The N.Y.C. Tow Pound: The Land That Time Forgot

If you've ever had your car towed in New York City, you're amongst an elite group of people who've experienced, first hand, what real bureaucracy is all about.

This ridiculous experience -- which fits the Kubler-Ross model like a glove, e.g. --

1. Denial -- "No way, my car was towed. Someone must've stolen it."

2. Anger -- "They towed my f'n car??!! I was only here for five f'n minutes!!"

3. Bargaining -- "The hydrant was obviously broken, as there was a squirrel living in it. Can I speak to a supervisor?"

4. Depression -- "Christ, this is gonna be expensive."

5. Acceptance -- "Just give me my f'n paperwork and let me get the hell out of here."

-- hasn't changed one bit since the days of Mayor Koch. How do I know this? Because my car was towed last night.

Over the years, I've had countless run-ins with 'The Man'; tickets, tows, scofflaw fines, notices coming to the house threatening to take my first born, etc. -- Thus, I consider myself a "professional" when it comes to N.Y.C. parking laws. I've even had several cars 'legally stolen' by the Sheriff for auction (with all my stuff inside). But, I've learned my lesson in spades, and, for the past decade-plus, have only gotten an occasional expired meter ticket.

However, last night, while I was out celebrating my birthday with friends, I parked in the Meat-Packing district near the Apple Store on 14th st. in a meter spot. The city has just recently installed these muni-meters all over the place down there. It used to be free after seven. Now, it's pay 'til 10pm. I'm an expert on reading these ridiculous signs, especially ones that read like a brain-teaser;

"No parking Tues/Thurs. Midnight to 3a.m."

Does this mean that 12a.m. Monday is considered Midnight on Tuesday? Or, do they mean Midnight Tuesday -- which is really Wednesday -- is when you're toast?

Unfortunately for me, I was in a hurry and missed the new, tiny additional sign on top of the half-dozen signs already there;

"No Standing 11pm-7am"

The way they get you in these areas is they line up ten trucks deep around the corner around 10:55pm, and wait. Then, at precisely 11:01, they pounce on their prey like cheetahs in the brush.

I came out at 11:10 and my ticket said they got me at 11:05. Nice.

Walking into the redemption office of NYC tow pound you immediately feel like you've stumbled onto the set of a Fellini film: Prom dates, biker dudes, flower children, Jehovah's Witnesses, Asian businessmen, Orthodox Jews, etc. All plucked, mid-sentence, from their lives and placed here; In the city's version of Hell on Earth. And, the conversations overheard at the windows are priceless:

"It's the one with the Hula Hoops inside."

"It's my friend's car. He's in Oregon. I swear we're friends."

"Is the Mayor here? I'd like to speak with him, please."

But, the one thing that really strikes you is how mundane and archaic the system these people use, is. Several hours can pass from the moment you walk in to the time you leave, and it could easily be cut in half with a few simple updates to technology that have existed amongst humans for over twenty years; e.g. bar codes, scanners, laptops, etc. etc.

It was astonishing to see that the city, while spending thousands renovating the decor and layout of the tow pound since the time I was there in the early 90s, left the neanderthal check-out system completely untouched.

Believe it or not, these poor souls who work here are still using ledgers -- that's right -- ledgers; For those of you born after 1970, a "ledger" was a book used by bookkeepers to write down numbers by hand. This type of record-keeping was done away with around the same time as B.J. and the Bear was canceled. Yet, here they sit, writing by hand, line by line, docket number by docket number, until the book in front of them is filled up and tossed into a room filled with a thousand books just like it.

Then, there's the woman at Window 4 who's apparently paid to sit there and do nothing. Actually, she was hiding behind a geranium most of the night, so I guess that's something.

And, God forbid, you get there before your car does, like I did. You can wait around for an extra hour or so until your vehicle is first entered into the system. Why it takes an hour to log in and get the paperwork to the office ten feet away is beyond me, but my theory is the mountain goat they use to ferry the papers to the office gets hungry from time to time.

And how, exactly, do these wonders of modern technology know when your car is finally entered into the system? The woman behind Window 5 handwrites (again) your license plate on piece of yellow paper she tears from her pad. Then, every few minutes, goes back to check. That is, if she's still there. With this kind of efficiency, you better hope she doesn't disappear too long while helping the next guy, or you'll be sitting there all night.

My favorite part is the sign on the wall that tells you how to say "My car was towed" in fifty different languages. If nothing else, I learned how to call someone an asshole in Punjabi.

Overall, there's absolutely no reason -- with all the money the city takes in from fining 7-11's that sell Big Gulps over 16oz. -- they can't put some of it towards bar codes, scanners, etc. Or, if they're really not ready for a Buck Rogers-type of leap into the 21st century, perhaps just getting rid of the goat would be a good start?

Alas, as the guy at the desk in the room with the ledger says, "If they gave us all that stuff, it wouldn't be a bureaucracy."

(Video of woman hiding behind geranium: