MY CAR GOT TOWED LAST WEEKEND. I HADN'T BEEN TOWED IN SIX years, so I'd forgotten about the five stages you go through, like death: disbelief, outrage, storming around the parking lot looking for the sign that gives you the phone number to find your car, resignation, calculation of available cash.
There are, in fact, many similarities between towing and death. Hearing that someone else got towed always makes you feel better about your own problems, but it also scares you because you know it could happen to you at any time. Telling people about a towing often inspires them to share their own towing experiences, many of which are still open wounds.
Towing also crosses cultural lines; whether you've been towed in Los Angeles, London or Mexico City, you know that 1) your car is far away and you will get lost getting there, 2) some secret extra fee will be added at the last minute to the already breathtaking towing price, and 3) you and the person who's got your car will come to despise each other.
Of course, you usually start out on bad terms. The person behind the desk (or, more likely, thick Plexiglas or bars) is sullen from years of being cursed at. And there's no incentive for him to be nicer or to move faster. Nor is there a penalty for his becoming even more surly or slowing down even more. He charges what he wants and you will pay it, no matter what. His hours aren't convenient. Why should they be? He charges by the day, so if you'd prefer to scream at him on the phone today rather than pick up your car, be his guest. Passive aggressiveness reaches its zenith at the towing office.
And what about you, the towee? You are so full of righteous anger at the evilness of the process that you cannot face the simple fact that you screwed up. You got towed because you parked in the wrong place. You gambled, and you lost. But instead of losing gracefully, you become an asshole. I am here to tell you that this will happen even if you vow that it won't.
I showed up in East Los Angeles to pick up my car with my boyfriend, Adam, knowing that I would have to be the reasonable one because he was already deep in towing rage. We approached a tiny storefront; inside were two teenage boys playing a computer game and two massive dogs sitting behind a heavy iron gate.
Things went sour immediately. The boys told us that the tow-truck driver wasn't there, and that he was the only one who could get our car out, so we'd have to wait. "How long?" Adam asked. They shrugged. "Why didn't you tell us this when we called 15 minutes ago and asked if you were open?" Adam yelled. One of them deadpanned, "We're open, he's just not here."
Looking back, I'm pretty sure that's the moment I started to unravel, even though at the time I felt in control and on the outside I seemed calm. I paid the $165 ($40 of which was an "after-hours charge" because it was Saturday and their hours are 10 to 4, Monday through Friday) and settled patiently against the wall to wait.
It started small. After 10 minutes of standing around watching the boys play the computer game, I called a friend on my cell phone and began talking loudly about how we'd been towed from "some stupid fucking deli." I was hoping, I think, that the boys would be embarrassed that their family's company was towing people from such stupid fucking places. The call had no visible effect. I got madder. I started crank calling the deli from whose lot we'd been towed. I called and hung up 30 times. This made me feel better, and I thought I was basically done being mad.
After another 15 minutes, Adam asked the boys if they could please call the towing guy again and ask him where he was and how long it would take to get here. Reluctantly one of them made the call, which we couldn't hear, hung up and said, "He's on the 101."
"Where on the 101?" Adam asked. "How far away?"
"He's on his way. He's on the 101."
"The 101 is a long highway, can you tell me where he is, approximately?"
"He's on his way."
I looked into this boy's impassive face and vowed to spend every minute until the towing guy got here tormenting him and his friend. I started grinding a moving part of the metal gate against itself, making an unholy squealing sound. I pretended to be mindlessly fidgeting, looking off into space as I was doing it, as though I couldn't even hear the sound. When the dogs started whining and growling at the shrieks (which I got better and better at drawing out), I cooed at them as though they were Pomeranians.
"You're cute," I told the pit bull. "What a good dog." The sick part is that I knew the boys would be reluctant to confront me because I'd seemed calm so far, and I was a grownup, and a woman, and white. These boys weren't going out of their way to help us, but fundamentally they seemed decent kids who were shy around adults, and I used their decency against them. I made the gate scream for 25 minutes.