Wheels of Misfortune

If a painful separation from your vehicle ever takes you to the city's Impoundment Lot, get ready for more personal loss -- of the dollar-bill variety.

April 02, 1999|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

The man with the musical Caribbean accent laughs and shakes his head, but he doesn't actually seem amused at all. From his side of the counter, nothing is ever particularly amusing.

Julie Weininger is on the opposite side of the counter, being as pleasant as humanly possible. For the third time she's explaining that yes, it is perfectly fine for him to give his car to the city, but it will cost him $64 to do so.

The man keeps laughing and shaking his head, but it's not helping. "That's crazy," he says. "I'm giving you my car, and I have to pay $64?"

Precisely. "And if you don't pay that today," Weininger adds sweetly, "it'll be $10 more tomorrow."

In his shoulders, you can see the man break. A few minutes later and $64 lighter, he disappears back out the front door. Another unsatisfied customer at the city's Impoundment Lot.

Perhaps a different name would make this a less grim place, although the St. Patrick's Day decorations have not noticeably lightened the mood. It could be called the city's Reunion Lot, for that is really the main order of business in this squat building located on the outer reaches of East Baltimore. People come here to be reunited with an absent car. But you don't ever see any sign of celebration. You rarely even see a smile. Well, maybe a wry one once in awhile.

Cars find their way to this desolate stretch of Pulaski Highway for a variety of reasons. If you have a mountain of unpaid parking tickets, your car might well land in the Impoundment Lot. If your car was stolen and then recovered, this is where it's brought. If you abandoned your car (or simply neglected to move it for a few days), this is where it goes. If you're in an accident and your car becomes inoperable, it could wind up here. And if you happen to be driving along one day when a policeman decides that jail is the place you really ought to be, this is where they'll tow your car.

So, that is why the cars -- at least 75 of them a day -- come to be in the Impoundment Lot. But enough of the negative. To reiterate, this is where owners are reunited with their cars. "We do have your car, but we want to give it back to you," says Weininger, a 14-year veteran of these premises. In that way, the Impoundment Lot could be seen as a place of happy endings, where the world is made right again.

Maybe it's the fees that make it so hard to appreciate the upside. There are a lot of fees. The towing fee is usually $64 or $71, sometimes more. Then there's the $30 "administrative" fee. And the 48-hour storage fee -- another $25. After the two days, it's $10 more for each additional day you leave the car. There's also the $10 credit card fee if you don't have cash when you show up. Often there are also unpaid fines to clear. Only the lucky ones get out of here for under $150.

That's $150 to get back to where you probably were a couple of days earlier, before you were separated from your car in the first place. And sometimes, even that $150 won't get you all the way back.

A lot of times, if your car was stolen, it's been stripped of everything not welded on or in, which is why the Caribbean gentleman decided it was time to bid a fond farewell to his car.

Just now, Weininger is telling one stupefied young fellow that it'll cost him $196 to get anywhere near the Toyota Camry that he had been driving on a suspended license.

"Oh, man, $196?" he whines and then starts pulling wrinkled bills from his front pockets. To his distress, he realizes he's short by $9. "Hey, can you help me out, man?" he appeals to the co-sufferers on his side of the counter. When even their contributions aren't enough, he heads outside for a bit of free-lance panhandling. A few minutes later, he's back, piling quarters and dimes in front of Weininger. He looks on miserably as her count still leaves him 31 cents away from a clean getaway.

But surprise of surprises, mercy sometimes surfaces even in a place like this. "I'll give it to you," says Weininger, who is, after all, a 36-year old mother with another little one on the way.

She feels less charitable a few minutes later when two scruffy-looking men try to bail out their '85 Olds with a counterfeit $100 bill. Weininger notices that it's missing "In God We Trust." Within a couple of minutes, two Baltimore cops are in the office questioning the pair, who insist they had no idea the bill was phony. Eventually, they're released and even manage to get their Olds back, too.

Obviously, it pays to stay on your toes here at the Impoundment Lot. Weininger says people sometimes show up to try to collect cars that aren't theirs. Sometimes, she says, they even try to lay claim to the very cars that are here because they stole them. "Like with an Acura or something," Weininger says, "they figure it's worth 100 bucks to try to get it out of here."

There are plenty of other surprises, too, although probably none to match the time someone opened the door of a hearse that had been towed in only to find a body inside. Weininger doesn't know who appeared to reclaim that vehicle. One thing for sure. It would have been a reunion worth seeing.

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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