Louis Deitch has learned the risks of protecting the hottest property in Sherman Oaks.
"People spit on me," he said. "Women call me nasty names. Men come rushing at me in their cars and then hit their brakes to scare me."
Deitch does not guard a bank vault or a jeweler's gem collection. He stands in a driveway and tries to keep empty parking places from being stolen.
He is part of a growing army of private security guards deployed at free shopping-center parking lots along the San Fernando Valley's main street, Ventura Boulevard.
The enemy is the growing number of office workers, shoppers and others who sneak into the free lots in hopes of saving the expense and aggravation of paid parking.
In Sherman Oaks and four other communities along a 15-mile stretch of the boulevard, an empty parking spot is the most valuable commodity in town.
Parking lots have been gobbled up by new development, often high-rises that charge high prices for parking in underground garages.
New side-street parking restrictions designed to keep commercial traffic away from residential neighborhoods have added to the squeeze. So have the two-hour city parking meters, which are marching relentlessly westward along the boulevard.
A typical parking space in a large Valley shopping center generates $31,700 a year in retail sales, according to calculations made from state Board of Equalization statistics. That translates to $247 a square foot.
More than two dozen large shopping centers have hired guards to keep non-shoppers' cars out of their lots. The owners of smaller lots are following suit.
"The parking meters they installed a year or so ago drove a lot of people into our lot," said Michael Shapiro, owner of the 14-year-old Shoe Box shoe store in Encino. His shopping center, which is anchored by a drug store, is surrounded by other businesses that do not have free lots.
"Our guard prevents people from parking here to avoid paying in their own building. There are still many days when every spot in our lot is filled."
This day, there were many empty parking places, however. Guard Ali Tabatabai, 69, stationed himself prominently near the 150-space lot's main entrance and watched that no one parked and then walked across the boulevard to a nearby office building.
A few blocks away, guard Mike Castillo was doing the same thing at the Plaza del Sol shopping center.
"They brought me here because of that high-rise," Castillo, 31, said. "People were trying to sneak in so they could park free."
Castillo writes down license numbers in the 140-space lot each hour. Cars parked longer than two hours get a warning. Repeat offenders risk being towed away. "Sometimes twice a day I have to call a tow truck," Castillo said.
At the Sizzler Restaurant in Sherman Oaks, a guard has been hired to patrol the lot for 3 1/2 hours during the midday lunch period. He prevents unauthorized parkers from clogging the lot before the restaurant opens at 11 a.m., said manager Linda Ricketts.
Prominently posted signs warn illegal parkers to "be prepared to pay" a $40 towing charge, a $5 impound fee and a $23 citation cost if their unauthorized cars are towed. Ricketts said she can recall only one auto being towed in the past three years.
Most merchants are wary about towing, even though they post strongly worded warning signs advising that unauthorized cars will be hauled off, according to operators of security-guard companies.
"Most companies don't want towing done because it's bad public relations," said Alex Wagner, a sergeant for Efficient Patrol & Guard Service, a Van Nuys company that handles about a dozen boulevard parking lots.
"But most shopping-center owners don't have the proper signs up anyway. If it says something like '2 hours, customer only,' it's improperly worded and that makes it impossible to tow."
Signs that say "customer only parking" also prevent Los Angeles city parking enforcement officers from issuing parking citations, said Jimmie Morgan, supervisor of Los Angeles parking enforcement for the San Fernando Valley.
"If he bought a piece of bubble gum there yesterday, he's a customer. If he bought a card there last year, he's still a customer," Morgan said.
The city's 73 parking enforcement officers will enter private property to issue $28 tickets only if parking lots are posted with "private parking" signs that also state the appropriate municipal parking ordinance code number, he said.
"We cite based on what the parking-lot guard says," Morgan said. "He goes to court with us. We issue about 300 of those tickets a month in the Valley."
At Gelson's supermarket in Encino, guard Floyd Mathis said he must get special permission from the market management to call a tow truck. He said he tries instead to intercede when he sees a car owner park and walk toward one of several nearby restaurants instead of into the market.