

Understand that if you walk into a dealership asking “Where the tags at?” you might not get the response you hoped for. Not all dealers are knee-deep in scum. So you have to know how to handle honest dealers to get what you want.

Sensing danger, some dealers don’t order tags. In that case, you’re out of luck. “You don’t have to buy tags from a dealer. It’s just a service they offer,” says Mac (not his real name), who works at a Northeast dealership.

Mac’s a good guy. He doesn’t stock or sell temp tags. “It kills me to not help people,” he says. “If [city legislators] could subsidize some form of insurance for their residents, it would take care of this tag situation. I think people really want to do right—they just don’t have the damn money.”

He says he tries to assist potential customers in other ways. “I tell them, ‘The best way to deal with this is try to get your car through inspection.’ But if you buy a car for under $1,000, there’s only so much I can do.”

Dealers who don’t sell tags tend to suffer. As Mac says: “That shit’s crushing my sales.” So most dealers stock tags. Even the honest ones—they’ll bundle the cost into “processing fees.” But they won’t just hand them to you. That is, unless you know the right method of persuasion.

It’s easier than you think.

For illustration purposes, take Femi, your typical honest dealer. The Nigerian émigré and former Textron employee (he built military helicopters) has worked hard to strike a profit from Yaba Motors without putting up a “Tags for Sale” sign. At night, thieves climb his fence and make off with tires, steering columns, even entire transmissions. During the day, people come in demanding cheap cars and the temp tags to go with them.

“They’re looking for everything you can do for them as favors,” Femi says. “Sometimes we bend the rules a little bit, but not break them.”

To get a tag from Femi, you might have to buy a car (or school bus) from him. Which isn’t a bad deal, if you have half a thousand bucks. Femi’s return policy is generous: “When you sell one [car], you’d better have two, or three. Because if the car’s more than 15 years old…it goes out. And literally every time something breaks down, [the customers] come back. You give them another car [in exchange for the old one].”

When you need new tags from an honest dealer, staging a little drama at the dealership is your best way of getting a set. Whether this involves crying your eyes out, cursing a blue streak, or worse, do it loud and long enough and the dealer will find it hard not to “bend the rules.”

In mid-October, D.C. police stopped one of Femi’s recent customers, a woman on her way to day care with her two children. “The police said, ‘Well, we called [the tag number] in. It’s not in the computer,’” says Femi. Rightly so: Most D.C. dealer-tag numbers don’t go into a police database.

But the cops thought the tags were fake or stolen, so they confiscated them and impounded the car. The woman took the cops’ word that the tags were bogus.

“When she came back in here,” says Femi, “she came with three of her cousins. Two of them have a gun….I said, ‘No, no! This isn’t fake!’ She says, ‘Fuck that, I want my money now!’”

Femi ended up giving her a new set of tags and writing an explanatory note to the DMV.

So, if you need tags and have a theatrical streak, try going wild on a dealer. They never know what you might be capable of. It happens so often to Femi that he says he would support a citywide policy that would provide one-time amnesty to people who can’t pay off basic tickets.

“They come in—you say, Is this guy on LSD? Is he just smoking weed? Is he on crack? Is it heroin? Or is he a sandwich? You know what a sandwich is? A combination of everything. And when he comes in here, don’t fuck with him, or he’ll kill you.”

Take a note. That’s going to be you: The crazy motherfucking sandwich.

“I have a hundred cases like [that one],” says Femi. “One of the jobs you have to do here is become a defuser….If you’re licensed to carry a gun, you don’t want to bring it. Because one day, one of them will push you to the limit, and you’ll use it.”

Femi notes that the dealer across the street was shot dead 10 years ago. “I’m going to leave this location by December,” he says. “I’m giving this business up.”

The Law: Annoying, but Ineffectual

With your temp tag in hand, you’re ready to hit the road. Screw that sucker onto the plate mount of your “new” car. Unscrew it and carry it into your apartment at night—no need to tempt seedy types who hunger for their own passport.

A word of warning, though: When cops spot you driving, they won’t like you. Seeing those ubiquitous cardboard rectangles day after day severely rags on an officer’s sense of law and order.

“I would say it’s an epidemic,” says McConnell, who’s renamed his district “The Land of the Paper Tags.” “I see them on any old hoopdee….You get to know the cars, the drivers. You stop them, and are like, ‘This is your third set of temporary tags. You can’t have that.’”

