By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The early-morning sun is just beginning to warm the dirt-and-gravel lot on Beeman Avenue. The only apparent movement at the ramshackle headquarters of Elite Towing, Inc. is the wandering of a flea-bitten black Labrador, whose painstaking steps are punctuated by the steady, annoying ding of a nearby railroad bell.
Accompanied by his wife, Cassandra, a quiet woman who usually spends her mornings minding the house, Gould is especially determined this Tuesday morning.
Gould thinks that triumph is at hand, that he has finally beaten the company that illegally towed--and allegedly damaged--his wife's 1985 Ford Tempo. He is ready to collect the $110 he paid to bail out his wife's car, plus $10 in court costs ordered by a judge.
Gould plans to collect every last dime, but Elite Towing has one more dirty trick to pull.
Court order in one hand, tape recorder in the other, Gould marches up to Elite's office and knocks on one of the greasy windows. "WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE IF ANY FOUL LANGUAGE IS USED OR THREATS ARE MADE," reads a hand-lettered sign. At Elite Towing, such admonitions are not just window dressing.
After Gould knocks, a woman wearing a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt cracks open the window and takes the court order from Gould. He waits.
A few moments later, Elite night manager Larry Stober steps outside. He is carrying a paper sack filled with quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Elite Towing is going to pay Gould the money it owes him in change.
Gould protests. How is he supposed to know if all the money is there? He asks to speak to Elite's president and owner, Lissa Ruffin, who is seated behind the glass window dressed in a Minnie Mouse sweatshirt.
Ruffin will not come out.
Gould asks Stober to count out the money.
"I'm not counting it out," Stober says, thrusting the sack of coins at Gould. "Do you want this money?"
Gould sighs and hands his tape recorder to his wife. He takes the paper sack from Stober and spills rolls of coins out on the gravel. Gould gets down on his knees and begins counting, roll by roll, beginning with the quarters.
The black Labrador stops in front of Gould, raises its right hind leg and begins scratching its mangy belly.
As the morning grows warmer, a yellow taxi pulls into the Elite lot and drops off a towering red-haired woman. Kathey Peat is about to enter a level of hell already known to Gould.
Peat knocks on the window, then knocks again, louder, and glares at the window. The woman in the Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt stares back through the glass, refusing to open the window. "They're just ignoring me," the redhead says, dumbfounded.
Elite towed Peat's car the night before, from the lot of Peat's condominium complex. The woman in the Cowboys sweatshirt opens the window, listens to Peat's story, then pronounces Peat guilty of parking in a fire lane. Elite's driver even took a Polaroid of Peat's illegally parked car before towing it, the woman says.
Behind the glass, the Elite employee holds up a color Polaroid. It is impossible to tell whether there's a fire lane; the picture was taken in the dead of night.
Peat demands the picture so she can inspect it more closely. The employee opens the window and thrusts it out, refusing to let go of it entirely. "There's a fire lane right there," she intones, her voice rising.
"There's no fire lane there," Peat says, turning her head and scanning the scene for witnesses. As she does, the woman snatches back the picture and slams the window shut.
"Did you see that? They won't even let me hold it in my hand," Peat says, muttering about how she's lived in the same condominium complex for 12 years and knows where the cotton-picking fire lanes are.
"Who authorized you to tow my car?" Peat barks, banging on the window for a third time.
The woman in the Cowboys sweatshirt says Elite has a contract with the condominium complex's owner and has a right to tow from the lot. But Peat wants to know who gave Elite authorization to tow--a name, a person. The woman in the Cowboys shirt says she can't say, she just works here.
A mustachioed man with severely crooked teeth pops his head up from behind the gate. He is wearing a hot pink baseball hat featuring the words "Elite Towing" and the image of a tow truck. He clucks his tongue and shakes his head.
"As long as we have a contract, we can tow a car off that lot at any time," the man says, his tone of voice sounding as if he can barely restrain himself from adding the words "so there" to his generic explanation.
"I just want to know who authorized you to tow my car!"
Peat is yelling. The woman behind the window is yelling back. The man in the pink hat is clucking. The railroad bell is dinging. The dog is scratching. And Gould is counting.