A Sad Lot
Greg Dawson finds the man with the most thankless job in Orlando—an overnight attendant at a towing company’s impoundment lot.
It’s 4:45 a.m., the morning after Valentine’s Day, and Charles Hicks is not feeling the love. Neither is the twentysomething college student shouting at him from the other side of thick glass.
“I paid $10 for parking and you towed my car! That’s false advertising! I want your name and your company’s name! I’m suing both of you!”
Hicks turns and walks away from the glass as the bug-eyed rant rolls on. Welcome to the most thankless job in Orlando: Overnight attendant at a towing company.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park,” says Hicks, 32, a master of understatement. This is The Jerry Springer Show meets Judge Judy, minus the laughs.
The faces stepping up to the window to retrieve vehicles offer a rainbow of emoticons: disbelief, outrage, panic, disgust, hostility, despair, desperation. Occasionally, a what-the-hell giddiness fueled by intoxicants. Most are youthful faces whose wheels were towed from the downtown club district.
After a totally sick night of clubbing, is there any colder shower than discovering your car has been towed?
It’s less than a mile from the neon euphoria of Orange Avenue to the dim desolation of the Towtruck Co. impoundment lot on West Robinson Street. In a small office inside a converted warehouse, Hicks presides as sole authority through the night, enforcing iron rules.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here hoping to drive away free.
For everyone, Hicks has bad news: $135, cash only. For some, like the shouter whose pickup was towed from a parking garage, Hicks has worse news: He can’t release it to him because he’s not the registered owner. His father, the owner, must come to the lot or mail a notarized statement authorizing release.
“Dude, he cannot do that!” the student pleads. “He’s leaving the country this morning! I want my car right now! The insurance is in my name!”
“I’m sorry,” Hicks says. “Legally, I can’t do it.”
The shouter sighs and walks away. Moments later he’s back with a vengeance.
“Yo!” he screams, slapping the glass with both hands. “I want my car now! I’m paying my money right now!” He tosses a wad of cash on the counter. Hicks ignores it.
Hicks grew up just down the street. He’s worked security for 11 years including an I-Drive resort and a gated condominium—walks in the park. This feels like the front lines. It helps to look like an enforcer. Hicks says his size—6 feet, 245 pounds—probably was a factor in landing the job.
“More so the demeanor. I always try to stay calm. If you give back anger, it only gets worse. When I was a kid, I was known as the peacemaker on the playground.”
Hicks remains expressionless and polite in the face of spin he’s heard a thousand times. There are no guilty men on death row, or at his window. Just myopic. It’s amazing how many “did not see” the towing zone sign.
A frazzled young woman with a Latin accent tells Hicks, “I am just learning English,” and could not read “must display on window shield” on her parking ticket. “I don’t have the money!” she says. But after being allowed to rummage in the trunk of her impounded car, she returns with a handful of crumpled bills.
The most pathetic spectacle is three guys from Brevard County. Around 2 a.m. they come to retrieve the car they parked in a tow-away zone because “we didn’t see the sign in the dark.” Hicks can’t release it. The registered owner is the driver’s mother’s boyfriend.
It seems the prospect of breaking the news to mom and boyfriend at that hour is not an option. Instead, they call buddies in Brevard to come pick them up—leaving the car impounded.
The three sozzled Musketeers spend the next two hours trying to sleep on the cold concrete outside Hicks’ window, where the temperature has dropped below 50. They tuck their arms inside their short-sleeve shirts, pull the collars over their heads.
“Can I at least sit in the car?” the driver begs Hicks. “I’m freezing.”
“Unfortunately, that I can’t let you do.”
“Oh my God!”
Hicks shares the office with a resident calico and her four kittens. During a lull he refills their food and water dishes. Waiting for him at home are his wife and four children. The intimidating window persona belies a gentle man.
On a dry marker board on the wall, in Hicks’ neat printing, are a few lines from Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” He invites me to contribute a song lyric. That’s easy. The Stones are playing his song.
“You can’t always get what you want.”