Believe this: Missing car means trouble


The poster on the wall urged me to "Believe" in Baltimore. But all I could think was how unbelievable the last 24 hours had been -- thanks to the city.

I was standing in the stuffy, cramped waiting room at the city impound lot on Pulaski Highway trying to find my car. It was not going well. No one could tell me where I might find one dusty, slightly dented Jetta last seen on University Parkway.

By the time it ended, my small ordeal would underline how apathetic bureaucrats can be. No news there, perhaps. But it would also reveal a new (to me) way that the city taxes its residents' sanity.

On Labor Day, I went to move my car from a spot on the street near Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Field. Finding the car gone, I felt confusion, then dread. With no parking restrictions on weekends or holidays, a tow seemed impossible. Had to be stolen.

Then I spotted a flimsy white cardboard sign wrapped inconspicuously around a silver light pole. No parking that day, it said, by order of Baltimore Police. I'd missed the signs because they were hung 13 car lengths apart. So much for fair warning.

At least the car had "only" been towed. To find out where, I dialed the 311 nonemergency police line ("Your call to City Hall"). It took several calls. First, I got cut off. Then I was given a phone number that connected me to the Housing Authority.

The gist, I finally gathered, was this: The car was probably at the Pulaski impound lot, but the lot was closed for the holiday, so I would have to wait a day to find out for sure.

The person at 311 gave me the number for the Northern District police station, and I called that night to see if anyone there knew my car's whereabouts. An officer said she would check and call back. She didn't. I called again and was told a supervisor would call back. He didn't.

Next morning, before a friend drove me to Pulaski Highway, I called the impound lot -- repeatedly, on all three lines -- to make sure the car was there. Busy, busy, busy. There was no getting through, and no choice but to trek there.

I had imagined a desolate place with maybe a surly guard dog. What I found was a line so long that the sullen crowd spilled out of the waiting room, one of those stale places with not enough chairs.

The wait dragged on for 45 minutes, as those ahead of me, some grimly prepared to see the handiwork of auto thieves, took their turns. My case would be easy, I figured a bit smugly, even if the $169 check for the tow would be hard to write.

To my amazement, the clerk who took my license and tag number returned a moment later with bad news: They did not have my car. He gazed at a computer screen and flipped through a hand-written logbook. No dusty, dented Jetta.

Maybe it was stolen, he said from behind the barred window. He suggested I go back to University Parkway and report it stolen. There was another possibility, he said. It could have been "relocated" -- whatever that meant -- but no, he said, that would not have happened to my car.

As he spoke, a man in line muttered something mysterious to me. "Sometimes they relocate your car," he said, "even when they say they don't."

The clerk, to his credit, left the window to check again. This time when he returned, the story was different. My car had been found safe. Just not at the yard.

It had been "relocated" after all, which meant this: The tow truck driver had moved my car exactly two blocks away, to St. Paul Street. And there I found it just before lunchtime, with a $32 ticket stuck to the windshield. City police apparently can choose, at their discretion, to move illegally parked cars and ticket them, rather than having them towed to an impound lot.

So I'd been spared the $169 towing fee. But in the process of hunting down my car, I'd lost half a day of work making my way through a series of easily avoidable obstacles. No one had bothered to post a sign saying where the car had been towed. The police didn't return my calls. The impound lot didn't answer its phone, or have enough lines for its "customers."

Maybe when the much-hyped "Baltimore Believe" campaign is over, city leaders will consider a sequel. They could call it "Do."

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