By DON ARCHER
The video monitor revealed the anger in my customer's eyes as she searched for the object of her frustration. It wasn't me or anyone in particular she was looking for--just a whipping boy to release two days worth of anxiety caused by confusion and loss of control. Her baby boy had been in an accident, and his car was in our shed.
"My son is in the hospital, and I need to get some stuff out of his car." These were the first words out of her mouth as she pushed open my office door.
I was sitting at my desk until that moment and immediately rose to my feet to greet her. "Ok," I said, "Which car is your son's?"
She pointed to the mangled 2010 Mazda that had been involved in a rollover. I remembered seeing this invoice cross my desk and asking the driver about the level of difficulty. It was rather involved and required finesse to remove from a cluster of cedars while avoiding a concrete culvert. I hoped it was fully covered.
We walked out to take a look. There it sat on two wheels only--broken glass and twisted metal. She drew in a breath and looked inside. I cautioned her to be careful.
Ignoring my warning, she poked her hand in the driver's side window and grabbed a few things. As she walked to the other side she abruptly asked, "Why is my son's car here?"
I explained that we bring wrecked vehicles to our shed for safe keeping until the owner can contact the insurance company and certain decisions can be made.
She angrily furrowed her brow and shot back "What kind of decisions?," as she pried open the rear passenger door and began rummaging through the clothes in the back seat.
"Well, ma'am," I was nervous and didn't know why, "you know decisions like what to do with the car: is it fixable, or is it totaled?"
She peered up at me from inside the car. Her distrusting gaze and a pause in the conversation suggested that we, the towing company, had done something wrong.
She then spouted, "It's totaled, wouldn't you say?" She didn't even try to mask her sarcasm as she let out an audible grunt while wrestling with some sort of treasure from beneath the seat.
Immediately I felt like I was in the fourth grade, in front of the entire class, and the teacher had just asked me a question--the answer to which I did not know.
But I gained my composure, pulled myself back out of the classroom, slowly shook my head from side to side and said, "Yep, it's a goner." My aim was not be on opposite sides of the fence; there was no need. Then reality and experience told me that they had liability only.
She then stood up; and the look in her eyes communicated that my commiseration was not enough. "Goner, huh?" She walked right by me.
In those two simple words she let me have it.
What I took to mean, and what I'm sure she implied, was that we (meaning all towing companies) were ambulance chasers whose only function was to prey on the unfortunate.
But the truth was: I was the one about to be preyed upon. The car was under-insured, and she was gathering her son's belongings with the intention of leaving without paying the bill.
I'd had enough.
As I opened my mouth to defend myself and my industry; as I mustered the resolve to mount a counter-attack in the name of all that's right and holy; the phone rang.
I shut my mouth. Before one word came out, I high-tailed it back to my office to take care of business. About 10 minutes later I'd finished the call, and she walked in and sat down.
No longer was my blood boiling, and I'd let it go. This wouldn't be the first time a bill went unpaid. "I'll just sell it," I thought.
I asked, "All set?"
Nothing. She just fiddled with her phone and her purse while I waited.
Finally she said, "How much is it?," without looking up.
I was right.
I found the invoice and told her how much. And she sighed. Not just a normal sigh like "wow" or "that's a bit much." This was one of those elongated, over-the-top, church-song type of sighs. Then she shook her head, slowly and shamefully, back-and-forth too many times, let out a heavy "woo hoo!" and stood up to leave. Her suspicions were all confirmed. She was exasperated, and needed to go.
I could have just let her go. But I didn't.
"Let me tell you a story," I said.
"This is something that happened to me about 20 years ago. I was driving down Interstate 70 near Kansas City at about 75 mph. I was next to a Ford Ranger, and as we topped a small hill there was a sea of red lights in front of us. Hundreds of cars were stopped on the road. They were too close, so we couldn't just tap our brakes and stop before hitting them so I took the shoulder and avoided an accident.
"But the Ranger didn't see the lights in time and couldn't take the shoulder. On his side of the road, the shoulder disappeared and he ran up and over a guardrail. The guardrail was part of an overpass and he rode it for a short while then nose-dived down into the traffic below. This all happened in a split second as I was attempting to get control of my car."
She stood there listening with her hand on the doorknob, unimpressed.
I continued, "I was OK; but the guy in the Ranger didn't make it. The next day I read that 2 other people died there in that rash of accidents along I-70, due to what was called a chain reaction. Nowadays, we call them secondary accidents."
She interrupted me. "That's a sad story but what does that have to do with anything?"
I said, "I don't expect you to understand, but everyday I'm sending good men out there to risk their lives so that others don't lose theirs. Besides freeing the roadway of obstructions, tow truck operators do what they do so that accident vehicles don't become a spectacle: a driving distraction. In essence, when we remove distractions that could cause chain reactions, we're saving lives. It's something I'm very proud to say I'm able to be a part of."
Now the truth is, I'm sure that on the day this happened my words didn't come out exactly as I've recounted but I must have gotten my point across because she didn't respond. She just opened the door and left.
And I felt much better.
Don Archer lives and works in Jefferson City, Mo., where he and his wife, Brenda, own and operate Broadway Wrecker, a 12-truck operation that's been in business since the 1950s. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org