For years, tow companies have been towing vehicles off private parking lots and charging owners exorbitant fees to get them back. "Trespass towers" patrol certain lots at night and on weekends, put the hooks on the cars of naive tourists and tow the cars to lots guarded by junkyard dogs, where hundreds of dollars - cash only - are demanded for the car's return. One of these stories appeared in this space last week (TJI, Dec. 1), and I noted how no one in power in Baltimore has ever done anything about this dark art of holding cars for ransom.
The city requires that tow operators be licensed. But no effort that I know of has been made to limit the fees - a local ordinance allows private companies to charge more for towing than the city does - or even challenge the practices. (Suggested project for a University of Baltimore Law School class: the constitutionality of taking private property from private property and charging outrageous ransom, up to twice what the licensing municipality charges for a towed vehicle.)
City Councilman Robert W. "Bobby" Curran says he has been dealing with this issue. He filed a bill in October on "trespass towers." His bill doesn't limit their towing fees or prohibit the cash-only baloney, though Curran says it might as the legislation evolves. What Curran wants are more signs warning drivers of the consequences of parking where they do.
Good for Curran. I support his efforts, especially if they go further than his current bill and take some of the profiteering out of towing.
As far as signs go, here's some suggested language:
"Warning: You have just parked on a private lot owned by a mean-spirited individual who has contracted with a private towing company to tow your car, and we couldn't care less if you're from some nice place like Mount Airy and that we're spoiling your visit to Baltimore and that this lousy practice hurts the city's reputation among out-of-towners. We are going to throw hooks on your car and tow it to a dark lot on a street in a distant stretch of town and charge you more than twice - like $200 - what the city of Baltimore would if you had parked on a busy street and impeded traffic or threatened the public safety. And you can only pay cash to get your vehicle back. Hee hee. Have a nice day!"
New York shopping spree
With his crime-fighting consultants, police commissioner, three of the commissioner's hires and the city's new housing commissioner all from the Big Apple, Mayor Martin O'Malley has now done more shopping in New York than Lawrence Bell ever did.
Homicides on the decline
But, no joke: O'Malley predicted in October that Baltimore would end 2000 with fewer than 300 homicides for the first time in a decade, and what sounded like a premature and overly confident assertion could turn out to be correct. As of yesterday, police had recorded 246 killings and five justifiable homicides. At this time last year, they had recorded 277 killings and seven justifiable homicides.
In 1999, October, November and December were especially bloody, and the total number of killings (homicides and justifiable homicides) was 308. Here's hoping we end 2000 with far less of a flourish. A nice, quiet passage to 2001 would be quite fine with everyone around here.
Bel Air's secret charm
When you go small-not-mall and hit Main Street for holiday shopping this month - you can at least try, right? - don't forget beautiful downtown Bel Air. (Yes, Virginia, there is a downtown Bel Air.) Drop by Boyd and Fulford Drugs and say hi to Maryterese and M. Eugene "Gene" Streett, who've been running the pharmacy since LBJ was president.
Check out the giant giraffe guarding over the Russell Stover candies. It's about 10 feet tall, the last of a class of stuffed animal that the Streetts used to sell through the store. This last one is pushing 20 years old, Maryterese says. "We used to let him go to the Bel Air library, and once he went to Perry Hall for the Methodist church safari," she says. "But we don't let him go anywhere anymore - he's too old."
She figures she sold about 18 of them before the line was discontinued by the manufacturer.
"One rainy Monday morning, a man came in here and said he wanted to buy one and would we take $25 off," Streett recalls. "And we did. We told him we could dismantle it and put it in a box, but he didn't want us to."
The man attached a diamond ring to the giraffe and carried it down the street and used it to propose marriage to a hairdresser.
"About four years later, I was in Ocean City," Maryterese says. "And I saw the [hairdresser] and I asked her, `How's the giraffe?' And she said, `Well, I still have the giraffe, but the husband's gone.'"
Ellicott City bonus