As I’m heading full steam into my second attempt to live in New Mexico, I’ve found myself thinking back almost fondly to my years spent in Chicago, and the often unbearable winters I had somehow endured. In the few months I’ve been back in Albuquerque, I’ve once again become spoiled by the weather. I’m ruined forever. I will never don a parka again. While still managing to furnish a change of seasons, I have yet to experience an unbearable day in the southwest. Regardless of the ups and downs of our daily lives, we can almost assuredly count on a blue sky, a light breeze, and beautiful view whatever month it may be. Hey, it makes a difference. I put up a good fight for a while, but I finally admit it. I’ve had more than my share of bad days in this town, but damn if it’s not beautiful down here. Yet, it’s not just the warm embrace of the desert climate that’s captured my attention, but the seemingly stripped down version of big city red tape I was so often bogged down in elsewhere. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count how many times I have stood in awe, in slack-jawed stupefaction, when facing off with the big city dead set on preventing me from even the most meager of accomplishments. Like getting my car back—or in this case the car I borrowed. So after listening to a friend the other night tell her tale of horror regarding a ticket she received for endangering the life of her dog, I can truly look back on one miserable December day in Chi-town, and let out a good, hearty gut-laugh. Some things are the same all over.
It never ceases to amaze me how much of our bureaucracy works (albeit barely) with such cold and indifferent inefficiency. I think I’m forced to write about this from time to time for more of a release than anything else; although I do enjoy sharing my daily woes on occasion, if just to satisfy anyone’s shedenfruedian glee. While in the grand scheme of things, getting your car towed is by no means a life defining moment; it certainly can be (and in this case proved to be) more than just a horrible pain in the ass. Travel back in time with me a few years…
Chicago, by nature, has an awful lot of rules, regulations, and red tape; just like any other huge, sprawling metropolis. While some of these laws and bylaws help keep the expected conduct of the citizenry clear, and the city running smoothly, I would agree. On the topic of parking violations however, I would offer that quite often the opposite is true. These waters are intentionally murky. The multitude of ways in which you can be in violation of some parking mandate in Chicago is by no means meant to keep anything clear; and the funds procured from these parking violations aren’t financing projects for the betterment of the community entirely. Even if they were, there’s still no good argument for fleecing the masses. The monies levied from parking tickets and outrageous towing fines line the pockets of Mayor Daley’s political machine—conveniently off the backs of the voiceless poor. If these funds are so necessary to keep the city functioning, then the responsible thing for our elected officials to do would be to raise taxes, instead of preying upon the unwary; who can’t afford to take the city to court over erroneous parking tickets and questionable if not outright illegal towing practices.
Chicago’s wealthy are rarely towed; they have their own buildings to park in. They can afford the astronomical costs of parking in the city lots and garages. The lower-middle class is relegated to the daily search for legal street parking that is harder and harder to secure with each passing year. Yet for decades the public outcry against the practices of Environmental Auto Removal, and the privately owned Lincoln Towing have gone unheard. And, as if having the extra financial burden the city charges you for towing your vehicle isn’t enough, the callous and detached manner in which you are treated by the city employees could push even the most even tempered individual over the edge.
It was going to be a pleasant Sunday. A little football. A little food. After several fourteen-hour days in the office it was also much deserved. With my car out of commission, I had borrowed a car for the weekend to get around. The only thing worse than looking outside your window to where your car should be and it not being there, is looking outside your window to where the car you borrowed should be, and it not being there. I knew at that moment, that even under the best of circumstances…even if everything from that moment on went as smoothly as possible…my day was ruined. I called the police, and of course they informed me that the vehicle in question had been towed. When I asked them why, they referred me to the sign on the post outside.
I said “ you mean the sign that says no parking 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. December 1st through April 1st when there is more than two inches of snow present? There isn’t any snow on the ground!”
The officer replied, “ No, the sign that says no parking 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. December 1st through April 1st or there is more than two inches of snow present…”
After an hour or so of profanity I phoned Environmental Auto Removal, the company contracted by the city to tow the illegally parked vehicles.
“Yes, I’m calling about my car that was towed. I need to..”
