Twilight zone for towed cars

Impound: Good cheer is rare at the Pulaski Highway lot, but a new manager is trying for good service.

November 09, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Every 11 minutes, the glum saga begins anew somewhere on the streets of Baltimore. It ends, days or weeks later, inside four red walls on the eastern edge of town, a careworn building surrounded by 3,400 vehicles.

This is the Pulaski Highway impound lot, a 22-acre purgatory for about 48,000 vehicles towed here each year. Some belong to speed demons and scofflaws, or to drivers who gambled with a parking meter and lost. Others were stolen, or left undriveable by accidents.

Few good tempers survive the long waits, busy telephone lines, occasional property thefts and initial contact with the tow truck. Owners don't soon forget the sight of a beloved gas-guzzler or coupe, winched and dragged away like a naughty child pulled by the ear into the principal's office.

Even in fine weather, the air in the cramped waiting room of the red impound building is thick with curses, body heat and the salty smell of potato chips from a vending machine set between a few hard chairs.

Bob Suit's bulldog laugh is at odds with the gloom.

"Getting towed is not something anybody wants to go through," said Suit, the city's towing manager. "People place a lot of value on their cars, and there's an emotional attachment there."

Suit is trying to change the place for the better, but that hasn't ended the complaints.

For one thing, automotive liberation doesn't come cheap. Charges vary, but it costs a minimum of $85 for towing and $80 more in administrative fees.

For cars towed from west of Charles Street, there's a $10 surcharge, and vehicles requiring unusual tows, such as being pulled from a ditch, cost more yet. After 48 hours, a $15-a-day storage fee kicks in.

But money isn't the only reason tempers flare at the Pulaski impound lot.

People can hardly contain their sense of injustice at being towed for, say, parking in a prohibited zone.

Then an extra indignity is piled on: It doesn't matter why you were towed. Parking offenders and those trying to recover stolen cars are treated alike at the impound lot.

Getting towed, observes Jonathan Kandell, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, "is a great leveler."

"Having a car fosters a sense of freedom and a sense of control, and, basically, when you're towed, it's taken all away," Kandell said.

The complainants line up like soldiers.

"It wasn't my fault," mewed a tiny woman wearing her hair in a loose bun and a pair of expensive pumps.

"Didn't see no warning sign," groused a tall man in a grimy barn jacket.

"If you call, it's busy all the time," said Myra Carter, a Walbrook Junction driver whose car is so frequently towed for parking violations that the cashiers know her by name.

Stephanie Bullock, owner of a totaled tan 2000 Jimmy AMC truck towed to the lot in October, assigned a grievance to each of her fingers.

"People are standing on line much too long," the 50-year-old grandmother said, pulling on her pinky. "The people who work here, they put down the wrong vehicle number, they put down the wrong color or make. It's enough to ruin your day."

Or seven days, as in the case of Joseph Stock, a 26-year-old carpenter from Middle River who was forced to revisit the impound lot seven times over the past five weeks.

"It's like they can't get anything right," he said tersely. "They said my car was in P2 and it was in M2," referring to sections of the shopping mall-sized impound lot adjacent to Route 40 and a sliver of Herring Run.

Stock's frustrations began in late September, when his 1996 Ford Escort vanished from a street in Hampden. When Stock called the police to report it stolen, he learned it had been impounded for a parking violation.

The next morning at the impound lot, Stock checked the dashboard and saw a hole where his stereo had been.

"The stereo was worth more than the car, no doubt," Stock said. "You hear this kind of stuff happens, but that doesn't make it any easier."

Suit, the towing supervisor, has heard gripes like Stock's and Bullock's many times before. A 22-year city employee, Suit ascended through the Department of Transportation's maintenance division before landing last year in the little red building's corner office, whose windows look out on fields of cars in two directions.

A few months earlier, a local television expose by Fox 45 found that impound lot negligence was costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in damage claims.

One of Suit's first tasks was to fire an employee who stole the hood off a car. Next, he installed razor wire and two new fences to keep thieves out. He tightened the check-in process so tow truck drivers no longer had free run of the lot; he required employees to take photos of every car as it arrives and again when it comes off the tow hitch.

A new telephone-answering software system, scheduled to go online April 1, is the latest reform. At present, staffers handle about 300 calls a day during normal business hours. After-hours callers are told to try again in the morning.

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