The plump, middle-aged man stepped up to the customer window trying to stay calm. In a deliberate monotone he declared: "I came for my car."
Yes, answered the garage dispatcher after checking her computer screen; the car had been towed in two days earlier.
He sighed, relieved, but only for a second. Then he shook his head angrily, whispering something that sounded like, "I can't believe this!"
Finally he reached for his wallet. "How much?" he snapped. It was more than $80. "This is a rip-off, man," said the car owner, tossing the bills across the counter, one by one, in mock generosity. "You people just rip people off."
It's not unusual for dispatcher Patti Mercer, 19, to be cussed at in three languages before her lunch break. She'll be called a crook, a racketeer, a greedy rip-off artist preying on the poor--all in a day's work.
The insults don't bother her much these days; after all, it's the nature of the business. Towing cars and facing their angry owners have become a family tradition for the Mercers.
Older brother Art Mercer, 32, and sister-in-law Dolores Mercer, 33, own A.T.S. Northeast Tow Co., the towing business on San Fernando Road where Patti Mercer works. Aunt Mary Lou Monge is the garage bookkeeper; her husband, Ruben Monge, owns the storage yard, which he rents out to his nephews; Aunt Beulia Nieto does office work during the summer.
Paid $9 an hour, Patti Mercer gets more abuse for the money than an IRS auditor since Art and Dolores Mercer landed a $1-million contract with the Los Angeles Police Department last year. The contract gives them exclusive rights to all police towing business in Northeast Los Angeles.
That means about 1,500 cars every month come into Mercer's tow yard three blocks east of the Glendale Freeway. With the going rate of $56 a tow and $9.30 a day for storage, plus the sale of unclaimed vehicles, business is booming.
An unlikely corporate head of a $1-million-a-year operation, Art Mercer is a stocky, tough man who still goes to work wearing blue jeans and a striped uniform shirt complete with the name tag, "Art."
And he'll still tow in cars with his white-and-blue tow truck if the other drivers are busy or the garage paper work is light.
The son of immigrants, Art Mercer left his home in an Arizona border town as a young man to seek, like so many others before him, California's version of the American Dream.
After 10 years of combing highways in search of troubled cars for lesser clients, Art Mercer struck gold last April when his firm became one the city's 18 designated car-towing companies.
"I've been dreaming about this contract ever since I bought my first tow truck" 12 years ago, Art Mercer said recently.
Winning the city contract has not significantly changed the Mercers' life styles because most of the company's profits have gone into construction of a new office at the tow yard. They continue to live modestly in a rented house in Alhambra with their three children, ages 9, 8 and 6.
While he's made a career out of towing other people's property, Art Mercer wants people to know he's no ogre.
'Just Making a Buck'
"I wish people could understand," he pleaded, "that I'm just making a buck like everybody else."
His office, located temporarily in a trailer while the permanent structure is being built, resembles a fortified bunker. To get inside, workers have to remove a cardboard sign reading "Employees only; stay out!" and make their way through a tight side alley between the back of the trailer and a cement wall.
The protection is not always enough to keep intruders away. Once a man made his way into the office, shouting angrily in a language Art Mercer could not understand. The intruder would not leave or calm down, Mercer said, until police came and took him away. A couple of hours later he was back in the office, this time screaming in English. "He called my mother all kinds of things," Mercer said.
Both Art and Dolores Mercer like to tell towing war stories--especially Dolores, the tow yard's queen. Among the sweaty, tobacco-chewing, unshaven drivers and yard keepers, she easily stands out--a wholesome, brown-eyed, energetic senora.
And Dolores loves it. The yard, the trucks, the guys, the tough talk. The memory of young Art working in his uncle's junk yard, then buying his first tow truck, and eventually starting up his small towing company is enough to put her on the verge of tears.
"When Art started, I was pregnant with our first baby, and oh, those nights . . . Art would be driving the truck and I'd be dispatching. We never thought we'd end up with a big city contract. When we made our bid last year,. everybody said we were small-time. We didn't have inside connections."
But they stayed up sleepless nights, rehearsing their presentation word by word, anticipating questions, making sure every detail was taken care of, she said.
"We walked into that Police Commission room knowing exactly what to say," said Dolores Mercer, "and we impressed the hell out of everybody."