“What’s the license plate number?”
“Uhh…I don’t know it’s a white ford…”
Little did I know that residing temporarily at 701 North Sacramento Boulevard at any given time, are a veritable sea of white fords—along with thousands upon thousands of other autos in every shape, size, color, and condition imaginable.
“I need the license plate number or the serial number of the vehicle if you want your car back.”
“I don’t have that information, it’s not my car,” I explained.
“Then you can’t pick up the car anyway, the owner of the vehicle has to come down.”
So I had to call Bob, the unlucky owner in question. After hearing the news, and being less than thrilled at the prospect of coming down from the suburbs to deal with all that crap in the middle of an oncoming snowstorm, Bob managed to come to an understanding with the folks down at Environmental Auto. He would fax them all the pertinent information they required along with a signed document stating that I, Eric Wilson, could pick up said vehicle in his place. In return for this courtesy, he wouldn’t come down and shoot them all. Actually, I was relieved. It was bad enough I wasn’t going to get to watch any of the playoffs; I don’t think I could’ve handled the company considering the mood he would’ve been in. And so here, a long, depressing, ridiculous hassle with city towing begins:
I called for a yellow cab around 1:00 p.m. and was picked up by a friendly cabby, who’d been over here from India for about eight years. When I told him we were “going to the fucking place where they towed my fucking car,” he laughed and told me some of the towing nightmares he’d had. The one that stuck out was parking on a one-way street downtown. He looked up at the sign and it read “no parking 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.” It was 9:01 a.m. so he parked on the other side of the street, ran upstairs, came back down at 9:05 and his car was gone. The poor guy looked up, and on the side of the street that he parked on the sign read “no parking 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.” Now if that’s not an example of how outrageously full of shit and out of control the Department of Streets and Sanitation’s Bureau of Traffic Services has gotten in Chicago, than I don’t know what is.
When I stepped out of the cab, it was immediately apparent to me that things were not going to go smoothly. The ramp up to the main building (which looked more like a prison since it was encircled with a fifteen-foot high fence) was cluttered with cars and people coming and going. Some were arguing, others were waiting for the one pay phone the city had so kindly placed outside. If you can believe it, ten years ago not everyone owned a cell phone. Some people were working on their cars, which I was soon to find out, had acquired mysterious damages during the night. It was cold. It was grey. It was snowing. After finding my way to the main entrance, I stood in line with the rest of the sheep—all to a one, cold, tired, and despondent. You can see it on people’s faces when they have admitted defeat. When they’re beaten. When you’re younger, the city practically has to hold you down when it wants to violate you. When you’re older, you are just so damn used to it, and so damn tired of it all, you just take you pants down whenever you hear your name called.
So I waited until it was my turn to drop my drawers.
“Hi, I’m here to pick up my car.”
“License plate number.” She said blandly, without looking up.
“Oh, I don’t have that information. Bob May faxed you all the information you needed for me, Eric Wilson, to pick up the car. You told him all I would need is my drivers license.”
“Well, what kind of car is it?”
“It’s a white Ford.”
“A white Ford what…?”
“Uh, I don’t know.”
“How could you not know the model of your car…?”
“Well like I just explained to you…it’s not my car, it’s Bob’s car. The man you forced to get dressed and put together a legal package that he had to go out and fax to you so as I,…Eric Wilson…could come down here on this perfectly rancid day and pay you an exorbitant amount of cash to get his car back.”
“Ugh…hold on.” She said in disgust.
After she fumbled her way through several filing cabinets, and had taken some time to sit down and enjoy a beverage, my bright and cheery city employee returned with the information Bob had sent her. She even accused me of having an attitude because she didn’t like the way I signed my name. I have a very quick signature, and everything after the “W” is basically just a squiggly line.
“You know you’re the one trying to get your car back, so I don’t know why you think you can have all that attitude.”
(pause) “Excuse me?”
“There’s no need to sign your name like that…you do want your car back don’t you?”
