TOW

by Jon McAllister, James Grega & Cameron Roda


In Westerville, Ohio the main Shamrock Towing lot is held down by a fair variety of towed vehicles. It seems quiet on the outside, aside from a scrappy, blonde dog and a true to form junkyard dog.

The tougher dog growls, while his blonde buddy runs around as if seeing the lot for the first time. A driver walks in behind us, assuring that, “Oh, I know he looks real mean, but he ain’t gonna do nothin’ to ya!” He puts the guard dog in the room behind the customer window, where a teenage girl and another driver man the phones. The mutt sits patiently next to a rope bone, staring at the closed door.

Then he redirects his view right on us, staring into our souls. He looks hungry.


In the world of most hated professions, tow truck drivers fall somewhere between used car salesmen and tax auditors. Take this example from a Columbus, Ohio, subreddit:


“In this hypothetical situation there is a magic genie who wants to learn about human nature.
Lets [sic] say he gave me a gun with two bullets.
Then, the mysterious entity performing this experiment put me in a locked room with Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and a Shamrock Towing driver.
After carefully weighing my options, I would shoot the driver in both knee caps so I could watch him painfully bleed to death.”

Shamrock Towing has climbed the ranks as one of the most-hated of public servants, from city settlements claiming that the company has over-charged towed drivers to already existing hate for any group that takes people’s money.

Evidence of that hate was shown by ESPN’s Britt McHenry less than a month ago, as she teed off on a towing service in Arlington, VA.

But what is it really like, inside the trucks and tow-yards of Shamrock?


The barrier window protecting Shamrock visitors from the aggressive pup displays a bumper sticker that reads, “In memory of ‘Chuck’ Duffey 1925–2012” on a banner anchored by a photograph of a vintage tow truck.


Burlow, the scrappy dog running around the Westerville tow-yard, belongs to Tim’s brother, Pat, who also works at Shamrock.

Tim Duffey, one of six Duffey siblings and the Shamrock head honcho, emerges from the door next to the window. Three of those siblings work in the company.

He grins through his weathered skin — true to his three decades in the towing business. He is prideful of the 1980s vending machine in the foyer. It still pops out drinks for 50 cents a can.

The retro soda machine inside the foyer of Shamrock’s headquarters.

The little things impact this career tow-trucker far more than it might for someone else. The same can be said of any moment free from unruly clients, angry college kids and drunken football fans parking in places they aren’t supposed to. Today, a smile that might be forced in those instances comes across genuine.

He is the archetype tow truck driver, holding characteristics shared by the folks who have stayed in the game as long as he has. Greying hair, deep smile lines and crows feet are evidence of his 30 years in the family business.

A six-figure lawsuit with the state of Ohio has taken a chunk out of Tim’s retirement earlier this year. As he drives to meet a coworker early in the morning, Duffey equates the prosecuting lawyers to a bunch of bullies trying to take his lunch money.

In February, Shamrock settled a long-standing lawsuit over charging fees beyond that which the state allows for towing and storage. The result meant only $23 to $28 back to the victims from the $30 to $35 they were unlawfully charged.

But it meant much more to Tim.


Bob

Every Monday through Friday at 6 a.m., Bob Strickland, 57, drives 20 miles before swapping pilot chairs for a two-door Shamrock flatbed truck, two times the length of his four-door Ford pickup.

For 36 years, Bob has worked at Shamrock. He was trained by Pat years ago, becoming one of Shamrock’s first non-family members.

His face, worn by years of towing paired with Marlboro Reds — one of which hangs from of his mouth — offers a youthful side today. It suggests a favorable feeling toward one of the most unique objects he’s ever been asked to tow.


The trunk of an artificial playground tree, standing about 10-feet tall is loaded in the place of what would normally be a broken down or illegally parked car.

“I’ve hauled some weird stuff, but never a fake tree before,” Bob chuckles.

Strickland opts into commission pay instead of salary. He seems more than happy to haul the giant fake tree from the Polaris Mall back to its original location at the Columbus Zoo.

The peculiar task is a pleasant surprise, especially when it comes to some other jobs he’s taken on,

…such as multiple dead bodies in vehicles.

