It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in Boston, which is to say it’s been a long time since my car’s been towed. Cars do get towed in Maine, I suppose, but vehicular hazards here are more often centered on large antlered mammals in the roadway, as opposed to somewhat smaller, slightly less hirsute, exclusively bipedal mammals hooking one’s stationary vehicle to a still-larger vehicle, then driving away.
Further, my life here (I moved north in 1992) has been predominately family-oriented, pastoral and deliberate. In Boston, where I lived from 1986-92, I was single, urban and reckless. Nothing more viscerally illustrated this directly post-collegiate existence than lighting out for a party or club, circling a particular destination for a legal parking spot, successfully hunting one down (perhaps on the cusp of legality), leaving one’s largest and most valued possession there, only to return three hours later and find it gone — or, to find it untouched! It was a survivalist game of cat and mouse that I played with some skill for many years opposite traffic authorities representing the cities of Boston, Cambridge, Allston, Brighton and Somerville. I’d like to think that six years of eschewing parking garages saved me more money than I ultimately spent on tickets and towing fees. But that risk/reward ledger has never been reliably reckoned.
What I undoubtedly gained was a slew of great tow stories. I chronicle three selections here. Most tales of tow are tales of woe, where the system clearly got the best of me. That wouldn’t be a full and accurate portrayal, however. I could just as easily detail for you three occasions I parked illegally but successfully in the alleyways that divide city blocks in Back Bay, or parked sans resident sticker (and sans incident) in neighborhoods all over Greater Boston. But I won’t be doing that. As they say in the media business, it ain’t news when the plane lands safely.
September 1986: The Return — If there were an international governing body of traffic incidents, where meticulous logs were kept regarding the speed with which one regains possession of a towed vehicle, I might be world record-holder. On this potentially record-setting occasion, I was fortunate watch the truck slowly pass by the first-floor window of my Beacon Hill apartment. Once I had deduced that my silver 1978 Dodge Omni was literally in tow, there was nothing to do but bolt out the front door and give chase, on foot. I caught the tow truck in Government Center, a third of a mile down Joy Street, and another up Cambridge Street. At first the dude wouldn’t let me ride with him. But ultimately he took pity, acknowledging the effort perhaps, and waved me into his cab.
The impoundment lot this fateful night was located in South Boston, hardly remote. Dude let me out 100 yards before reaching the chain-link gate, so as not to reveal his breach of tow-truck protocol. Often there is a mass of pissed off people milling about the desk of an impoundment lot, but there was just one person there on this providential evening: A woman, in a fur coat, chatting agreeably with the staff. They clearly knew her, so frequently did she flaunt the parking system apparently. Soon she had paid and was gone; 5 minutes later I followed suit and exited through the same door. Same dude was still lowering the Omni back to Earth when I handed him my receipt. Hightailing it back to Beacon Hill couldn’t have taken more than 10 minutes.
I would peg the elapsed time — from the moment my car was placed on the hook, to the time I returned to the Joy Street apartment — at 30-32 minutes. The period stretching from my moment of realization, that my car had been towed, to my reappearance in the flat, could not have exceeded 25-27 minutes. That has got to be some kind of record.
Anyone who knows Beacon Hill — with its high-density residential, its narrow one-way streets, its proximity to three high-volume employment venues (Mass General, the State House and Government Center) — understands that parking thereabouts is about as challenging and high-risk as the Boston street scene gets. In many ways, the stakes are higher today: Computerization connects bad parking behavior with dire consequences almost immediately. Circa 1986, prior to the digital age, it took years for the DMV to run down scofflaws — and so, the anxiety was more textured. Who knew precisely how close to the precipice one stood? A letter might arrive, only go unread for a week or completely ignored. Two weeks later one might be two tickets deeper in the hole, maybe three. Would the next ticket summon the cursed tow truck, or (perish the thought) the dreaded boot?
The ultimate penalty was not meted out this record-setting evening, but there was a karmic breach. A group of us were headed out that particular night. Everyone else, three or four others, were clustered in the living room, positioned at the rear of our Joy Street apartment. Standing in the front bedroom, alone, I saw whirling red lights refracting through the windows on the walls. For an instant, I mused to myself, “Some moron got himself towed.” The regret was equally instantaneous. I was the moron.
No one had even noticed when, without word or warning, I raced out the door and down Joy Street. Twenty-five minutes later I returned and they were like, “Where have you been?” I got towed.
“Oh no. We’re going to be really late now.” No, I already got it back. Let’s go.
August 1989: The Switch — My older sister Janet bugged out of Greater Boston almost immediately upon her graduation from college, decamping for Greater Baltimore where she resides to this day. I was only a year out of school myself when a college housemate, John Sledge, resolved to wed the former Isabella Penna, somewhere between Baltimore and our nation’s capital. Being young and poor, my fellow Boston-based Weskids and I never considered flying. We drove south and all us stayed with my sister. For the road trip, I borrowed my dad’s newish Honda Accord, for surely it was more reliable than the shit-box, high-mileage 1982 Accord I was driving at the time.