Now in my mind I was thinking, “look Fat Alberta…give me my car before I reach over that counter and rip your lips off your face..,” and in my younger days I probably would’ve said it. But I’ve learned a few things over the years—one, that you can’t yell at people when your pants are around your ankles. You’ve got to just let them do what they are going to do, and when they are finished, you pull your pants up, thank them, and leave. What you do once you’ve got your belt buckled is a different story…
“That’s just the way I sign my name. Really. Can I please have my car back now?”
So she told me to go to the side door and pay the fine. I started to walk away, but there was only the entrance and another door that led out into the tow yard. When I asked her again where this “side door” was, she glared at me like I should know the layout of the whole complex or that someone handed me a floor plan when I got there. Apparently you have to go outside to get to another part of the building where you pay. And pay I did. What’s the going rate for a towjob in Chicago? Well for the majority of you so fortunate never to have experienced it for yourselves, its one hundred and fifteen dollars—and that’s just the beginning. After emptying my wallet, I was instructed to head across the yard with my slip and show it to some guy in some shack that would tell me where my car was. He looked at my piece of paper and said, “yeah…down this aisle, it’s on the right.” I must have walked a half a mile before I turned back. I was in awe at how far it stretched. It was a particularly cold day considering the unseasonably mild winter Chicago had been having, and I was cold and tired of looking for Bob’s car. On my way back I finally spotted it. It was maybe fifteen cars up from the shack,…and on the left. What an asshole. But I’m thinking to myself, hey, at least it’s over. At least I can get the hell out of here.
As I shivered in front of Bob’s car I just stood there in stunned disbelief. I checked the license plates twice to make sure they matched, even though I knew it was his car. The skilled experts at Environmental Auto Removal, Inc. had crushed the inside of the wheel well and flattened the front left tire. I was laughing when I was walking back to the shack.
“Hey,” I said, “you guys flattened my tire and smashed the wheel well.”
He said, “yeah.”
“Well, …what are you going to do about it?”
He laughed, “Uhh…nothing.”
“Ok,” I said after reflecting thoughtfully for a moment, “What can I do about it?”
“You can file a claim.”
“Is that going to help?” I asked, halfheartedly.
“I dunno…a lot of people file ‘em.”
Yes, I was sure that Chicago was waiting with childlike anticipation to help rectify mistakes made on my behalf. I could almost envision that helpful city employee sitting patiently behind his desk, asking himself, “has Eric called yet?” I chuckled and looked over his shoulder to see what he might have in the shack to help me out.
“Well, do you have any fix-a-flat cans for sale, or at least an air hose so that I can safely get to a gas station and get this taken care of?”
“Nope,” he laughed again.
The shack appeared empty, with the exception of a few used tissues on the floor and a shovel.
“You would think that a company such as yours, with an ironclad grip on my and everyone else’s testicles, would see the financial benefits of carrying some of these types of products for sale here. You could even charge two, three times the face value. I’m just a bit surprised to see you missing out on such an obvious financial opportunity.” I said, dryly.
“I guess I’ll just go back and put on the spare…”
“Oh…you can’t do that,” he mentioned after I had turned to head off.
I paused for a second to process what I’d heard. After running it through my head a few times I came to the conclusion that I must have heard him incorrectly.
“I’m sorry…did you just say I can’t do that?”
It was apparent to me that he was beginning to get bored with my presence, as he was concentrating more on the dirt underneath his fingernails than our conversation.
“Yeah, we don’t allow people to work on their vehicles on the property.” He stated rather matter-of-fact-ly.
“Yeah, but you flattened my tire…?!” I whined, as my patience began to thin.
He stared at me for a moment, as if he were trying to remember a word he’d heard on Law and Order.
“Allegedly…” he replied with an amused smile.
“Allegedly! Allegedly!!!” I screamed. “This is insane man! You must see how insane this is. You mean I have to drive out of here on a rim, possibly causing even more damage that I will probably never see dime one from the city for, and change my tire outside the fence???!!”
“Yep.” He smiled.
“Oh man, you just loooove your job don’t you? What a service you’re providing for the community! I mean, where would we be without someone like you doing your job sooo well?”
“It pays the bills.”
