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Tow Truck Operators Pick Up a Lot of Guff as Well as Wrecked, Illegally Parked Cars

July 10, 1988|FLOYD WHALEY | Times Staff Writer

From the Newport Beach manager who had hot coffee poured on his desk by a Roman Catholic priest to the Huntington Beach driver who had to listen to a man read him the U.S. Constitution, people in the tow truck business know what it is to be the heavy.

Few things engender fierce anger like a stranger hooking up one's car, taking it to an unknown location, then demanding payment.

And with the arrival of summer, the busy season for tow truck companies, beachgoers once again will be testing the legal limits of parking time and space, and drunken drivers will be smashing their cars for tow truck drivers to haul away.

Tow truck operators along the Orange County coast said business is up as much as 40% in summer, with some companies pulling in 60 cars a day.

Operators in the industry say they are most often remembered for snatching people's cars from tow-away zones rather than for helping at the scenes of accidents or breakdowns.

'It's My Job'

"I don't like taking people's cars in," said 13-year-veteran driver Chris Eads, singing the ballad of all tow truck drivers. "But it's my job."

As Eads drove one day recently on calls for his employer, Best Towing in Huntington Beach, he recalled some of the sad, scary and funny incidents that have punctuated the hours of routine hook-ups and haul-aways that fill his days.

Sometimes it hurts, he said, such as when police say he has to tow the car of an elderly person who can barely buy food, much less pay for his car registration.

"The car isn't anything to us," he said, "but it's their way to get to the grocery store."

Other times it is hard to hold back a grin, such as when he hooked up the $40,000 Porsche of a 16-year-old youth who had not paid his tickets.

Finds a Dead Body

He also remembered holding a police tow order up to a truck window as an angry man waved a gun at him. Another time he noticed an odd smell coming from a car, and opened it to discover a dead body.

Eads, who is 28 and said he lied himself into a towing job at age 15, sometimes has an easy day to make up for a rough night.

His calls one night included a smashed white stretch limousine--no easy job to tow--and a Volkswagen van that was being used as a home by a man who felt obliged to read Eads the constitutional rights guaranteed to all Americans.

He also had to tow the old, black Cadillac of a 91-year-old man who was drinking liquor out of a detergent bottle.

"He wanted to pick up his Cadillac," said Kathy Smith, who works in the towing firm's office. "His wife said, 'No, he'll just get drunk and wreck it again.' "

Gets Accident Call

When Eads got off work about 3 a.m. and had just ordered chicken-fried steak, his first good meal of the night, an accident call came on his walkie-talkie. That explained the slightly weary look he wore on a recent afternoon in the Best Towing office on Reynolds Circle in Huntington Beach.

The office, guarded by Sheila the playful pit bull terrier and her friend, Einstein the kitten, gets a steady stream of testy people and interesting characters in search of their cars.

Office workers met one day with a couple whose son went to Europe and left his car to mount up hundreds of dollars in registration and towing fees for them to pay.

An Irvine student came in and finally found his stolen Volkswagen, which had been stripped and abandoned. A woman with a black jacket and purple hair came in to pick up some sheer lingerie, spiked-heel boots and a pair of handcuffs from her wrecked Trans-Am.

"I got what I need for tonight, anyway," she said.

In the office of Huntington Auto, which operates in the Huntington Beach area, co-owner Karen Pederson recalled some poignant moments, including the time a father came in and looked at the demolished car of his teen-age daughter, who had been killed by a drunk driver the night before. "They killed my baby," he said.

Another time, a man rushed out of the office to his impounded car to get his 20-foot boa constrictor.

In a separate instance, a huge snake wrapped itself around a car transmission, locking on so tightly that the reptile had to be killed before the car could be towed, Pederson said.

While the drivers earn their stripes on the streets, office managers must deal with antagonistic owners.

"We need more respect, because we are professionals," Pederson said. "I'm like a dentist or a doctor. Nobody wants to go to the dentist or doctor, and they don't want their car towed."

Provide a Service

Part of their public relations problem, tow truck operators said, is that people do not understand that companies are under contract with cities to provide a service.

"We have laws that we have to follow before we can tow your car," said John Modafferi of Newport Beach's Harbor Towing. "We don't just go cruising for cars."

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