One specific instance remains in the back of his brain.


“What the guy did was, he committed suicide. He tied his legs to the front of the seat, tied his hands to the steering wheel. I don’t know how one person ties both of their hands to the steering wheel, but that’s what he did,” Bob says. “He closed all the windows, sunroof and drove [the car] down the boat dock and drowned himself.”

He continues without flinching.

“He went in [the water] in November…We pulled him out in the spring. He had been in there all winter. Because he was in there in the cold water, it preserved his body. His body was all intact except he had hand hands and no feet.

“He had no facial features.”

A story of such caliber leaves a mark. He tells it as if it happened yesterday, with an introductory feel of excitement, halted by a joyless delivery. Someone has to do the job, and Bob knows this.

It makes him proud.

After four decades in one business, his seniority has piled up. Bob no longer worries about working weekends. He drives one of the newer trucks on Shamrock’s lot, but — more importantly to him — he doesn’t have to come around Ohio State’s campus anymore.

While he’s seen some nasty exhibitions, nothing compares to the vile campus routine.

“Nobody is ever happy to see you,” he says.

Bob tries to keep the peace as much as possible. Nonetheless, he keeps a bat in the back of his car for safety.

He doesn’t want to match the guns that have been pointed at him while towing in and around the college campus.

Bob and his second wife Robyn, for whom he named his GPS, have a college student of their own at home: 19-year-old daughter Bobbie. She attended Kent State for a semester before transferring to Columbus State. Bob allowed his daughter to live at home — rent free — as long as she was in school.

After another semester at the local community college, Bob said his daughter decided college wasn’t for her. “I can’t make her go to school,” he adds.


The volume of illegally parked campus cars demands a towing lot closer than Westerville.

A small headquarters on Hamlet Street, near Fifth Avenue, serves as the campus and downtown base.


Inside the apartment-like supervisor shelter there are two couches, a computer chair and a lawn chair huddled around a TV tuned to ESPN’s SportsCenter.

Rocky, the current operator, glances through the window, walks back into the makeshift living room and checks security monitors near the employee entrance.

Satisfied with the results, he returns to a rainbow patterned lawn chair situated directly in front of the TV.


Rocky

At 51-years-old, wearing a Dallas Cowboys windbreaker, blue jeans, shaved head and goatee combo, Rocky gives the vibe of a run-of-the-mill, middle-aged dad.

His feet are sparsely sheathed in a pair of flip-flops and socks to contrast from the frigid climate of February in Central Ohio.

Rocky isn’t a driver, but he’s been with the company for about one year. He can deal with people coming at him at the lot, but isn’t too keen on being out in field towing cars.

“Oh, no way man,” he says. “I grew up in the hood, but you still gotta watch yourself when you’re out there [if you’re a driver].”

He had been in between jobs when he heard about the job of dealing with potentially hyper-angry people at Shamrock and figured, “I get yelled at all the time anyway.”

With plenty of training dealing with unruly personalities, “nobody compares to any of my ex-wives,” he jokes, albeit entirely too straight-faced.
One of the security monitors inside of the Hamlet St. supervisor station.

There’s a cycle occurring with drivers of towed cars. “100 percent of the time, it’s the driver’s fault,” Rocky notes. Generally, furious people fly into his face throughout his shifts. No matter if there was signage or if the client was only gone for a minute, they’ll never admit to their mistake.

Rocky works 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day and interacts with the mad-as-hell clientele. The excursions essentially leave drivers looking someone else to place the blame on (like Rocky), rather than taking charge of their own error.

“What people don’t know is that we take pictures before we take their vehicles … Those images will only come into play when someone wants to take us to court or something like that,” he says.

He gets a kick out of the frustrated people who swear there wasn’t a sign saying they couldn’t park in whichever spot. It boils down to, “Sorry friend, but there definitely was [a sign].”


Tommy rolls into the campus lot. He has a smoker’s voice although there is no relation,he and Tim Duffey might as well be brothers in that way; graying hair, wisdom wrinkles of fulfilled, tough man’s nature.

