These are times that can try a man’s van.
Jose Lopez thought he had taken precautions. Living in a city where he parked on the street, he had armed his 1985 Chevy Astrovan with a powerful alarm. But circumstances led him to drastic measures.
The trouble started two months ago, when he moved from a quiet street in North Bergen to a bustling one in neighboring Weehawken. Within three weeks, his van had been vandalized three times. “Back windows broken, side windows broken, console ripped out, CD changer gone, the works,” he said. “They had a party with my van.”
So Lopez declared war. (He loves that van. It has a hydraulic suspension.) He installed burglar bars behind tinted glass on the back and side windows. He removed the interior and exterior door handles and the window handles. And he did something truly stunning.
He rigged the van with electrified wires to give would-be thieves the shock of their lives.
For this van vigilantism, the 25-year-old electronics whiz faces up to six months in prison. As his luck would have it, he was arrested two days after he installed the contraption.
The van created quite a stir when Lopez left a window slightly open and rain landed on some wires. Police passing by heard crackling sounds. They thought the van held a bomb.
“I guess the bomb squad was pretty upset,” Lopez said.
He was arraigned Tuesday on charges of “knowingly possessing a stun gun device in a vehicle,” according to court papers. “You should have seen the police in the precinct going through their book,” Lopez said. “They didn’t know what to charge me with. I guess this is the closest thing.”
Tuesday, he finds out his fate.
“My conscience is clear,” he said gravely. “I’m just a guy who’s been abused. It’s like one of those underdog stories, the little guy trying to fight back.”
Now, it may sound as if he went just a little crazy over his van. He admits it. (“It would have helped to put a sign in the window. `Vehicle electrified. Enter at your own risk.’ “)
But as a young man living in New Jersey, he couldn’t afford to think those three magic words: comprehensive auto insurance. A garage would cost almost as much as his apartment. And those break-ins were adding up.
He used to have a motion sensor in the van that beeped when someone approached. “But it annoyed the public,” he said. “So I took it off and left my van a sitting duck.”
Most people wouldn’t know that Lopez’s van is special. It may look like a regular workhorse, stocky and brown and kind of worn. Sometimes, it may act like one. (It trudges from Hudson County every day to Fort Lee, where Lopez drives a cab for Babe’s Taxi Service.) Underneath its homely brownness, the van is a regular bucking bronco.
“People say, `Why do they keep breaking into this van?’ ” he said. “Ever hear of a car that dances?”
Using switches next to his seat, Lopez can get the van to jump 30 to 40 inches off the ground. “It can do bunny hops where the car jumps on its hind wheels, pony hops, where it goes front to back, and side to side hops,” he said proudly.
It’s that hydraulic suspension. Lopez installed it himself, sending away for parts advertised in Low Rider magazine.
“You can have a Ferrari next to me,” he said, “and if I can go out and make the van dance, what do you think people will be looking at?”
He has had his hydraulic suspension for more than four years, first in a Chevy Celebrity that preferred the quiet life. “It didn’t dance that well,” he said. “I bought the van specifically for its danceability.”
It does do an impressive twist. It has even won second place in a hydraulic car dancing competition. “It’s fun,” he said. “It’s part of a new breed of car.”
The stunning gizmo would have been part of that. “I had no idea it was illegal,” he said. He had even tried out the stunner himself. “I opened the car door, pretending to get a tool as if I was a thief,” he recalled. “And I got a snap that shook the veins in my arms. It worked just like an electric fence.”
Now, it would seem he doesn’t need it. Two weeks ago, he moved back to North Bergen, where he’d never had a problem with vandals. He has a parking spot in the back of his apartment, directly under his kitchen window. “It’s great, because I can watch the van any time,” he said. For added security, he plans on putting a motion sensor with a beep or a light on the window.
He also fancies installing an ultrasonic generator in the van, which would emit a sound that would make would-be thieves feel nauseated. “Depending on what happens in court,” he said, “I’m thinking of adding a lot of things.”