"I'm Italian and I'm Catholic, and nothing offends me more than seeing a junk heap ditched in front of a church or a synagogue, a school or a park," says Officer Joe Pizza.
They call him Dr. Hook because his job is to find and report the abandoned cars--"hooks" in cop talk--that litter the city's streets by the thousands. Many of these metal carcasses are dropped off the tow trucks of chop-shop bosses and mechanics who do their business in the nasty hours of the night. Street lore says that a number of others, particularly the nice ones with only the engine excised, have been the objects of gang warfare: removing an enemy gang leader's car engine is akin to ripping his heart out. But Officer Pizza doesn't dwell on sociological explanations. He just writes the hulks up so the Department of Streets and Sanitation can take them away.
"The police department has no tow trucks," Pizza points out. "My job is to set priorities, to tell those guys which cars to tow first." He's been doing it for 18 years.
Pizza, whose services are in steady demand, begins each morning by taking phone calls from 7:30 till about 8 AM. He can expect about 20 calls a day from irate Chicagoans who want quick action on immobilized autos in their neighborhoods. Pizza jots down the addresses on any available scrap of paper, then hits the streets. Inevitably, en route to the cars that have provoked complaints, he will find many others. After checking them out, he writes them up too. He aims for 33 cars a day, about one every 15 minutes. He is consistently 300 cars ahead of the guys in the light-blue tow trucks. "I can write faster than the Streets and San guys can tow," Pizza says, not boasting.
Under the city's new contract, with a private towing company, it's expected that orphaned cars will be removed more quickly. But Pizza has his doubts. "How is a vehicle that can tow six cars at time going to maneuver these side streets?" he Wonders. "Plus, the cars are all going to be towed to the south side, and that will eat up time.
"And there is still the problem of the people who dump cars. That won't change."
Like a hawk hunting rabbits in the desert, Pizza cruises the side streets seeking "attractive nuisances," cars that a kid might hurt himself on or that a motorist might run into. These require an immediate tow. The scores of cars merely parked for life along the city's curbs have to take a backseat--they're low-priority tows.
As he turns onto Leavitt off Roscoe, Pizza encounters a blue VW Rabbit with flattened tires, no windows or doors, no plates, and a dented roof. The car is facing the wrong way on a one-way street, jutting out into traffic. "This car was dragged from nearby," Pizza surmises, studying the gouge marks in the road made by the tire rims. A neighbor informs him that a nearby merchant ditched the car a few days ago. "I have to get this car towed," he says. "I'd be remiss if I didn't." He would like to track down the offender, but that would take time away from his other appointed rounds.
"When the economy is going down, people will tend to hang on to their cars longer, until they don't run anymore," Pizza says. He's back behind the wheel, pointing out all-night eateries where some of his many acquaintances have met with gory ends. "In the affluent neighborhoods, you'll see fewer abandoned cars. There are certain industrial areas near the el where people know they can drop off cars at night and never get caught."
As he drives, Pizza waves to kids and offers the right-of-way to other drivers; he says he tries to be Officer Friendly. But he receives mostly abuse. "I've been called everything you can imagine, from 'pig' to the more common phrases," he says. "It's usually under their breath from a second-story window. The problem is, people want these cars towed today. Their tranquillity has been disrupted and they're angry. I understand that."
Pizza's tours of streets and alleys have brought him face-to-face with ill-tempered cats that don't like being woken up and with homeless people who call the abandoned cars home. Sometimes a car owner makes a last-ditch effort: "I've had people whose cars are going to be towed throw themselves on the hood in protest or lock themselves inside," Pizza chuckles.
He laments that he cannot act quickly to remove all the dead cars he sees, but sometimes even the worst rusted-out eyesores are just not part of his beat. Some abandoned cars, for example, have been stolen. Pizza runs the vehicle identification number (VIN) through the police computer to check whether a car is hot. If so, the car is supposed to be returned to its owner, not towed to the abandoned-car graveyard. Pizza pulls beneath the el tracks in the 4300 block of North Honore, a common dumping ground. He comes upon a red Oldsmobile missing its front wheels, the axles dug into the ground. Already he knows its story. "This car is total junk that somebody has just dropped off a tow truck," he says, and points: "It's dug into the ground." Pizza wets a scrap of paper and wipes off the dashboard in search of the VIN. He strains through his reading glasses for the numbers, getting dirt smeared on his blue police shirt. "This is a filthy job," he says. "I could wear something other than my uniform, but I don't want someone seeing me messing with their car and deciding to take a shot at me."
A few blocks away, Pizza comes upon a trashed silver Toyota in the 1800 block of West Berteau. The car was in a hit-and-run accident several days earlier, and the neighbors are still hanging out yakking about it. An old man ambles down from his porch and starts chanting "hit-and-run driver, hit-and-run driver." Pizza listens patiently for a minute and then turns to the man, looks him in the eye, and says calmly: "I understand. It's terrible. We'll get it towed." But the home owners gathering want the heap moved now.
"This type of eyesore becomes offensive in places where the property is getting more valuable," Pizza says. "And there is no question that part of the job is PR. You tow to make the greatest number of people happy."
Pizza, who owns some gas stations and real estate on the side, could quit his job. But he is too accustomed to roaming the back roads. "Some of the old people on my beat call me Joey," Pizza says, giggling. My mother used to call me Joey as a kid. These old people see me coming and they say, 'Joey, there's a car. You got to move it.' I love that. They call, I haul."
As he coasts onto the 2900 block of North Hoyne, Pizza's eyes light up and he smiles: he has returned to the site of an ordered tow and now sees the beauty of vacant space. "The car is gone," he says. "It took nine days, but the system worked. Now I'm happy."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.