Every week, Steven Braun takes his 18-month-old daughter, Madison, to the Pratt Library branch on Light Street in Federal Hill, where she listens to stories and songs.
One Wednesday earlier this month, Braun pulled into the parking lot next door. Two signs mark the lot as private. Spaces on the right are reserved for library staff. Nine spaces on the left are reserved for patrons of Domino's, seven of which are marked by signs.
Braun, thinking he had lucked out with a free spot, parked in one of the two spaces not marked. He assumed the lot is shared by the library and the pizza carryout, so he also assumed that he was using the lot as it had been intended.
He later emerged from the library, along with his disabled mother and his infant daughter, to find his car being towed. The tow truck driver left them stranded, taking not only the vehicle but Braun's mother's walker as well.
And so begins another parking saga in Baltimore. In many ways, it's not unlike disputes that occur almost daily between towing companies that patrol private lots at the behest of their owners, removing cars and charging people as much as $300 to get their vehicles back.
The tow operators insist their signs are clear. The patrons insist they are not. The tow operators say they're helping businesses save valuable spaces for their customers. The patrons insist signs are deliberately vague to trick them into parking places they shouldn't be in.
This dispute at the library has it all.
A City Councilman is taking Braun's side, calling the tow company's practices "predatory." Braun filed a lawsuit in small claims court to get his money back. A hearing is scheduled for February, and he could appeal to the city's Tow Board, which could hold a hearing and order his $300 fee refunded.
A woman who works in the area recorded a salesman for Quick Response Towing moving a no-parking sign to the unmarked space —
after Braun's car had been towed
— and posted the video on YouTube (which she removed on Wednesday).
In response, the tow company's owner called Baltimore police and then had the salesman — Robert Nelson Syme — go to a District Court commissioner and swear out a criminal complaint alleging the woman illegally recorded a private conversation without his knowledge. A court date is Dec. 21.
City Council Vice President Edward L. Reisinger III, who represents South Baltimore, told me that no one called to complain about Braun's car, that the tow truck driver "just showed up." The owner of the tow company said he responded to a call from the manager of Domino's. The pizza manager told me he didn't call, but he's happy the car got towed.
However this gets resolved, the owner of the towing company that hauled away Braun's car, Gordon Kelly, said something to me that should be written as a warning on every dashboard of every car being driven into or around the city:
"There's basically no parking in Baltimore unless you pay for it."
Braun's story is indeed a tear-jerker. The 30-year-old recently got laid off from his job as a heating and air-conditioning repairman, and he and his wife are struggling. On Nov. 10, he took his daughter and mother to the children's reading hour and parked in the space he thought was open to the public.
"I parked in the spot that didn't have a sign in front of it," Braun told me.
About a half-hour into the program, someone told him his car was being towed. He ran out and said the tow truck driver was just backing up to his vehicle. They argued while another worker lifted his car off the ground. To drop the car, Braun said the tow truck driver demanded a $150 "drop fee" but was unwilling to wait while Braun went to a bank machine.
The driver drove off with Braun's car to the company lot on South Caton Avenue in Southwest Baltimore. Braun said he had to walk seven blocks carrying Madison and helping his 60-year-old mother, who has two artificial knees, to his parents' house. His father had to leave work early, withdraw $300 and drive to the lot to get the car back.
Meanwhile, a woman who works at a nearby bank and saw the argument came out with a cell phone camera. Telling me she was scared of the confrontation, she didn't want her name used. She also said she meant to snap a picture but hit the record button instead, capturing an eight-minute conversation with the salesman with the camera pointed to the ground.
On the video, the salesman says that the owners of the lot call "every five minutes" about illegally parked cars and that he was told to move the signs to make sure it was clear that all nine spaces are private.
"That's what my boss said," the salesman is heard saying. "Get down there and move those signs until we get some more signs made." The salesman also told the woman that "my boss will take care of him," referring to helping Braun out of his predicament. "We take care of people. We don't abuse them."
Kelly has his own tear-jerker story. One of his drivers was killed earlier this month while sitting in the cab of his truck on Mosher Street — not trying to tow an illegally parked car, but helping a motorist stranded with her child. Threats, angry customers, getting cussed out are all part of the towing business.
The tow company owner said each space in a private lot doesn't have to be separately marked and that there are two signs indicating the lot on Light Street is private.
"I don't know if it's misleading or not," Kelly said. "But people want to park for free and they'll park on private property and then make this stuff up like we did something wrong. We were called by the manager to come and tow these cars out of there, like we are every day. … Domino's wants us to do whatever it takes to get people to stop parking there."
The manager of the Light Street Domino's, Pierre Dorsey, told me he didn't call to complain about Braun, but he's happy Quick Response showed up. He said the tow truck driver asked him if the owner of the car was a customer and he told him no.
"People are always parking there," Dorsey told me. "Common sense would tell you not to park there. The tow truck comes around. They should."
Frank Murphy, deputy director of operations for the city's Department of Transportation, said the lot is signed properly as private, but he noted that the decision by Domino's to put up individual signs on each space — save two — gives a false impression that those two spaces are free. (On Friday, contractors put up new, clearer signs on the part of the lot used by Domino's and the part used by library staff.)
"Because they signed some, but not all, that clouds the picture," said Murphy, who urged Braun to file a complaint with the tow board. "It gives the impression that the spots not covered by a sign are not covered by the tow."
Reisinger, the councilman, called tow companies that patrol looking for violators "predators" and said he receives dozens of complaints a week on the issue. "I'm hearing from people they are running roughshod over everything," Reisinger said. "It leaves a bad taste in my mouth."
For Domino's, of course, nobody gets a taste if nobody can find parking.