“I pay attention to the tags,” echoes Officer Anthony Simms, who patrols the 5th District’s Ivy City. “I see somebody’s got a temp, and I say, ‘OK, I’ll check back in about a month.’ If I then see it’s another new temp tag, I’m like, ‘OK. From temp comes hard. Not temp, temp, temp, and temp. And temp.’ There you got a problem.”

Capt. George Dixon, who works in the 6th District, says the tag presence wasn’t so big a few years ago. Back then, scofflaw drivers preferred to steal registration decals from license plates. But the DMV moved the decals from the license plate to the windshield, says Dixon, “and now it’s become the thing with these temp tags….They do photocopies, computer prints. Some are professionally done; some are garbage. D.C. came up with a holograph, but they’ll replace that with a strip of aluminum foil.”

Some drivers, Dixon says, don’t even bother: “It’s getting to the point now where people just put a note on their car saying, ‘Stolen Tags.’”

In response to the cardboard onslaught, Dixon has been encouraging his officers to pull over cars with suspicious-looking tags. That’s bad news for you. If your tag is taped up in the window, that’s improper tag placement, and it results in a pull-over. If you only have one tag, that’s also a pull-over. Even if you’re simply not wearing a seatbelt, a cop might pull you over and ask to see your temporary registration.

The reason the cops are so concerned about your temp tag is because of all the cool things you can do with one. Like emanate powerful waves of outlaw mystique.

“You got one of those Caprice Classics, and you see the guy, sitting low in the seat, reclined,” says Dolly Davis, a Ward 7 advisory neighborhood commissioner. “That’s, like, wrong! They didn’t teach me that in driver’s ed. They taught me to sit up, hands at 2 and 10 [o’clock] on the steering wheel. These guys are laid-back like as if somebody shoots at them, it’s gonna go through metal before it gets to their head. And then they have the nerve to have these paper tags on the back of a blacked-out window!”

Other things you can do with the tags are of more substantiative concern for the police. You can drive with your exhaust pipe kicking out a solid 10 feet of flame right in front of speed-trap and red-light cameras, for instance, and not worry about getting a ticket. That’s because temporary-tag license numbers are extraordinarily difficult to track. In some cases (for instance, the D.C. dealer tag), the numbers just don’t correspond to any useful information, such as the name of the car’s owner.

“They’re not registered to anybody,” says McConnell. “They don’t come back to anybody. Nobody’s responsible for them. That’s the whole point of these temp tags.”

Untrackable numbers also come in handy should you ever hit, then want to run. Ditto for bank robberies. And if you want to transport a stolen car, a temp tag’s a good way to frustrate a police officer’s computerized license registry.

Do you get the drift? Your mind might be only on getting to work, but when the po-pos get a glimpse of your paper tag, there’s nothing in their minds stopping them from thinking you’re criminal trash. Unfortunately for you, that viewpoint just got some backing from a study conducted by Arlington County police officers.

Between March and September of this year, a handful of Arlington cops reporting to Cpl. D.L. Washington, creator of the county’s Stop Counterfeiting of Temporary Tags (SCOTT) program, logged 429 interactions with drivers with temporary tags. The results: 292 traffic violations, 63 bodily arrests, 53 drug violations (36 involving marijuana, the rest split among cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, PCP, and crystal meth), 23 outstanding warrants, and various instances of such crimes as contributing to delinquency, weapons possession, and prostitution.

The Arlington officers’ reports should give you some idea why you’ll get the evil eye from cops for having your hoopdee all temped up:

May 21: Two cops spot a car with a 15-day Maryland tag, which is supposed to be used only for getting from the house to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, or an auto shop, or for weighing your truck, or for…The point is, the tag is valid only inside Maryland. They tow the car. Later that day, the car is reported stolen from Alexandria. The officers arrest the driver, who was staying at an Arlington hotel.

June 29: Several cops pull over another car that bears a 15-day Maryland tag. They smell marijuana, and upon searching they find some of the drug inside the car. Following a “strong officer’s sense,” says Washington, they conduct another, more fastidious search. “They realized one side of a seat was heavier than the other,” says Washington, “and inside it they found $46,000 in cash and bags of pot.”

Aug. 3: A cop stops a car for having only half of a set of D.C. dealer tags. But the driver holds what looks like the appropriate paperwork. The cop asks for a consent search, and the driver agrees. The cop finds 941 pirated CDs and DVDs in the trunk—and arrests the driver.

So, here’s Drive It Yourself Rule No. 1: Don’t go to Arlington.

The cops are nuts about temp tags there. “I reference this to Viagra,” says Washington, who’s trained approximately 500 officers in Arlington and D.C., not to mention airport authorities, commonwealth’s attorneys, and judges. “It reactivates [peoples’] hard-on for proactive policing. I even wear a Viagra tie.”

