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Growing up in New York City during the bad old days was a wild ride. From the 1960s through the 1990s, a perfect storm amassed, creating a calamity of conditions that would erode the city.
Anyone old enough to remember New York before the Disneyfication of Times Square will have vivid memories of open air street dealing, aggressive panhandling, gold-toothed, feather hatted pimps, zombie crackheads, and a bounty of unenforced criminal behavior. As late as 1990, when the murder rate peaked, New York City still festered from decades of disorder.
Say what you will about the bad old days, but if you took some lumps and survived, you emerged a stronger, wiser, and most importantly a sharper person for the rest of your life. But if you weren’t smacked, jacked, carjacked, or bush-whacked, surviving as a corner dwelling adolescent was a wonderful adventure, even on bone chilling, brass-monkey-sipping, single digit nights.
But what does any of this have to do with the Manhattan tow pound? Hopefully this illustrates how the layers of neglect trickle into every aspect of society. If a New Yorker waited over an hour for emergency police response, how confident are they abiding by traffic rules? If there’s little consequence for rampant auto theft, how likely are you to pay a parking ticket? Why bother cleaning up after your dog when there’s burned out cars on your street? The pathology of urban disintegration was overwhelming.
Enter my buddy Frank and his boss 1982 Cadillac Fleetwood. This boat of a vehicle took up two time zones and glided over potholes so large that junkies considered moving into them. While carpooling to college, Frank and I adopted the ‘Brooklyn lean’ — one arm out the window while nearly piloting from the huge back seat. By 1990, the pimp ship aroused nostalgia from many a working girl in Hell’s Kitchen. Most would pitch their services and attempt to jump into the comforts of the blue velour interior. Always one to improve a journey, I welcomed the activity. Frank was far less accommodating. He took it so personally that on future commutes he adopted a pre-emptive strike of verbal insults and life advice to every broken heeled hooker working overtime in the morning sun.
On Halloween morning 1990, Frank and I began our journey for a long day of mid-term exams. I met Frank with a pocket full of quarters for the parking meters and a new-to-market Halloween gag… the trunk arm. This realistic looking appendage in a white shirt sleeve was designed to be closed into any door to simulate a trapped body. Ironically, the phenomenon of New York mobsters being left for dead in Cadillacs probably spurred the idea; today’s spineless society probably finds the decoration insensitive. In any event, off we sailed, Brooklyn lean in full effect, arm flopping from the trunk, with many honks of encouragement along the way.
Parking in Manhattan has been nightmarish since before the automobile. Newsprint from yesteryear reveals tales of horse and buggy frustration over limited space. Funny to think, these frustrations existed before thousands of non-working fire hydrants occupied the streets of Gotham. On this day, the only space large enough for our vessel was about six blocks from campus by the projects near Lincoln Center. Splitting the coins, we would return every couple of hours to feed the meter, then huff it back to each other’s classroom to signal our success. The struggle was real before the mobile phone.
As I approached the Caddy for the first round at the meter, a commotion of large figures was seen by the car. “Yo! What the hell do ya think ya doin’?” I hollered from five spots away, which obviously signaled a well-trained response. Immediately, the whole crew stopped and stood, chest-flexing, between me and the vehicle. At this point I saw clearly their “NYC Sheriff” emblazoned tow truck. My concerns subsided, knowing this wasn’t another car theft.
“Is this your registered vehicle?” Asked one of the no-necked fellas.
“No,” I said. “The car belongs to the guy in the trunk,” breaking the ice and bringing smiles to the whole crew. The arm helped enormously, as most Sheriffs back then struggled and fought harder on the job than they do today. By modern standards, the New York City Sheriffs are not regarded for smiling much, particularly since they’ve been burdened with picking up most duties stripped from the NYPD.
They told me the car would be towed to the tow pound and volunteered the value of unpaid tickets and lapsed insurance was around 700 dollars. Adjusted for inflation and the earning potential of a college kid, this figure seemed to equal roughly 13 million of today’s dollars. The friendly body transporters also explained the convoluted process of providing documentation, then paying the unpaid fines, taxes, towing fees and surcharges without accepting credit cards or the unborn methods of PayPal, Venmo or debit; otherwise I likely could have provided a stolen credit card on the spot.
