by Jon McAllister, James Grega & Cameron Roda
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:
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?
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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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].”
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.
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.
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.