Gus Mileage

The story so far: Eric’s car was towed; the Park City Police Department charged him $80 and then had to refund the money when they realized they didn’t have the car; the guy who DID have the car didn’t want to release it this late at night, even though he had towed it only an hour earlier; Eric finally persuaded him to do it, but at great cost to his own dignity.

I took a taxi to the impound lot, which was 12 miles from Park City. After 20 minutes of standing in the sub-freezing midnight air, I saw Gus (names have been changed) pull up in his tow truck. I will describe him only by saying that if “tow-truck driver” conjures a particular image in your mind, that image probably looks like Gus.

Knowing how unwilling he had been to release the car this late at night — and forever shall I give honor and glory to Gus for shining his mercy upon me! — I treated him with “kid gloves,” as they say, meaning I did not want to touch him with my bare hands. I got out the $80 to pay him, and he started telling me about how the normal cost was $165, but then there was also storage on top of it — $25 a day, and technically, it was now a new day — and I assumed he was leading up to “… but since I told you $80 on the phone, it will just be $80.”

It was silly of me to assume that, of course. He said he was generous enough to leave off the storage fees — may the name of Gus be forever praised! — and the final total would be $165. I pointed out as gingerly as I could that in the 15 minutes I’d spent on the phone with him, begging him to please let me have my car tonight, he had never indicated the cost would be more than the $80 I’d been told initially. He replied by pointing out that he could not accept a credit card or a check.

Silently, I wondered why tow-truck drivers assume people carry around huge wads of cash with them. Vocally, I told him he’d have to drive me to a cash machine.

It occurred to me that Gus could have charged whatever he wanted, and I’d have been powerless to stop him. “Well, I’m gonna have to charge you a standing-up fee, plus a putting-on-my-coveralls fee,” he could have said. “Oh, and there’s a $25 jerk fee that I have to charge you for my being a jerk. You’re lucky I don’t charge you double, as much of a jerk as I’m being.”

Anyway, we rode in Gus’ truck to the nearest ATM, three miles away. Out of the blue, Gus said, “I bought a new bed.” I was amazed to hear this. I had been searching all my life for the topic of conversation that I was least interested in, and now I had found it! A new bed purchased by an obstinate journeyman was precisely the thing in all the universe that I couldn’t possibly have cared less about. And now I was talking about it!

I was afraid if I appeared uninterested in Gus’ new bed that he would change his mind again on how much money I owed him. (“I’m also gonna have to charge you a $25 not-caring-about-my-new-bed fee.”) So I said, “Oh, yeah?” I even raised my eyebrows, the way interested people do.

After getting the money, we went back to the impound lot and Gus released the car. Unfortunately, the evening’s snowfall made it impossible to get the car out from the corner of the yard without — that’s right — being towed. I had to be towed out of the tow yard. (Gus did not charge me for this; in fact, he found it as sadly amusing as I did.)

A caller Wednesday morning said this to me: “I’d just like to know why no one ever puts that them people that stink and smell like smoke comes out and gets people off the roads in the middle of the night, ice-cold, hot, whatever the circumstances are, and they’re there to save everyone else, but they never put that in their little columns.”

I could not have expressed it better myself. The guys who come to your rescue when you’ve broken down perform a valuable service. The companies that do that sort of work exclusively have my respect as hard-working laborers. It’s the ones under contract with cities and police departments to take cars without permission that need to be scrutinized. Whether the towing was justified is irrelevant. The outrageous pricing, the lack of a means for redress, and the odd rules about when cars can be released (seems like if they can tow it at night, they can release it at night) are all due for some examination.

And I’m sorry it took two columns to tell this story. It was only going to be one, but then I had to charge you a one-column reading fee.

What you see here is rather different from the way it ran in the paper. After all the negative feedback after part one, there was a great desire on the part of my superiors not to spend all day Friday taking phone calls, too. To that end, I toned the column down a bit on my own, but some editors desired even further changes be made, as noted below:

Paragraph 1: Delete "but at great cost to his own dignity."

Paragraph 6: Delete everything after "I'd have been powerless to stop him."

Paragraph 7: Change "obstinate journeyman" to "tow-truck driver." (Don't ask me why "obstinate journeyman" -- "stubborn laborer," in other words -- is so offensive.)

Paragraphs 10 and 11: Delete; replace with: "Many callers said Wednesday and Thursday that they objected to criticism of all tow truck drivers. I agree. The guys who come to your rescue when you've broken down perform a valuable service. The companies that do that sort of work exclusively have my respect as hard-working laborers. It's the ones under contract with cities and police departments to take cars without permission that can be a problem."

As published, it's not really my column anymore. Much of the flavor is gone, as is some of the humor. I wasn't happy about the changes at all.