And if you’re sporting a D.C. dealer tag in Arlington, you might as well tie a giant red flag to your antenna. “The District of Columbia’s 30-day ‘DG’ temporary tag was the primary violator for altered tags,” notes the SCOTT study. “The total number of infractions involving that style of temporary tag was 191.” (The runner-up was Maryland’s 60-day tag, with 87 violations.)

And here’s Rule No. 2: If you get pulled over in D.C. and the cop asks about your tag, have a really good answer ready.

Fortunately, a good answer is easy to memorize. There are three of them:

“It’s not my car.”

“I didn’t know the tag was fake/altered/ stolen/expired.”

“I got this tag from the DMV.”

Your gambit here is that, by spitting out a pathetic excuse that any beat cop has heard hundreds of times before, you will switch the officer to autopilot, and he will assign you to the vast, gray, oatmeal sea of pseudocriminals—and let you off with a warning.

Of course, if the officer doesn’t believe you or has had a bad day, lockup could be your next destination.

You never know: There’s no standard for enforcement for temp tags in D.C. Whether you’re arrested and your car is towed and your tag or tags confiscated is completely up to the officer’s discretion. If you’re driving without registration, you might go in for that. If your tags have expired, you could wind up with your hands twisted in cuffs behind your back.

But if the worst-case scenario happens and you find yourself staring at those bars and that weird stainless-steel toilet, don’t despair. This is a moment when you need no qualified advice. If you have a few sawbucks in your wallet, you’ll be out within hours.

Fifty dollars gets you out of jail and back behind the wheel of your car, which the arresting officer most likely parked safely on the street. Think of it. For less than the price of one abandoned auto, you’re free.

And that $50 is good for all time. “There is no steppingstone,” says Davis. “If I get locked up for unregistered auto once, it’s a $50 pay-out. If I get locked up 10 times, it’s [still] $50.”

Good fortune might stick with you even if you can’t pay the fine and have to go to court. McConnell says he ticketed one unregistered driver for having no insurance. Later, in front of the judge, “The hearing examiner says to me, ‘Well, you don’t have to have insurance unless the vehicle’s registered. You only have to insure registered vehicles,’” McConnell says.

When Your Car Goes South

There is a depressing conclusion to your DIY jaunt, and you might as well get prepared for it. Your tag may last forever, given you acquire the Liquid Paper or X-Acto skills necessary to alter expiration dates, but your car sure won’t.

It might be a blown head gasket, an engine rod exploding through the hood, or the back of the vehicle quietly jiggling loose from the front in transit. However it happens, your momentum will suddenly consist entirely of traffic bumping you along the road. This awkward situation can occur as soon as a few months after you purchased the car. With luck, by then you’ll have sucked out every dollar you put into it—and every dollar you saved by not registering it. (Don’t forget to add in those property taxes!)

When the inevitable breakdown happens, follow this time-tested procedure: Calculate your losses. Take a deep breath. And walk away.

Unseen hands will take care of your hoopdee.

“Our biggest thing is abandoned or junk autos,” says Simms. “Wherever it breaks down at, that’s where it’s left at: on the middle of the road, even some blocking rush-hour traffic….[People] want to just drive it for a little bit until it dies, then get another and do the same thing.”

Once you leave your wreck, and the fire engines clear out, it’s the DPW’s duty to come tow the mess away to its impound lot. When nobody claims it, it’ll go to the Blue Plains auction facility, from where, if it’s a total wreck, it’ll be towed again to its fate in the “shredder” at the city’s junk contractor, Capitol Heights-based Joseph Smith and Sons Inc. “They put the car in the machine,” says Dickerson, “and there are these things that come down. They’re like fists of steel. They literally beat the car into parts.”

Of course, if the car’s got some spirit left and is bought and fixed up, look forward to seeing someone else driving it around the neighborhood. You’ll probably be too busy haggling at the next auction to feel any twinges of jealousy.

“If we can just get that revolving door closed, where somebody buys a hoopdee at an auction for $75, pays whatever for the temp tags, and drives it around until it breaks down…” dreams Simms. He’s got a policy that he says could clear the entire city of unregistered, barely running cars. Of course, it would never pass by the D.C. Council, so you can sleep soundly tonight.

“I say, if a car’s left on the street for 72 hours—abandoned, with no owner—it’s crushed, no questions asked,” Simms says. “Boom! That car won’t be on the street no more. That car will be a stop sign somewhere. Or a license plate.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Robert Meganck.