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Tow Job

Blanche Duncan sits in her dark-red pickup truck in a deserted Budget Rental Car lot at the Industrial Park of Coral Springs. It's a rainy, dismal Sunday morning, but Duncan, in tight pink blouse and sparkling gold necklace (and one gold-capped tooth with a star-shaped cutout), is dressed for business. And, honey, Duncan means business.

You wouldn't want to be out in this kind of weather, but this is prime time for Duncan — off hours, the wee hours, when the odd restrictions of parking regulations kick in and when a motorist might let his guard down in the frustrating search for a place to park.

A hulking, leathery man hangs over the open driver's-side window of Duncan's pickup with an umbrella, shielding her and her customer, Fenton Ridgeway, from the rain.

Ridgeway is furious. His face is red, and he stammers. Last night, the company Duncan owns, Johnson Towing Corp., removed his vehicle from the Parkside Community in Coral Springs. He was visiting a friend who lives in the sleepy cluster of townhouses. Around 1 a.m., he had parked his car in a bright-orange spot labeled "guest." It was going to be a short visit, with Ridgeway stopping by to get the latest from his friend. But by the time he was ready to leave a half-hour later, his car was gone.

How was that possible? Ridgeway wondered, his eyes returning again and again to the empty guest spot, as if his car might suddenly rematerialize. The spot wasn't a reserved one. There hadn't been any park-in-guest-spots-at-your-own-risk signs in the vicinity. Certainly, there must be laws protecting him from getting his car towed like this.

There aren't. As Duncan calmly explains this to Ridgeway, he becomes even more irate. He starts to raise his voice, and the leathery man moves the umbrella away from Ridgeway, exposing him to the pelting rain.

Ridgeway shuts up and grudgingly absorbs Duncan's harsh lesson on the realities of parking regulation in Broward County. The law is unhesitatingly on her side, Duncan says. Her company has the right to tow any vehicle parked without a sticker or guest pass at Parkside after 1 a.m., regardless of any signage or lack thereof. It's the responsibility of the residents of Parkside — not hers — to inform their guests of this policy.

And Ridgeway shouldn't even think about bothering the police with a complaint about the disappearance of his car. Towing disputes are civil matters. There's nothing Ridgeway can do but pay Duncan the $180 fee. That's $120 for the tow, $60 for overnight storage and "equipment."

Oh, and cash only.

As Ridgeway opens the door to his freed vehicle and jumps in, he wonders aloud if there's anything that can be done about the way Duncan conducts her business.

"This is my business, sir," she snaps back in her husky voice. "If you've got a problem, you talk to me."

"I know how you do business, honey," he responds, sarcastically. "You're very professional."

There isn't much that gets under a South Floridian's skin quicker than a "lawfully" removed automobile.

"People think we're just stealing cars," says Jason, the night clerk at Kings Wrecker Service in West Palm Beach, his voice almost quavering with hurt pride.

It's a thankless job, all right. Tow clerks who work the night shift never get a smiling customer. Never. It's all narrowed eyes, waving fists, and punishing expletives. Tow operators develop very thick skins. When it comes to taking possession of a citizen's car against his will, there are no nuances. It's all black and white. If anything, the irate motorist who goes, cash in hand, to retrieve his car gets a sanctimonious lecture on obeying the law. Car owners who fail to read a sign or lose track of time — these are society's true villains.

"Whatever happened to personal responsibility?" tow operators like to ask dolorously.

True enough. People knowingly park in tow-away zones, then boil over when their cars go missing. But tow truck companies are hardly moral arbiters. The industry is a lucrative one that provides its service far more frequently than the marketplace demands. The instances of cars being towed because they blocked a hydrant or impeded a fire lane are rare. Mostly, tow operators step in to enforce ambiguous regulations, with never a thank you.

Tow operators are sorry for the inconvenience. Sorry all the way to the bank.

Study the complaint files at Broward and Palm Beach county consumer affairs divisions and you get a sense of tow operators plucking cars off the streets with reckless abandon, overcharging, and often getting away with it.

The complaints are full of anger and despair, certain to elicit a visceral twinge in anybody who has ever been towed. They talk about motorists whose cars were hauled off — hooked up in a minute or less by feral tow truck drivers — because they backed into parking spots rather than parking "correctly" by pulling in head first. They talk about how their cars disappeared while they were in the process of unloading groceries in front of their townhouses or helping a friend move a large television set into a new home. They complain about missing a renewal on a parking tag by one day or being towed for parking on their own grass because of construction.

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Ashley Harrell and John Linn

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