Hugh McElroy was just trying to be polite. The lead singer and bassist for the local band Horses was loading his van in the alley behind the Black Cat after a Dec. 30 show when he was asked to clear the space. Obligingly, he pulled the ’89 Volkswagen around the corner into an empty spot in another alley and then went back inside the club to say some goodbyes. When he emerged approximately 10 minutes later, the van was being hoisted up onto a tow truck. Despite McElroy’s confused protestations, the van was quickly hauled away, leaving him and his bandmates scratching their heads at the rapidity of the tow. “He left without showing me the ticket or saying where it was being towed to,” says McElroy.

Overzealous tow trucks are an inescapable part of urban life. But a 10-minute response time in an empty alley in the middle of the night is impressive even for D.C.’s most dedicated winch jockeys. McElroy isn’t the only bad-luck victim of a preternaturally gifted tower. “For years, those spots were OK for parking at night,” says Dante Ferrando, owner of the Black Cat. “All of a sudden, if someone parks there, within 15 minutes of parking their vehicle gets towed.”

The spots in question are located on Cedar Court NW, a glorified alley running perpendicular to 14th Street behind the Black Cat. In the daytime, they’re used by the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). Abandoned at night, the spots used to be fair game for club staff and patrons. In early June, however, the DPR started getting serious about protecting its little-used alley parking spots. Although DPR spokesperson Terry Lee isn’t quite sure why, he postulates that there might be some liability issues involved. Since the crackdown, Ferrando estimates, about one car per week gets towed—always late at night, always on the weekend, always with superhuman speed.

In mid-September, Black Cat employee Sasha Lord parked behind the club, though not on Cedar Court. Her friend’s car had been towed from a DPR spot the night before, so she specifically avoided Cedar Court, parking in another alley, with no signage. She emerged after the show to find her car gone. “The cops thought my car was stolen,” says Lord. She eventually found the car in a Northeast impound lot. But there were still a lot of unanswered questions. “The ticket said ‘Towing requested,’ which is ridiculous,” says Lord. “There was no sign saying ‘No parking.’”

Both Lord’s car and McElroy’s van were towed by a private company called Youngin’s Towing—the same company that has been on the scene each and every time, according to Ferrando. Among District towing insiders, Youngin’s has a reputation for being quick with a winch. “They’re known for being, shall we say, somewhat maverick,” says Mary Myers, public information officer for the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW). But Youngin’s owner James W. Gee vehemently denies that anything unsavory is afoot. “Every car that comes in here has a ticket on it,” says Gee. “These people don’t have a legitimate complaint.”

Even so, the process is certainly obnoxious. McElroy says he wasn’t allowed to see the ticket by the tow-truck driver and suspects that there was no ticket on the vehicle at the time of the tow. Lord is suspicious, too: “There was no cop back there. Maybe a cop gave them a ticket book or something.” Gee maintains that he’s under no obligation to produce a ticket until he gets paid.

The payment can be substantial. McElroy was charged $120 to get his van out of the lot. He got off cheap—Lord was originally quoted a price of $250 to get her car out. But after a Youngin’s employee recognized her as the woman who had complained to him about her friend’s car being towed a couple of nights earlier, he offered to cut the price down to $100.

According to Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Compliance Officer Timothy R. Handy, towing companies are obligated to provide their “customers” with both a receipt at the scene and a copy of the Towing Bill of Rights, a document that tells drivers what rights they have when dealing with towing companies. McElroy says he received neither.

Ferrando also claims that cars have been towed without being ticketed. The spots are marked “No parking,” but because they say nothing about the possibility of towing, Ferrando was forced to augment the signs himself, taping small slips that say “Tow away zone” to the center of the existing signs. Gee has little sympathy: “If they’re watching how we conduct our business so closely, they should just move the car.”

A recent Saturday-evening stakeout found no illegally parked cars, the only traffic an itinerant pizza deliveryman from a 14th Street pizzeria. The lack of competition for the spaces makes it seem odd that offending vehicles are so quickly and efficiently dispatched. “They’re taking advantage of a loophole, and they’re screwing people,” says Ferrando.

Exactly who “they” are, however, is difficult to ascertain. The world of parking enforcement is, like many other municipal bureaucracies, horribly labyrinthine. Approximately 25 different organizations have the power to ticket vehicles in the District. Towing responsibilities are shared by myriad private companies and the DPW. “If a tow is done from a public space, it’s the responsibility of DPW,” says Myers. But on weekend nights, D.C. police officers are just about the only folks who can write tickets and request towing services.

And police Inspector Diane Groomes claims that her people have more pressing issues coming over the radio. “On Friday and Saturday, we’re way too busy to be writing tickets for these tow trucks,” she says.

After paying to get his van out of the lot, McElroy was handed a $30 ticket by the Youngin’s crew; it had apparently been issued by a D.C. official at 12:40 a.m. But McElroy can’t read the issuing officer’s name or agency and is delaying paying it. Meanwhile, Lee empathizes with McElroy’s plight and promises to look into the matter. “If we find that there’s any sort of illegal or unethical procedures going on there, we will take action immediately,” says Lee.

Still, Ferrando wants the truculent towers stopped. “Whether legal or not, I don’t know, but it’s not appropriate to do it,” says Ferrando. “The [towing] prices are higher than what some people earn in a week.” CP