"I think you got my car here," barks an American tourist. "Five after four and my car was already gone. Can you beat that?" He hangs his head. "Oh, Jesus," he says, with an ironic, why-me laugh.
Behind the counter at the impound shed of JP Towing and Storage, a young woman greets this outburst by doing a remarkable impression of the Mona Lisa. Her name, appropriately enough, is Bella. "Licence plate?" she asks.
After more appeals to his saviour the gentleman spits out his Michigan plate number. Flipping through her records, Bella locates his blue Pontiac. A sign on the wall beside her reads: WE DID NOT "DRIVE" YOUR VEHICLE; WE DID NOT "PARK" YOUR VEHICLE; WE DID NOT "TAG" YOUR VEHICLE; BUT WE DID "TOW" YOUR VEHICLE-AND WE WILL NOT TAKE ANY ABUSE!
"That'll be $49.22," she smiles.
"Sweet job you have," the man says. 'A licence to print money." When he tries to pay his fine in American dollars, Bella's bubbly cohort, Marta, informs him they give only a 20 per cent premium for U.S. cash. "Jesus!" he howls. "It doesn't pay to come to this country. Jesus!"
As he's fishing in his pockets for Canadian currency, a middle-aged couple from Oshawa comes into the shed. "Welcome to the big city;" says the husband. "Stopped for coffee and a tea, looked in one shop, and my car was gone."
The wife looks pleadingly at Marta. "Do you give a discount for out-of-towners?"
The Toronto police department divides the amalgamated city into six towing districts; each has a different private company taking care of bylaw parking violation tows. Since 1994, JP Towing has held the lucrative contract on District 1 -- the west core, Lakeshore to the 401, Spadina to the Humber. Bearing the initials of owner John Paul Cruz, JP has the largest impound lot in Ontario, a 3.5-acre fenced compound just north of Exhibition Place. The company's fleet of 40 cherry-red tow trucks (including three heavy tow trucks and three flatbeds capable of towing two cars at once) hauled away and impounded about 11,000 of the estimated 70,000 cars police had towed last year. Towing and storage income for the entire city in 1999 amounted to $16 million. With that kind of money up for grabs, it's not surprising that Toronto's towing industry is rife with shady backroom political deals and internecine feuds.
"We got a lot of scums out there," says Cruz, 42, a brawny, mustachioed Portuguese man gone prematurely grey. What bothers him most are the small-time operators -- the ones with one or two trucks and a pager who sit on the side of the road, waiting to take advantage of stranded motorists.
"But you know what?" he adds. "I don't blame them. I blame the licensing commission. It's $275 for a piece of paper that says your tow truck is licensed -- and they don't care if you never drove a tow truck or you don't know what one looks like. Taxis, they give you a course. Tow trucks, where we have more responsibility -- we got the customer plus the car -- no courses, nothing. They just take the money."
Last year the six towing area contracts were due to expire, and the Toronto Police Services Board invited a round of new bids. JP Towing was again the successful bidder for District 1. The board, however had second thoughts about the integrity of the tendering process, so it scrapped the bids and asked the current contract holders to temporarily extend their old contracts with a price freeze. Cruz said he couldn't afford to freeze prices, so the board announced it would chop JP's cash-cow district in half and bestow the contract on two of JP's rivals without a public bid.
Cruz took the Police Services Board to court. Allegations were raised of gross impropriety, personal bias and conflicts of interest. The most notable revelation was that the board's chair Norm Gardner had received political contributions from the two towing companies that were handed JP's district. Justice Paul Cosgrove excoriated the board and ordered it to extend JP's contract for another year.
"They thought I was going to shut my mouth and say good-bye," says Cruz. "But I'm gonna fight for my rights."
Back at the impound shed, the three out-of-towners are joined by a sheepish young woman in a courier uniform. "I think I got towed," she says with a quiver in her voice.
"What's your vehicle?" asks Bella.
The delivery girl looks at her incredulously. On the verge of tears, she says, "It's a FedEx truck."
The disgruntled American, meanwhile, has come up with exactly $49 in Canadian currency-22 cents short of his impound fee.
"Here, allow me," offers the lady from Oshawa, withdrawing dimes and pennies from her change purse.
"Thank you very much," says the American, breaking into a genuine smile. "Hey, this lady's paying my bond for me! I'll finally have something good to remember from this trip:' He pushes the pile of bills and coins toward Bella and says, "At least I didn't get a ticket on top of it."
"It'll be on your windshield," says Bella.
"Jesus. Jesus!" he curses and storms out.
Once he's gone, Bella, who receives more scorn, abuse and contempt in a week than most of us do in a lifetime, confides the secret of her remarkable composure.
"You just learn to smile," she says. "It bothers them more."