Next comes the six-block sprint. Not like it mattered, because I knew Frank didn’t have the paperwork or the funds on him to pay the bill either. While high-stepping it back to the college, I noticed a couple walking towards me. She was a middle aged Asian woman walking with a well-groomed, tall, blonde gentleman complete with a waistcoat and pocket watch. Both were too pretty to run in my circles, but the lady looked familiar enough to slow my pace and start thinking. Confusing me more was a goofy gesture from the gentleman, pointing to the woman above her head and nodding a “yes” motion out of her view. I’m not much of a stargazer, especially with a friend in need of disappointing, but as I regained the sprint, my memory perfectly clicked in to yell face to face, “Thanks for fucking up the Beatles!”
Back on campus, I didn’t want to give Frank another excuse for failing an exam, so I waited for his exit before delivering the bad news. In the meantime, I gathered more disappointing news. Apparently, with so many scofflaws in the era, the city often struggled to store cars. Due to demand, the city had acquired and retrofitted an enormous passenger cruise pier on the Hudson River to handle a couple of thousand vehicle turnovers per week. Pier 76 has a similar acreage to Union Square Park, but knowing your car was at “the pound” was not enough, because it could have been taken to any pound citywide. Of course, I never thought about this when the goons on the street were hooking up the car. So essentially we were at square-one trying to locate the vehicle.
Arriving at the tow pound was an underwhelming process. There were three enormous lines of argumentative folks, all still unsure whether their cars were towed or stolen, and not being given much assistance. Motorists were not given any assurance of possession until proof of registration and/or insurance was first submitted. For most, the essential paperwork was kept inside the vehicle, so getting into the car was a reasonable first step — but this was not permitted at the Manhattan tow pound. And the clerk left to answer this reasonable question a couple of hundred times per day had the be the biggest asshole on the payroll. It seems the Yin and Yang of the universe always evens up with people who spent their formative years being stuffed into school lockers.
But neither Frank nor I were about to wait over thirty minutes and not succeed in learning if this was the correct pound. Like birds of a feather, the epiphany struck us at the same time as we both leapt over the steel barricades and ran into the huge lot. We spent many uninterrupted minutes searching for the Fleetwood before we were stopped by ANOTHER monster of a man also in desperate need of a neck. He was not nearly as happy as the crew by Lincoln Center. He palmed my shoulder and wrangled me in with colorful threats of trespassing. He wasn’t about hearing us trying to verify our vehicle on our own.
“We’re not trying to steal our car back. We just want to see if our Cadillac is here before waiting on those lines without paperwork,” I said. “Maybe you can help, if you recall seeing the car.”
“Look, Junior,” he said, tightening the grip on the nape of my neck. “We have rules in place to maintain order in this massive facility.”
“But this car is not so common. Maybe you recognize the blue Fleetwood with powder blue interior?”
He wasn’t hearing it. In fact, he seemed to be getting angrier as our conversation continued.
“This pound stores 600 cars, and 400 are rotated every day! How do you expect me to recognize your car?”
“Sir, aside from being a classic Caddy, our car has a Halloween prop arm hanging out of the trunk.”
And with that, this angry man’s stern face flashed an ear to ear gap-toothed smile.
“Yes… your Caddy is here,” he said, laughing aloud and releasing his grip. “It came in a little while ago.”
The attendant went a step beyond and escorted us to the vehicle to retrieve our paperwork, saving us lots more grief.
This was only one little break in a mind-numbing process which involved going to a separate facility to pay the outstanding tickets, then returning to the Manhattan pound with proof of payment before the car was released. The entire process often took days to complete, while the vultures and the tow pound slapped motorists with daily storage fees. Nothing went smoothly in the bad old Big Apple…
After thirty years of declining demand, the NYPD tow pound was forced to find smaller digs in the beginning of 2021. Governor Cuomo would claim the waterfront tow pound was “the most expensive parking lot on the globe” before evicting the NYPD from Pier 76. Accurate data is unavailable relating to the actual number of bodies discovered dumped in vehicles within the Manhattan tow pound…
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Eugene Durante is an observer of the offbeat and former patrol officer for the NYPD. City University of New York educated, Durante received his B.A. degree in Criminology and his Master’s in Public Administration.
A brutally honest person, “Gino” is well-known for not stroking others and not getting stroked in the process.
Officer Durante’s non-fiction stories and articles can be seen at Highbrow Magazine, NYbluenow Magazine, Embodied Effigies Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and funnycopstories.com.
More reading… Ticket to Ride and Stories to Tell — Memories of the NYPD Tow Pound at Pier 76
What a wild joyride to read! This is the old New York I miss because I missed it (too young). Fabulous storytelling. I was on the edge of my seat, laughing all the way!
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