Tommy

He has on tan overalls and a few layers of sweatshirts, sunglasses, gloves and boots — plenty more prepared for the climate than Rocky in his flip-flops. Behind him, his cigarette-scented truck pumps out radio-rock ‘n’ roll of the Seether, Staind, Nickelback variety.

His hands have seen some better days. A dense gathering of blood decorates the back of his right hand. His nails are long and his thumbs are draped with heavy calluses. He’s the type of guy who chooses his own dexterity before tools to fix a problem.

Tommy just returned from a job.


“Man… this lady out in Upper Arlington drove her car up [a telephone pole stability cable] and flipped her little Geo Prism on its side.” On patrol and downtown bound, he swivels onto Summit Street.

“She had to climb out the passenger door and jump out,” he adds, looking out over the Columbus skyline encapsulating a bustling, lunch-time Third Street.

“The police were there and I really felt bad for her. She wanted me to be careful flipping the car back over, convinced that she was gonna drive that thing back home. Me and this police officer were looking at each other,” Tommy says, illustrating their shrug with a lifted eyebrow behind his sunglass lens.

Pictures on Tommy’s phone show the lady’s little red car in a seemingly impossible position, propped completely on its left side with its weight balanced in the perfect way to keep from tumbling upside down.

Tommy’s compassion shines through as he examines the image for himself. He’s confused at the ill-fated misfortune of this random stranger.

“You could tell by the car that she had no money. That car probably meant the world to her… The officer told her it was in no shape to drive, and I ended up writing her bill way less than the amount it should’ve been.”

There’s a hotbed of non-customer parking at the Marathon gas station near the Franklin County Courthouses on the corner of West Sycamore Street and South High Street. People going into court never want to pay to park — as if anyone ever does. There’s not a free parking spot in this city, according to Tommy.

The general manager of the gas station is always calling in, so Tommy and others have made it a habit to constantly patrol the area.

Tommy photographs an illegally parked car.

As he scoots through the station, Tommy scans the cars away from the pumps, checking if people were in them.

“We call them squatters,” he says through a smile, describing the people who sit with their cars running in the gas station lot for an abnormal length of time. “They just sit and wait to pick their friends up from court.”

Once he decides no one is parked illegally, he drive into an adjacent alleyway off of Main Street to check parking spots reserved for lawyers — ironic, given Shamrocks recent settlement. It’s basically like doing a non-violent drive-by: Tommy floats in slowly, looking left or right for permits. If a car appears naked, he hops out of the truck for further inspection.


Near the South Campus Gateway area, Tommy navigates toward a space behind the North High Street complex that houses companies like Gamestop and Five Guys Burger and Fries.

As he turns onto 11th Avenue, a sedan up the street — in reverse. The driver had spotted someone leaving a meter space three spots away from High Street. The sedan snuggles in with the front grill of the truck to give the departing party some space.

Suddenly, horns blare from the cars lining up behind Tommy.

He doesn’t seem to care.

He pops open the middle console and pulls out one of three different packs of Pall Malls. He selects a cigarette, rolls the filter between his fingers and lights it up.

“Man, you should ride around with us during football season for a home game,” he says. “Some of those people get pretty intense, throwing shit at me, spittin’ at me… I used to work that night shift, and when people are tanked you really gotta watch out.”

Watching out seems to be a common theme for these guys.


Tommy had worked five or six years before he earned the day shift he’s had for 25 years. It was less about seniority than waiting for someone to retire or quit. Drivers hold tight to the favorable shifts

“I’m sure [new drivers are] like, ‘when the hell is this guy gonna get out of here?!’” Tommy jokes.


Another driver, Jason, pulls into the Hamlet lot. He calls in a job to the Westerville dispatch and returns to the truck.

Jason
Jason returns equipment to the back of his truck after completing a tow.

Jason has been towing cars for a decade,most of it spent at companies like Menards and A-to-Z Towing.

A-to-Z was exclusively a night shift, which presents its own challenges.

“There was one guy that I had towed three times in one night; I’d pick his car up from a spot and drive it to the lot, then he’d come by and pick it up. Then I’d follow him straight back to that same spot, pick it up and roll back,” Jason reminisces. “He had more money than he knew what to do with evidently… car had big rims an’ all that.”

