My son, Trey, was admitted to the ER a few years ago following a doctor’s appointment. He was diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg and needed to be treated immediately. I went to the hospital to pick him up and we left his car there. The plan was to go back the next day to retrieve it. My daughter, Laurel, volunteered to help me, so I left work early to get home and pick her up, then return to the clinic to get the car. Because I’d left early, I still had work to do. I was on a conference call (hands free!) at the time we drove to the hospital. Our plan was to get to the parking lot where he’d left it, drop Laurel off by the car, and have her follow me home. She had been driving for about a year and half by then and was very capable.
We made it to the clinic parking lot about 3:30, and I was talking on my call at that time. We drove around the lot a couple of times to find the car, and when we did, I thought that it must have been a busy day at the clinic because Trey’s car was parked pretty far out on the edge. We nodded at each other, and she got out. In my distraction while on the call, I waited long enough to see her get in to the driver’s seat, but didn’t wait for her to back out and follow me. I knew she’d be fine. I figured I’d see her at home. Not my best mother moment.
When I got home, Trey said Laurel had called him and she was freaking out because she thought she was in the wrong car. No way, I said – I saw the car – it was yours! She’s crazy. He said she was convinced it wasn’t his, but she wasn’t going to try to take it back, that she said she was coming home. We both watched from the upstairs window to see what would show up when she arrived. As she pulled up in front of the house, I looked at Trey and said that’s not your car. I was stunned. It was the same model, same color, it even had the roof rack like his, but it was not his car. Oh no. His key was able to open and start someone else’s car. How strange is that?
Laurel came into the house and burst into tears. She had driven most of the way home gradually coming to the realization that she was driving someone else’s car. It was cleaner than Trey’s. The radio station was on AM. The skull and crossbones air freshener wasn’t hanging from the rear view mirror. Finally, she realized that the seat covers Trey had on his seats were not there. She was convinced the police would be on her tail, helicopters would come swooping in and she’d be in big trouble. She really was freaking out. I told her I would take care of it. I took the key, grabbed my purse and headed back to the hospital. I understood how Laurel must have felt – it was very unnerving to be driving a car without the owner’s permission.
I decided to try to reach the owners to let them know what had happened. I found their registration in the glove box and called directory assistance only to find out they were unlisted. I then called their insurance company. I gave the service person the name and account number and she asked what she could do to help. I responded “Well, this may be the strangest call you get all day…”, and explained the situation.
Once she had the crazy story clear, she said to wait a minute. When she came back on the line, she had the owner’s wife with her. I assured her that both her husband and the car were fine (in that order) and then explained the tale of mistaken car identity. I explained that I didn’t want her husband to come out of the clinic and think his car had been stolen. She said he was at work on the medical campus and wouldn’t be off until after 5 p.m. He wouldn’t even notice it was gone. I felt relieved by that and told her that I would re-park it as close to where we found it as I could. She said it would make a funny story to tell him over dinner that evening. We all got a good laugh out of it and I drove the rest of the way without worry.
I kept imagining him coming out to his car that evening and thinking, “I could have sworn I was parked one space over….It feels like the seat has been moved…the radio is off – I left it on…the mirror is wrong, too…” Very Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I suppose I could have left him a note, but that would have taken all the fun out of his wife’s story that evening.
I called my daughter to let her know that the car had been safely returned and her career as a car thief was over. As I was talking to her, I walked toward a blue Subaru wagon and was about to put the key in the door, certain I had found Trey’s car at last. I looked in, just to be sure, and once again, it was someone else’s car. I guess it’s an easy mistake to make.