Let’s call him Dale. He’s one of the longest-serving henchmen at the most hated company in Chicago. In other words, he’s been a driver for Lincoln Towing Service since 1987. When I first meet him in the doorway of an empty Western Avenue diner, he requests that, for his protection, we not use his real name. Instead, he suggests I refer to him by his nickname: Mr. Wonderful.
With a sexy pirate she-devil tattoo on his forearm and a Band-Aid stretched across his knuckles, the 50-something Dale has the air of someone who’s had a pool cue or two cracked over his back. Lincoln Towing’s Hells Angels–esque lettering atop its skull and crushed bones logo provides another hint that these guys ain’t Boy Scouts.
There’s a long list of consumer complaints suggesting that the company’s employees take an, uh, overzealous approach to their jobs. Their business is patrolling for cars parked illegally in private lots (not city streets or alleys—those are the territory of other companies). Clients—restaurants, condominiums, and other businesses—retain Lincoln, at no cost, to keep their lots clean. That means “relocating” the vehicles of folks who decide to park their rides wherever they damn well please.
Among the company’s alleged transgressions: overcharging drivers, damaging vehicles, brawling with drivers, and removing no-parking signs to trick unsuspecting motorists. Last fall, criminal charges were filed after a driver allegedly knocked a man from a 16-foot ladder while towing his truck, breaking his leg in the process. (The case against the driver, who no longer works for Lincoln Towing, is still pending, says the company’s attorney, Allen Perl.) And in March 2015, an employee allegedly hooked a Jeep Wrangler while an adorable English bulldog sat in the front seat. In a Fast and Furious–style escape, the dog’s owner drove his car off the back of Lincoln’s truck. It’s worth watching on YouTube. (In July, Lincoln was cleared in this incident because the Jeep driver didn’t show up to the hearing.)
The Illinois Commerce Commission is investigating Lincoln Towing for various alleged shenanigans and announced in February that it’s considering whether to strip the company of its license. Still, I wondered: Are these guys really the assholes the message boards make them out to be? Lincoln Towing—forever immortalized by Steve Goodman in the 1972 folk ballad “Lincoln Park Pirates” (“I fucking hate that song,” Dale says)—let me tag along for a shift to find out.
One of the biggest knocks against Lincoln is that it nabs not only cars parked illegally in the more than 1,400 places it serves but also those that are allowed to park there. Dale vehemently denies this. “If there’s any doubt, we don’t tow it,” he says.
While Yelp reviewers refer to the company as “liars” and “the scum of the earth,” Dale claims he and his cronies are unfairly scapegoated simply for being exceptionally good at their jobs. Sure, he jabs with customers now and then—both verbally and physically. But he’s just protecting himself, he insists. “You want to talk PTSD? Every single one of us who has ever done this has been in a fight,” says Dale, who claims he’s been shot, stabbed, and nearly beaten with a tire iron by people whose vehicles he’s towed. “It’s a very dangerous job.”
Dale’s passion is certainly convincing. But it’s tough to sympathize with a company whose alleged strong-arm tactics were first chronicled by Mike Royko in the 1960s. This summer, Lincoln Towing inspired the City Council to pass the Towing Bill of Rights, which requires operators to clearly explain rates (Lincoln charges between $218 and $520, depending on the vehicle’s weight) and document each tow on video. When I ask Dale what he thinks about the legislation, he says most drivers already follow those procedures.
Over several hours, he shares stories of being surrounded by gangbangers in Cabrini-Green and narrowly avoiding a chain-wielding maniac. And he’s quick to point out that he can be your best friend when some jerk is hogging your spot.
Dale says he’s an equal opportunity tower. He’s even impounded the cars of celebrities, including Mark Grace, the former Cub, who, according to Dale, habitually forgot to place a parking sticker in his window. He also tagged along when a friend towed Vince Vaughn’s car from outside the Green Mill. (Dale says he later shared a drink with the actor at the bar.) Among Dale’s proudest achievements: bagging the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile in front of Wrigley Field. “Half the crowd was cheering and the other half was booing me,” he recalls.
I have a hard time keeping up with him as he darts down residential blocks in his weathered black Chevy wheel-lift tow truck on a tour of some of his contracted lots. (Because of its recent dustup with the ICC, the company doesn’t want to risk any licensing issues, so I have to follow rather than ride with him.) Our first stop is a small, unmarked—aside from no-parking signs—street off Irving Park Road that’s actually a private driveway shared by two residential buildings.
What happens if someone puts on their hazards? I ask.
“It makes me tow you faster,” Dale shoots back. “Because it makes you stick out like a sore thumb.”
Almost on cue, a Honda pulls up and its blinkers go on. A young couple jump out with their gym bags. I ask Dale if he plans on towing them.
“If the [building manager] tells me to, I’ll tow those fuckers,” he says. “People are under the impression that we are just taking people’s cars. But it’s the owners who determine [whether we tow a car], not us.” (Some of Lincoln’s contracts specify that a building rep must call its dispatch office to request a tow; others give Lincoln free rein.)
The next stop on our tour is a large parking lot that overlooks the Walt Disney Magnet School. Back when Lincoln patrolled this lot (it doesn’t have the contract now), people could park here all night—as long as they were out by 7 a.m. on school days. Dale insists on taking me here because it’s the site of his most impressive feat: In the late ’90s, over 61 days, he towed the same Dodge Neon 23 times. “Sometimes, he’d get here five minutes to 7 and he’d get out,” Dale says. “I’d [sit in the truck and] wave to him, and he’d wave back to me. Nice guy.”
Then Dale decides to demonstrate just how fast he can tow a car. He barrels toward my Honda Civic, backs up, drops his hydraulic lift, and slides it under my front wheels in one smooth motion. The process takes seven seconds, but he says he can do it as fast as four and a half.
It’s obvious he takes pride in his proficiency. Still, considering the stress he says accompanies the job, I ask what’s kept him going for three decades.
“I fucking love towing cars,” he says.
So you like ruining people’s day? I ask.
“When you come home and that asshole is in your spot, he ruined your day,” Dale responds. “I just made it even.”
Plus, Dale likes the job security: “Very few people do this job for very long. Because you get threatened every day. I can take you to the yard right now and get you threatened [by someone who’s been towed]. I guarantee it.”
Let’s do it, I say.
Driving past Lincoln’s gate on Clark Street, I feel like I’m willfully stepping into the belly of the beast. The back lot is crammed with cars. It’s smaller than I imagined, maybe 100 spaces total. “If you see anyone start to get pissed off, get back into your car,” Dale tells me.
A creaky door opens and I follow him into the tiny dispatch office, which has two-inch-thick bulletproof windows. A middle-aged woman wearing a pink hoodie with her hair in a bun is juggling phone calls while negotiating with a 20-something woman with red-streaked hair whose car has just been towed from a lot on Broadway.
The younger woman is demanding video proof that she parked illegally. When the dispatch operator explains that the company doesn’t need to provide any (this was before the Towing Bill of Rights went into effect), the disgruntled woman starts swinging her arms in anger. She blurts out something about going to the police and disappears down the block. Like so many before her, she’s pissed off, frustrated, and totally at the mercy of the pirates of Lincoln Towing.