Jason, too, considers the football crowd the worst. No driver gets a break from the boozy populace, easily fired up by the excuse to identify an enemy and proceed to throw a fit (or a rock).


It doesn’t really take a drunk football fan to try some irrational antics on a driver. Everyone will have that same “I was only parked for five minutes!” plea for mercy.

Jason can only reply with an automated, “I understand ya, but it was five minutes too long.”

A job’s a job, and any meter maid, highway patrolman, lobbyist, etc. will agree. Sometimes its the unpopular deed that must be fulfilled.

Jason used to be a repo man; it may have well been his introduction to a career in tow truck driving. He has a few biker-esque tattoos and an immovable mass of body below his neck. No one’s going to redirect his inertia, no matter how pissed they were, but he also brought heart to the job.

“I would usually go to the front door and knock,” Jason recounts of repossession jobs, “especially if I saw kid stuff in the cars [we were repossessing]. I get it: You fall on hard times and what are you gonna do, pay for your car or feed your kids?”

A pickup truck sits opposite of Mama’s Pasta and Brew, and Jason investigates. Exhaust fumes appear as the silhouette of a driver formed through the rear window. The hunt is off.

“If it’s runnin’ we can’t touch it,” Jason says.


But he can touch the Dodge Neon parked illegally in a private lot off 15th Avenue.

He had seen two girls pull in, sitting in the car until he drove away. After a trip around the block, he returns and there she was, innocent and ripe for the taking.

Jason backs up while lowering the tow crane into place with deft fluidity.

He uses a modified car-jack to tighten and lift the offending vehicle into place on the bars below it, placing auxiliary trailer wheels beneath the car’s tires and returns the jack-rod to the back of the truck. His technique is swift and precise.


Jason hands a woman her bill after jumpstarting her vehicle.

“Good to go?” Jason asks rhetorically as he hustles back to the truck.

Jason brings his objective back to the Hamlet Street lot and scoots it into an open slot in the Hamlet lot. There is a Sharpied note on the back of another car sitting away from the others in the lot. It reads, “DO NOT TOW!”


“They thought they were being clever,” Jason says with a smirk.

Where a driver enters the the tow process has a big impact on how much they are asked to pay in the end. This occasionally correlates to how much their life may be impacted by the tow.


If the owner/handler of the car stop the tow before Jason touches the car with any equipment, it cannot be towed.

If Jason chains up the front wheels and takes a few pictures, the owner can get a a half-drop fee: literally half the fine, right then and there.

Once the car is chained up and photographed and Jason shifts into drive, that car is officially towed and stored. The fine must be paid in full.

At Shamrock, that means a $99 storage fee, plus $18 each day it stays in the lot.

The meter starts running once the tow truck passes the toward gate.


Almost everyone who gets towed has an excuse.

“‘Yeah I saw the sign but I gotta tell ya — well, I saw somebody else parked there!’” Rocky mimics a driver complaining about their car getting towed. Other cars might look like they didn’t have a pass in the same lot, so people want to use that as Exhibit A of their defense.

In Rocky’s world, people seem to assume that the rules don’t apply to them. They see an empty lot and claim there’s plenty of space for people with permits. But that’s not the point, and those permits usually mean an assigned spot.

“I’ll be glad to make a statement on how ignorant people are,” Rocky says.

Towed drivers come in with those humanitarian pleas like, “Do you know what you’re doing to me [charging me this fine]?”

While people assume Shamrock is attacking them, there will sometimes be the level-headed guys who come in and says, “Oh man, I thought I could beat you guys…”

Those types will pay the fine with good humor, conceding to their faults. Rocky calls them the “cool guys.”


A go-cart sits near the entrance of the Shamrock Westerville tow-yard.

Rocky estimates that, out of 100 tows, they might have one “misfortune tow” — one where Shamrock was actually in the wrong. In these cases, Rocky won’t hesitate to give the car back free of charge.

This involves any sort of mix up in communication from the Shamrock end to the owners of private lots who make the call.

