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Tow job


The tail-end of a night on the town. It's 2 a.m. Love is in the air, the air that now occupies the space where you left your car hours before.


            Your ride has been dragged to an unfamiliar industrial zone somewhere on the north side. Your evening out, wrecked. You finally find the dimly lit impound lot, where your car sits behind a chain-link fence, guarded by barking dogs. An ominous presence extends his meaty palm. "That'll be $160. Cash."

Downtown nightlife: build it and they will come --- and park. As nightspots blossom and flourish throughout the city, the demand for legal parking spaces also grows. And as parking becomes an increasingly scarce commodity, some after-dark denizens succumb to the temptation to park illegally. Cars get towed and their owners are left to cry the blues.

            Some never come back downtown.

            The city's parking situation has led to a perpetual blame game. Club owners point to neighboring landlords unwilling to let patrons use their lots after-hours. Landlords point to drunken patrons puking on their asphalt. And patrons point to towing companies, accusing them of unfair fees and suspicious business practices, like demanding payment in cash.

            Jay Andersen, of Rochester, recently had his car towed. "I got [to the impound lot] at 2:30 a.m. and had to wait 45 minutes after searching for an ATM. I wanted to kill this fucking guy," he says of the driver who took his ride.

            "We have a considerable amount of people who we lose each week, that will never come back, because they're paying over $100 to get their cars back," says John Ritter, former manager of two clubs, Red (now Mercury) and Industry. "I've heard from several people, mostly out-of-town people, who will never, ever come back to these bars."

            Tow truck drivers take the criticism in stride. The way they see it, they're just doing their job, though the job does have its satisfactions.

            "I've seen people screwing. I've seen people smoking dope, smoking crack, guys puking their brains out," says Steve, a wrecker driver with Northeast Towing who spoke on condition his last name not be used. (He says he's received death threats.) "Obnoxious people with no regard at all for other people's property --- these are the people we enjoy towing," he says. "They get their wake-up call."

            Finding parking at night has really become a hassle around some stretches of East Avenue and St. Paul Street, among other places. And tempers have flared.

            City officials recently held a meeting with representatives of the roughly 20 towing companies licensed to do business downtown. The meeting was called in response to a flood of complaints the police department received from citizens who'd been towed. But according to Vince Marinaro of Vince Marinaro's City Auto Service & Repair, the officials "came to find out that everything that's being done is actually above board and legal."

            What can be done to improve the situation? Marinaro is stumped. "I don't see a solution at this point," he says.

"The biggest problem is these jackasses can't read," says Mike Bigelow, a doorman at the Mercury Star Lounge on St. Paul Street. "That's why their cars get towed." Bigelow estimates that as many as 20 illegally parked cars get hauled away every weekend night from the area.

            But you can only read what you can see, and some club owners say the signs downtown just aren't visible enough. Private lots downtown "have minor signage," says John Chmiel, owner of Water Street Music Hall. Chmiel hopes the city will give the St. Paul Business Association funds to put up larger, clearer, and more uniform signs in the area next year. But because most parking lots in the area are private property, that won't be easy.

            Chmiel has tried to remedy the situation himself, but he says tow truck drivers have sabotaged his efforts. "If we put up a sandwich sign on the sidewalk with a warning, they'll take it, run it over," he says. "It won't last a week."

            Miguel Millan, an employee of Tapas 177 on St. Paul Street, has a similar story. "We put out a sign in a five-gallon bucket saying, 'Don't park here, you'll get towed,' and a tow truck took it away," he says.

            "We used to put up A-frame signs in front of illegal parking places, and they'd crush 'em," says Ritter. "They ran over three different signs of ours. They ran over all our cones."

            "You can't block the lot, you can't interfere with people's business," says Steve of Northeast Towing. "You start putting up signs and that's just gonna aggravate everyone in general. And then it's gonna make us want to tear them out or take them down.

            "Obviously, I have to make a living," he continues, "and to see nobody park there... A few people have to get towed."

            Andrea Burke, owner of the Montage Grille on Chestnut Plaza, understands the wrecker drivers have a job to do, she just doesn't like the way they do it. "They're so aggressive," she says. "They wait around, especially if they know we're going to be busy."

            Marinaro, a driver himself, agrees. "I don't really like how some of these operators are doing it," he says, "where they're sitting there across the street, watching these people park their cars, and they go in and they take them."

