By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Act 1, Scene 1: It's late at night in Woodlake Square, a small strip shopping center at Westheimer and Gessner. J. Michael Douglas, the mild-mannered owner of Houston-based Bristol Motors Car Corp., comes out of a restaurant beaming like a glowworm after food and drinks with a friend. On top of the world, Douglas reaches for his keys as they walk to his car.
The car is gone. So is the night's ambience.
Douglas has been towed. He knows the drill. He knows this means he'll have miles to go before he sleeps.
World-weary, he wheels about and spots the wrecker driver who's circling the lot, looking for his next victim. "Why, why, why?" Douglas asks of the driver, of the heavens, of the fates. Douglas thought he was safe. Sure, he was parked in a striped sector, but the owners of that shop had wheeled their "warning, tow zone" sign inside the store as they closed up earlier in the evening. Douglas figured it was a daytime loading zone, so no one would mind if he used it tonight. Actually, he hoped it would be okay, with there not being any other place to park and all, but of course it wasn't -- not with money to be made for both wrecker drivers and storage lots.
"Did you tow my car?" he asks of the wrecker driver. "The cop told me to do it" is the driver's nonchalant reply, waving his hand in the general direction of a nearby police officer. "I don't believe that," Douglas responds, thinking surely the police must have something better to do. "Go ask him yourself," the wrecker driver says encouragingly. Which, of course, Douglas does not do, thinking that perhaps something better for police officers to do might entail arresting someone who's had a couple of drinks.
Fuming, he watches as the wrecker driver sidles up to another car. This one is in a totally legal designated parking spot. But one of its tires sits on rather than inside ofthe white line denoting the space. A quick hookup, and another vehicle is on its way to impound.
There is one bright spot: Douglas and his friend had driven separately to the restaurant, so they have transportation. Except, as they both realize as they walk over to her car, she'd tossed her purse into his trunk on their way into the restaurant. The purse and the car keys it contains are now sitting in a storage lot someplace miles away. Time to call a cab.
There are few more schizophrenic relationships than the one between humankind and wrecker drivers. Your car breaks down or runs out of gas, you're mired in sand at the beach, or you've just had an accident, and the guy driving up in the bright-colored truck with flashing lights is the white knight on a horse.
But exit a bar or restaurant after a night on the town, discover your car gone, and the wrecker driver is the Prince of Darkness. Catch him in the act, and even if you can convince him to unhook the car, it's going to cost you.
To people like Douglas, wrecker drivers are the perpetrators of a multimillion-dollar scam. He sees them as vultures, circling private parking lots, preying upon people in a vulnerable state. They take as much money as they can from the hapless car owners and get paid a bounty by storage lot owners looking to fill their properties. They don't follow the rules, Douglas says, as they hide behind an uninterested police force and their own abilities to make themselves scarce.
To people like Suzanne Poole, president of the nonprofit Houston Professional Towing Association and owner of A-Best Towing, wrecker drivers come in all manner of shapes, sizes and consciences. She readily concedes some are jerks and wants to see those drummed out of the corps. But most, she says, are hardworking folks who operate high-risk businesses that put them at some personal danger while they protect business interests and help stranded people. Sure, they get paid a bounty by the storage lots, but that's usually for cars involved in accidents -- cars that are going to stay awhile and generate huge fees, rather than so-called private parking pickups, which usually are bailed out by the next day, she says.
Poole says people need to be smarter both in their encounters with wrecker drivers and in understanding the market forces motivating the drivers. Understanding, in turn, is supposed to help allay that outpouring of rage that occurs when someone is taking your car away from you, charging you for the inconvenience and chuckling at you as he does so.
People get towed from restaurant and club parking lots in Houston because a lot of places have a huge capacity inside with little parking outside, Poole says. The Richmond Strip is a classic case in point, she says. People leave their cars at the first available spot and then clubhop the night away. "They'll park at Richmond and Sage and go all the way down to Hillcroft on foot. They keep walking from one bar to another. 'Course by the time they get to the fifth bar, they should be on foot," she says, laughing.