If Allen Seidner weren't such a sound sleeper, he might have heard the sirens that warn Evanston car owners that snow is failing so hard they must move their cars off the street. If they don't move their cars, they'll be towed away. By the time he had scurried outside, his car--a two-door, five-speed 1981 Mazda 626 LX, silver on the outside, light blue inside, with a sunroof, power steering, power brakes, and power side-view mirrors--was almost on the tow truck's hook. Thirteen months later the car was crushed into scrap.
"I still can't believe what happened," says the 26-year-old Seidner. "I bought that car in 1986 for $3,060 from a guy in Glenview--it was my first car. And they crushed it for being illegally parked. That's stiff punishment, wouldn't you say? Maybe I didn't handle it right. I don't have a temper. If I had yelled, maybe it wouldn't have happened."
Not that Seidner went down without a fight. At his own peculiarly slow but steady pace, he fought for his Mazda in court and at car pounds.
At nine o'clock on the morning his car was towed--December 16, 1987--Seidner, then a producer for WBEZ radio, was still sound asleep because he had worked late the night before. "My brother Cary had to wake me," he says. "I didn't hear the snow siren."
That's amazing because Evanston's snow siren is an obnoxious, piercing screech--testimony to what can only be described as the city's obsession with towing. They're always towing cars in Evanston, or so it seems. In fact, during the time Seidner sat in an Evanston coffee shop telling his story, a Saab that was illegally parked outside was towed away.
"The sirens come on when we have a snowfall of more than four inches," says Chris Johnson, Evanston's acting purchasing agent. "It's a way of telling people to move their cars." During a snowstorm, cars are allowed on just one side of a residential street; Seidner's car was on the wrong side. "We have emergency snow contracts with several towing companies; we need to get cars off the street so we can plow the, snow."
"The tow truck was this long flatbed truck--like one of those carhauling trucks you see on the highway--and my brother's car was already on it," says Seidner. "I said, 'Please, I'm here. I'll move it.' But the driver just shook his head. What could I do? My car had been illegally parked."
The next day Seidner went to the City pound, paid the $45 towing fee, and drove off. But his car's front end was out of line. "They must have damaged the axle while towing it," he says. "It was shaking and making a screeching sound so loud that people stopped and looked."
He took the barely drivable car to McKay Nissan-Datsun, on Chicago Avenue in Evanston, where it had been serviced many times before. "McKay told me the problem was tow damage," he says. "There was damage to the four tie rods--the car would have to be realigned. With labor the bill was $878.50. I said, 'Are you sure it was tow damage?' They said they'd put it in writing."
On February 29, 1988, Seidner received the following note from Carmen Napoli, McKay's service manager: "Seidner's [car] was brought into our shop 12-17-87. This vehicle has extensive tow damage to the front end. . . . Hooks were attached to the front end parts to tow car causing extensive damage to these parts."
"That note convinced me that I shouldn't pay for the damages," Seidner says. "First of all, I was broke. I had been a field organizer for Paul Simon's presidential campaign in Iowa, and I had just started at WBEZ. I was living at my mother's house. I couldn't afford the repairs. Besides, why should I pay for the damage? I had been wronged. I asked McKay if I could keep the car in their lot. I had done about $2,200 worth of business with them--it wasn't like I was a stranger. McKay has a huge lot, and they said it wouldn't be a problem."
Seidner learned from the police that his car had been towed by Ron's Towing Company, 4219 N. Kilpatrick Ave. in Chicago. He gave them a call. "I talked to a man who said, 'We didn't damage your car.' I said. 'Well, it drove fine the night before. I'll have to take legal action." He said, 'Take it if you want.' I realized that they probably have insurance for these things, and that a lawsuit wasn't as much of a hassle to them as it was to me. I was working 50-hour weeks at 'BEZ, I didn't have a lot of time for lawsuits. I procrastinated. I finally filed In April."
When he went to court, he learned that he had what's known. as a pro se ("on behalf of oneself") case--the claim was so small that he would act as his own attorney. That meant that Seidner had to see that Ron's was served with a summons. "I was told I could either serve Ron's by registered mail or for an extra $12, have a sheriff's bailiff do it in person," he says. "I figured the sheriff was more intimidating. I called Ron's from the courtroom and said, 'I'm going to file suit. Do you want to settle?' He said no. So I asked for his name and address, and he said his name was Ron Stevens. He gave me his correct address. I filed my complaint. That was April 20."
When he returned for his May 19 court date, he was told that the sheriff had been unable to serve "Ron Stevens" because no one at 4219 N. Kilpatrick answered by that name. "This deputy sheriff said, 'Get an address verification card from the post office, and we'll serve the guy free of chlarge,'" Seidner says. "I went to the post ofice in the Loop, and stood in a long line. They told me that they don't do address verifications. If I wanted a verification I had to go to 433 W. Van Buren, room 424. It was like the whole system and Ron's Towing were working together against me."