For example, a private lot owner asks for Shamrock’s assistance on a car they don’t recognize in their parking area. Later on, after the car is already impounded, it is revealed that one of the employees of the owner happened to drive a different car that day. So the error is cleared and the car is given back.

Still, the tow truck driver who brought the car back will receive compensation even though it was a mistake.

Other times it’s a case of misplacing the permit on a vehicle.

While on patrol, the Shamrock drivers are looking at the spot where the owner tells residents to place the permit — say, the top right of the front windshield. If the permit isn’t in its specified location (especially in the darker hours of the a.m.) the car will be towed.

When the owner of the vehicle comes by the lot, they’ll point out the permit and receive their car back free of charge.

Shamrock simply asks the driver to relocate their permit.

“When you talk about a profession where there’s really no good outcome…” Rocky starts, “it’s only good when you need [a tow].”

Tommy opts to be paid on commission like Bob.

New drivers start out on salary. Guys, like Tommy and Bob, who have been around a long time will end up on salary or commission.

“Young guys work hourly because they don’t know enough to do commission. On commission, if they only find one car [on a day] they aren’t gonna be able to eat,” Tommy says.

Older guys tend to figure out the systems as they familiarize with their shift. New guys need plenty of experience before leaping into percentage pay, at least for the sake of earning a living. Tommy says he’s made a pretty penny after so many years.

That pretty penny also means years of grief from generations of customers, so some young guys quickly realize they don’t want to do the job, keen to keep away from hissing people spitting on their faces.

Where Tommy comes across as laid back during his patrol, guys like Jason are better described as hunters. Tommy will cruise calmy along, confident that eventually the spots he habitually checks will eventually have cars to tow. Meanwhile, Jason tries all sorts of areas in a somewhat sporadic manner. Jason’s circuit isn’t in stone where Tommy’s is for the most part.

The newer guys almost have to be thirsty for the tow.

Still, Tommy’s surprised he’s hung on for this long, pleading insanity, “I must be one sandwich short of a picnic — but I try not to be an asshole… I truly do”

He pursues a one-good-deed-a-day goal. For instance, giving back cars to people that have no money when it’s already been hooked up.

“Not everyone does that,” he provides.

Hubcaps line the walls surrounding Shamrock’s Westerville lot.

Tommy acknowledges there are drivers who will find a car to tow, no matter what the circumstances, and even damage illegally parked cars — and their surroundings — just to pull in more vehicles.

He’s seen guys come into the job, towing tons of cars and having great success. Then, some months later it turns out those same guys are receiving constant complaints from landlords and private lot owners. Eventually, those complaints over reckless tow truck drivers overshadow the revenue coming in, and the perpetrator damaging cars during tows has to be let go.

Boats, motorcycles, other tow trucks — the Westerville tow-yard has quite the collection.

With people getting inebriated around campus on a nightly basis, Tommy has seen college kids do some pretty stupid things with cars around the off campus housing area.

One morning he was cruising down an alleyway, Tommy saw a row of several cars with their windows smashed out. There were no robberies: seems some drunk asshole walked by every car and smashed the windows for sport.

Another instance left Tommy scratching his head at a car he had seen one weekend morning; the driver’s door was open and keys were in the ignition. It’s a good thing it was illegally parked, since anyone could’ve driven the thing away and had new car, just like that.

Instead, he towed it.

There was a late night where Tommy was called to a fraternity house. As the headlights of his truck cleared the long driveway, they brought a friendly basketball game into visibility — and everyone playing was naked.

Those are bright, happy moments on the late shift.


One night, he and another driver rendezvoused at the Marathon station on the corner of Summit and 11th streets. The two drivers’ conversation was interrupted by a young girl’s screams.

Tommy saw three men struggling with the girl and her young male companion. One guy was dragging the girl by her hair up the road while the other two beat and mugged the boy.

Tommy flipped on the lights and ignited his engine in one fell swoop. Then he punched the gas, ripping over the curbs, zooming straight into the scene. The offenders took off and the girl ran to Tommy and hugged him.

“That’s probably the only time a Shamrock driver got a hug, man.” he says.