            It's a tactic referred to as "bait and shoot." And in those situations, tow operators can take a car with the efficiency and speed of Richard Petty's pit crew.

            The Montage Grill has a sign posted on its front door warning that if you're parked illegally, "you'll be towed immediately, if not sooner."

Most tow victims eventually accept the fact they made a mistake. "It was my fault," says Kerry Williams, of Rochester, whose car was towed this summer. "I saw the sign."

            "Everyone else was parking there," says Rochester's Rodney Weil. "They all got towed, too."

            After the trauma and expense of a tow, rarely are there repeat offenders. "I look at all the signs now," says Williams.

            But the signs don't tell the whole story. And that's when people get really pissed.

            Officer Jim Tuite, of the Rochester Police Department's license investigation unit, monitors the fees tow companies charge. (Maximum fees for specific services are set by the city's Treasury Office.) When citizens complain, "a lot of times they feel they're overcharged or they feel the signs aren't posted well enough," he says.

            "It often says on the sign the tow company charges $50 for towing," Tuite continues. "Car owners go get their vehicle, and all of a sudden, the charge is over $100."

            As revised --- slightly raised, mostly --- by the city in August, the maximum fees include: a $55 base rate, $12 per day for storage, $25 per 30 minutes for winching, $15 for use of a flatbed truck (necessary for all-wheel drive vehicles), and $31 per hour for the "necessary extra man," among other charges.

            Tuite says tow truck operators are "generally pretty good," about charging fees only for necessary services. "Once in a while, we'll get a complaint from a person who says, 'They charged me for the necessary extra man.' The tow company will say, 'The car was in a tight spot. We had to use an extra man.' Sometimes, in our opinion, one guy could do the tow, but they charge for an extra man. Basically, it's their word against ours."

            "If they can justify it, they can charge it," Tuite says. "We try to monitor as much as we can."

            "Basically, there's a charge for everything," Steve says.

            And everything must be paid for in cash.

            "People can stop payment on credit cards," says Steve. "If we took credit cards or checks, we'd be in court constantly. We'd be out of business.

            "We won't even take money orders," he continues. "We will take certified bank drafts."

"Rapid growth in an area creates parking problems," says Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, executive vice president of Rochester Downtown Development Corp., a non-profit business association. "There is a lag before those problems get resolved, but they do get resolved."

            Zimmer-Meyer says business owners have to get "creative" to solve their parking problems. For example, some offer valet parking or strike deals with neighboring landlords.

            But for Burke, the owner of the Montage Grille, creativity isn't enough. "We've tried to arrange something where we would valet into a lot," she says. "We would keep it clean. We have insurance and everything, but they [the lot's owner, in this case RG&E] wouldn't talk to us."

            "We generally do not make our parking lots available for liability reasons," says Power. If there was an accident and subsequent legal action against RG&E, "it could affect our customers in their RG&E bills," he says.

            In other words, if some intoxicated moron splits his head open on RG&E's asphalt and Jim "The Hammer" gets a call, we'll all be wearing extra sweaters.

            Some business owners suspect landlords are getting a kickback from the fee collected when vehicles are towed from their property. "The people that own these buildings in the area are allowing these tow trucks to survive because they're making money as well," says Kevin Herrick, owner of the Mercury Star Lounge. "It's greed. It's not that they're not welcoming nightlife; they're just finding ways to capitalize on it."

            "That's absolutely false," says Marinaro. "There's no towing service I know willing to share the money they take in, because it is a nasty job and it's becoming an expensive job."

            "Absolutely not," seconds Steve. "This job is too dangerous and costly to be giving money back. The landlords just want the service."

            And they don't want the mess. "When someone uses the lot during the day, sometimes the night-time crowd isn't as kind to the property as they should be," Zimmer-Meyer says. "They leave garbage, beer cans, or --- God forbid --- throw up. People come in the morning and say, 'Holy cow!'"

            Zimmer-Meyer disputes some club owners' claims that downtown's parking crunch is killing business. "If the joint is jumping and hot, people will go no matter what the hassle," she says. "I've been stunned to see how far people will walk to get to a really hot joint."

            And there's also the alternative to a crowded downtown: a deserted urban landscape. "Our view is this is a sign of success," Zimmer-Meyer says. "Not to minimize the issue, but these are nice problems to have."

Senior writer Chris Busby contributed to this story.