When I walked back to the car I noticed for the first time the ticket on the window. They don’t charge enough for the tow (God forbid you have to leave it there for more than one day) they have to squeeze an extra twenty-five bucks out of you for the parking violation itself. So I drove out beyond the fence on a rim, and pulled over amongst the crowd to change the tire. If you’ve never changed a tire in the middle of a Chicago snowstorm without any gloves on, I recommend it as a good character building experience. Afterwards I went inside to go through the whole thing all over again so I could file a claim. I got Alberta again. I guess I can’t blame them. It’s a thankless job they have. All day long all they see are pissed off people who just want their cars back and are looking for anyone to vent on. I can now definitely understand how some people just go off the deep end and shoot up places like these. I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand. I filled out some more forms, and was sent to an entirely new window where I was eventually greeted by inspector 957. He filled out some forms, and handed me this letter:
To Whom It May Concern:
The attached form will allow you to begin the process through which you may be able to recover your alleged loss. Before completing the form, however, you should be aware of a few basic facts that will both clarify the process and increase your chances of filing a successful discrepancy report.
Please be advised that it is essential to complete the following form in full and that a manager/supervisor must inspect the vehicle before it leaves the auto pound. The information requested is necessary to complete and fairly consider your discrepancy report. The following information is required before your report will be processed:
1. The discrepancy report must be filled out entirely and correctly.
2. A copy of the receipt issued to you for charges paid to retrieve your vehicle from the auto pound
3. Three (3) written estimates for each listed item. The estimates must contain the registered owner’s name and be based only on the alleged new damage not prior damage. The estimates must be either returned to the auto pound or sent via mail to the address listed above within thirty (30) days of the date that the vehicle is redeemed.
Only after all criteria are met will your discrepancy report be submitted along with the City of Chicago Tow Report, Pound Inventory Sheet, and statements from all personnel involved. Your report will be brought forth to a monthly Discrepancy and Liability meeting. A decision will be made regarding the status of your report and you will be contacted via mail.
Please remember to complete all forms, attach three clear, legible estimates on the damage reported and any other documentation you may have to substantiate such. These reports are thoroughly investigated to ensure your report entails only damage believed to have happened during our possession of the vehicle.
The Auto Pound Manager.
Cordially my ass. Gee they sure make it easy on you don’t they? Whoever the auto pound manager is, they didn’t even have the guts to put their name down…I would’ve settled for an address. So I asked inspector 957 if he wanted to inspect my car now. He said that it wasn’t necessary. I said that it appeared that the auto pound manager seemed to think it was necessary, since he included it as one of the requirements for me to get any money back. He sang me a tune about how there were reports by the officer and the guy that towed me that would corroborate my story when it came for my time in court, and that I could go now. Being a natural born fool, I listened to him.
On the drive home I almost half hoped that the spare would fly off and I would crash so I could finally enter the wonderful world of litigation I have been so fortunate to avoid in my life thus far. Hell I was going to sue everybody. I was going to sue Ford, Chicago, Environmental Auto Removal, Bob, my father for not teaching me how to change a tire correctly, Fat Alberta, the guy in the shack….everybody. The thing is, the whole process reeked of a stagnant arrogance. “We are going to stick it to you today, tomorrow, and whenever we can, and there isn’t a single thing you can do about it. You and your ilk do not have a voice. Your representatives don’t care. You are going to bend over and take it, pal.”
Well I have a voice, and at the time I vowed to do everything I could to make a difference. “If you are going to bend me over, you are at least going to do it with a smile on your face, and a comforting, soothing voice telling me its going to be all right,” I cried! It’s the 21st century Chicago, I know you’re going to stick it to me, but from now on I demand a “please” and “thank you!” That can’t be too much to ask! But alas, time passed. Bob never did get any money—well at least not from the city anyway. I also can’t recollect any pleases or thanks either.
So here I am again in beautiful Albuquerque, last bastion of the old west. Where apparently you can get a three thousand dollar ticket and possible jail time for leaving your dog in your car in perfectly wonderful fifty degree weather with food and water for twenty minutes. Stunning. Makes my experience rather tame in comparison. Maybe some things aren’t the same all over. This sounds like it’s going to be much much worse. Shame on you Albuquerque, but welcome to the Big City Bullshit Club.