One night that weekend, we all went out to the Fell’s Point warehouse district of downtown Baltimore to see a Boston-based band we loved, the one and only Dumptruck. My dad’s 4-door sedan was a sort of metallic taupe color. I parked it on the street that night a block and a half from the club, the name of which escapes me. I don’t remember having parked illegally, or even on the periphery of legality, though I pushed the envelope so frequently back then, it’s hard to rule it out.
In this era preceding the computerization of parking records, there was little to no fear of some Baltimore parking cop running a search on my plates and discovering my laundry list of Boston-area violations, dozens of which surely languished in multiple file cabinets, unpaid, at the time. These were far more innocent times, in so many ways, and they frankly emboldened one to park with an even greater degree of impunity, especially out of state.
In any case, after a predictably kickin’ show from everyone’s favorite alt-country forebear, we stumbled out of the club in the direction of my dad’s car. When we rounded the corner, there was the dude, latching his mighty hook to the front undercarriage of a newish, metallic taupe-colored 1986 Honda Accord.
I broke into a run and upon arrival at the scene, commenced to begging and pleading. Dude, how much will it cost me to put this car down? Allow me to make it worth your while, good sir! You’re a man of taste and breeding: Surely we can work something out!! … Dude was unmoved. They’re so rarely moved. Seeing as I was several beers to the good by this late hour, I quickly transitioned to a more outraged, aggressive and ultimately profane tone.
The situation was deteriorating. It was already 1 a.m. and the car — my father’s car! — was only now being towed away. We were looking at another couple hours for retrieval, to say nothing of the cost — and the matter of delivering all the others back to my sister’s place, while I endured unfamiliar-impoundment-lot purgatory.
Just about the time all this was sinking in — perhaps as I whirled around in frustration, plotting my next fruitless, argumentative gambit — my eye happened to wander a few yards up the street. And right there, three cars down on the same side of the street, was the exact same car — identical make (Honda), model (4-door Accord LXi) and color (technically “Misty Beige”, according to my brother the car geek). I remember consciously pressing the pause button on my tirade and stepping back from the tow scene, a bit further into the street, so I might better view the rear license plate: Massachusetts!
God love The Bay State. I looked at the dude, who was now looking at me — curious, no doubt, as to why I had stopped haranguing him. “You have a good night,” I told him. We piled into my dad’s car and got the hell out of there, feeling truly blessed. In fact, we felt way better than we’d have felt — by several orders of magnitude — had we found the car directly and driven away without incident.
March 1988: The All-Nighter — The irony of most “my-car-just-got-towed” situations is, they require clear thinking and practicality. And yet, most of these episodes take place when one is half in the bag. My friend Dave Rose and I were somewhere between three-quarters and fully in the bag when we bounded out of Bunratty’s, a club in Brighton, Massachusetts, only to find my car missing. This one stung, because parking in that BayBank lot after-hours was just flat out mindless — and I’d been perfectly sober when that decision had been made.
Once we emerged from the club and discovered the car gone, we doubled back to the intersection of Commonwealth and Brighton avenues, where we might find a pay phone. Remember them? As I navigated the telephone information system (remember that?), in order to locate the appropriate impoundment lot, I watched Rose order then savagely attack an Italian sausage sub procured from some street-cart vendor. The fact that Rose is today a vegetarian adds amusing nuance to this memory. However, mainly it resonates because the entire scene was a template for how a 20something male might impulsively buy and inhale street food in a drunken, late-night, haven’t-put-anything-in-my-stomach-for-6-hours-except-8-Black-Label-bar-bottles sort of way.
I remember it taking a long time to determine that my car had been transported to a lot near Alewife, 20 minutes away on the Cambridge-Arlington line. I mauled a sausage sub myself, waiting on the phone. Having estimated the cost of liberating my vehicle, plus cab fare, I hit a nearby ATM. Upon arrival at the impoundment lot office, it became clear we were 10 bucks short. The attendant would not negotiate. Would not take my license or credit card, or the kind bud I was carrying, as collateral. Infuriating: That was some sweet-ass Thai stick! By this time it was almost 3 a.m. This lot was way off the beaten path. We faced the unsavory prospect of walking all the way back out to Mass Ave., hailing another cab, finding an ATM, and returning yet again.
As we walked sullenly through the chain-link gate, a cop rolled by, at observation speed. By now, we were pretty damned sober, or so it seemed. Counter-intuitively, I flagged him down and related the whole, sad story, minus the sausage and dope details. “Get in.” He took us to the ATM, waited for us, and delivered us back to Alewife. By now it was close to 4 a.m. and we were totally sober.
We went straight home. As we’d already eaten…