WENDELL — In 15 years as a repo man, Ron Shirley has survived a broken bottle to the head, a baseball bat to the legs, a shot-up tow truck and the sight of a naked man sprinting out of his house at midnight, screaming for his reclaimed coupe.
Ask Shirley how he survives this world of ax swingers and shotgun shooters - besides standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 300 pounds - and he explains that he's tough enough to hit a giraffe with an uppercut, bad enough to put a rattlesnake in your pocket and ask for a light.
So throw in Shirley's former power-lifter wife, Amy - "She's tougher than a $2 steak" - and his best friend, Bobby Brantley - "He's gooder than grits" - and you've got the makings of a grade-A reality show: "Lizard Lick Towing," a mixture of country wisdom and skull-busting scraps that starts Feb. 7.
There's only one thing more satisfying than watching Shirley wrestle a Honda Accord away from a 4-foot woman on national television, then see her chase his tow truck down on a scooter, then witness her poke Shirley on the nose and demand, "Who do you think you are, Big Bad Leroy Brown?"
That one special thing: seeing this drama unfold right here at home, shot mostly in the flyspeck eastern Wake crossroads community of Lizard Lick, named for a 19th-century whiskey still that drew small, four-legged reptiles.
But for all the publicity, the paid speaking engagements, the Lizard Lick Towing coffee mugs and hoodies, Shirley remains unfazed by semi-stardom and keeps his small-town humility.
To hear him tell it, being a reality TV celebrity actually loses him business. Big banks and corporate lenders are happy to hire repo men, but they're not eager for a television audience. And reality television doesn't bring huge paychecks. As Shirley puts it, this ain't "Jersey Shore."
A message to share
But for a 38-year-old father of three, an aging wild man who found religion, Shirley looks at his job as a chance to preach to the hard-luck families whose cars he drags away. He's an ordained minister, and he calls his tow-truck evangelism "Dirt Church." Wherever he drops his boom, whether he hears gunshots or not, he tries to make peace.
"I spent most of my life being 10 feet tall and bulletproof," said Shirley, tattoos peeking out of his black Lizard Lick hoodie. "But being on TV don't make you important any more than being born in an oven makes you a biscuit."
Shirley grew up in the Knightdale area and worked as a roofer between semesters at college in Missouri, a stint that ended when he got struck by lightning. His brother was selling used cars by then, and he joined as the resident repossessor.
"I wasn't the toughest guy on the block," he explains. "But the toughest guy sent me Christmas cards."
Bench press and poetry
He met Amy through their mutual power-lifting obsession - Shirley says he could bench in the mid-600s - and soon he was writing her poetry and leaving teddy bears on her car.
"Our first date was on a rollback truck," Shirley recalls. "And I hit a deer."
He had known Brantley for a while, but he didn't join the tow-truck company as repossession agent and chief back-watcher until after Shirley paid a business call.
"We had a little altercation over a trailer," Shirley says now. "Three weeks later, we were fishing, hunting."
The spotlight has actually shone on Lizard Lick since 2009, when reality-television network truTV discovered Brantley and the Shirleys for the series "All Worked Up." In that series, the Lizard Lick crew appears along with meter maids, process servers and other professionals who deal with extremely angry people.
You may have seen the episode in which Brantley had to tussle with a man whose head was tattooed black down across one side and whose face piercings, as Shirley put it, could pick up a radio station in Tokyo.
As they hauled away his car, Brantley exclaimed, "It's some Mad Max-lookin' dude! He's been eating dynamite!"
But Shirley explains that all is copacetic.
Mad Max even came to a Bible study.
There's a tension on "Lizard Lick Towing" that sets it apart from the average daredevil show. As Shirley ages, as his faith deepens, as his regret over youthful transgressions grows, he feels compelled to shy away from the dangerous jobs. Now that he's famous, the crazy people come loaded for bear.
"They flip out on purpose," he says. "If there's one rat you can see, there's 50 rats you can't. Used to be, you couldn't see the other 50 rats. But now, Bo, half of them come running out."
The heart of it all
What you don't see on "Lizard Lick Towing" is the single mother with three kids, bawling in the yard as Shirley hooks up her car. You don't see the 13-year-old kid running out the yard to defend his mama. But to hear Shirley tell it, you can at least know that he offered some consoling words along with the number for a food pantry and a church.
The other day at McDonald's, a small girl who looked like her family had hit hard times asked Shirley to sign her Lizard Lick T-shirt. They sat and talked for 10 minutes, and the girl left the restaurant lit with a smile she probably hadn't worn in weeks.
The big man with the beefy, inked-up biceps tears up thinking about that day. Busted heads and smashed windshields may have gotten him on television.
But if you watch closely, you'll see a repo man with a heart made of butter, offering you a handshake and a prayer on your worst day.
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