Seidner went back to court, where a different clerk told him that any adult can serve a defendant in a pro se case, provided the sheriff has already tried and failed to serve. So Seidner called his brother Loren, who agreed to act as process server. Then he paid the $2 filing fee, filled out a process-service form, went to the chamber of the appropriate judge for certification, waited while the judge finished officiating a wedding, and learned that he'd done it all wrong. "The judge said my brother could not serve the summons because he has an interest in the case. After all he's my brother, and he might harbor a grudge against Ron's. There might be a fight. I needed a new process server."
That delay killed his momentum. He asked a few friends to serve the summons, but they declined. Time passed. Seidner quit his job and traveled to California for a friend's wedding.
Ten months after it was towed his Mazda was still sitting in McKay's lot. "There's a one-year's statute of limitation, so I didn't feel rushed to file the suit," says Seidner. "I got around by el, so I didn't desperately need my car. I called McKay's several times, and they said my car was no problem in their lot. I still didn't have the money to get it fixed, so I left it there."
He didn't want to borrow the money from his parents. "They've already been very generous paying for my college education."
Or repair it with the cash he spent going to California. "That trip only cost $600--I slept at a friend's house. And I really needed that break."
He ignored his car until December 22, when he received a notice, dated December 20, from the city of Evanston. The notice stated that his car had been towed from McKay's lot and was in the pound of North Shore Towing at 2527 Oakton in Evanston. The letter concluded: retrieve it in 15 days or it will be crushed.
"The notice said my car had been abandoned on private property," Seidner says. "I was blown away. I admit I hadn't called McKay's since September, but with all the business I had done with them you'd think they'd at least have given me warning."
The bill from North Shore for towing and storage was more than $200 and climbing--the company charges $8 a day for storage. Seidner was working as a waiter but once again was broke, having spent his money on Hanukkah presents. It took almost two weeks to round up the cash, but on January 5 he set off for the pound.
"I knew the car wouldn't start, but the guy at the pound said, 'If you pay for it, you gotta take it.' I said, 'I'll have Amoco tow it! He said, 'We're a towing company. If anyone tows from our lot, we'll do it. That'll cost 45 bucks.' I said, 'I don't have 45 bucks.' He said, 'Your car will have to sit here then.'"
A week later Seidner returned with $345 in cash. "I said, 'Here's the money. Tow my car to a service station.' This guy said, 'We don't have your car. After 15 days in the pound it gets stripped of its license. It's no longer a legal car. It can't leave the pound.'" Seidner says that the same man had told him when he called the day before that his car wouldn't be crushed and even recommended a mechanic who might repair it.
Confused and depressed, Seidner was almost off the lot when he spied his Mazda, nestled in a pile of tires and hubcaps near the front gate. "There's my car. There's my car," he shouted, and turned around to see three big, tough-looking men staring his way. "That was the only time I felt physically intimidated. They stared at me and said, 'We told you, your car's not here.' I couldn't believe it. My car was right there, and I had the cash. But they wouldn't give it to me because technically the car was no longer mine. It didn't make sense."
He rushed home and called Ann Rainey, his alderman, who called the police chief, who sent a cop to the pound. It was too late. His car had been crushed.
"Rainey called with the news at 8:30 in the morning," he says. "I can still remember her voice. She was somber, like someone had died.
She said, 'I'm sorry. We did all we can.' I guess she thought I might scream. But I didn't scream. I said, 'You mean, between 5:30 last night and now they crushed my car, knowing I had the money to retrieve it?' What could she say?"
"We tried to help him," says Rainey. "We had the chief of police working on his case. If only he had gotten to us sooner--and he got the original notice in December--it would have been easy to save his car. The sad part of the story is that he procrastinated. Evidently he didn't believe they would crush his car."
For their part, officials at McKay say they've never heard of Seidner or his Mazda, and that Carmen Napoli no longer works there. It is true that McKay broke no law. Moreover, McKay is not in the parking-lot business, and Seidner did get nine months of free parking from them. And North Shore? Well, a rule's a rule. Seidner's Mazda was in their pound for 22 days--seven days over the city-mandated limit. By crushing the Mazda they were just following city regulations.
North Shore refers all calls on the matter to city officials, who can only speculate about why things turned out the way they did. "I can't understand why North Shore would tell him Amoco can't tow there," says Rainey. "I asked North Shore about that, and they said there must have been a misunderstanding. They say that other companies tow from their lot all the time."
As for Ron's Towing, Evanston officials say it's a "very respectable outfit" run by Ron Hochberg, not Ron Stevens. "I never heard of [Seidner]," says an employee of Ron's, who identified himself as Andy. "We tow hundreds of cars. We don't have a Ron Stevens working here, and we never said we did. Whatever happened is between [Seidner] and Evanston."
Rainey advises other people whose cars are damaged by towing to contact Evanston's city hall. "From the moment his car was damaged, he should have called us," says Rainey. "We would have filed a claim against the towing company for damaging his car. This happens a lot, and we usually get the money. The towers have insurance--they don't want to fight us because they want to keep our business."
"I guess there's a lot of things I might have done," says Seidner. "It's easy to play Monday-morning quarterback. I don't deny I procrastinated. I could have made more calls to McKay. Maybe I was stupid. Maybe I was naive. But they crushed my car just like that. And it's not fair."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.