Had to be twenty years ago because we drove to Baltimore in the old red and white Ram van without air conditioning to an Orioles game during the summer. My wife and three young kids looking for a parking space while the clock ticked on a Friday evening. Seven o’clock and the lots near the stadium were full. I started to pull into a parking deck, but the clearance limit dissuaded me from trying to peel the skylight off the roof. So, we drove on with the crowd toward parking that was farther and farther from the stadium. We passed parked cars with smashed out windows that had obviously been robbed. Maybe I should have pulled into that parking deck. The herd turned right ahead near some warehouses within sight of Camden Yards. 7:15. First pitch is 7:35. No attendant or gate, just an open lot that quickly filled with baseball fans’ vehicles. I’m certain that my wife said something about the safety of parking there. Out of an ocean of ignorance I reassured her. “They can’t tow us all away.”
We followed the crowd into the stadium and had a fun time cheering and doing the Macarena to loud music. I don’t know if the O’s won. What mattered is that we had an all American experience on a lovely summer night in Baltimore. Around 11:00 p.m. we retraced our steps back to that mystery lot only to find the first toenail of our nightmare torn off and bleeding. A tow truck was hooked up to the last car on the lot while the car owner screamed at the driver and tried to convince him to release his car. Meanwhile a Baltimore policeman stood by explaining that this was a private lot and a little sign behind a sumac tree said so. It seemed clear immediately and thoroughly that the cop was part of the scam, pretending to be authoritative. He explained that we were trespassing. “Okay, but where is my van?”
“Likely on the impoundment lot in Linthicum. They open back up on Monday morning.”
“Now, no, wait. You can’t do that.”
“Sir, it’s done. You should not have parked here. This tow truck was called by the lot owner. He’s just doing his job.”
I didn’t think I’d get anywhere with the cop or the tow truck driver. I turned to face the firing squad of my family, “What are we going to do now?” they all asked at once. The cheers and Macarena were gone, forgotten. The fun, the peace, the simple pleasure… all towed away to an impoundment lot in hell.
“Ah, let me ask this other rent a cop.” I approached the crossing guard cop at the intersection as we wandered back toward the lit up stadium. “Excuse me. Our van was towed away and we were told it’s outside the city in an impoundment lot.”
“Ah, no. We don’t take’m there. They tow’m over to the other side of the Inner Harbor and drop’m off on side streets over there.”
“In the neighborhood behind the Science Center?”
“Yeah, down Charles Street where it ends. Your car is down there.”
I turned back to my wide eyed family. “What are we gonna do?”
“Let’s walk over to the Sheraton and see if we can wait there; and if I can’t find the van tonight, we’ll just get a room.” Minor sighs of relief came to know we had a plan and possible destination in the dark sultry air. The desk staff at the Sheraton could not have been nicer; however, there were no rooms at the Inn that night. “There’s a huge softball tournament in town this weekend. Every hotel room is full.”
Unbelievable. We explained our predicament and the nice lady at the desk told us we could stretch out on the couches in their lobby for a while until we reached resolution. I decided to jog over to Federal Hill, a two mile jog from the Sheraton, but I was in good shape back then at age 40. Not fast but steady. Off I jogged, telling myself I’d find my van and drive it back victoriously to the Sheraton, and boy oh boy, wouldn’t the kids be excited to see that. It got eerily quiet as I jogged across and away from the waterfront and into a shabby, unfamiliar neighborhood. No one was on the street or sidewalks. Up ahead a bunch of young men were playing basketball under bright lights at a school yard. I didn’t see my van, which would have stuck out like a chicken in a guinea pig farm. I looked and pondered the darkness and my empty options, and kept on jogging as if I knew where I was going.
Sadly I gave up the search and jogged back to the hotel lobby. The kids were drowsily curled up together alongside my wife. I felt defeated but I was not going to show defeat. “What are we going to do now?” my wife inquired.
“I’m going to get a cab and drive around some more. Maybe a local cabbie will have some ideas.” Surprisingly my wife accepted this stupid idea of mine as having a chance, a better chance than me jogging all night.
No sooner had the desk clerk put the phone down after calling a cab than one showed up at the front door. It was too fast. But the grizzled driver assured me he’d been just around the corner when the call came. I could not believe him and the laws of science at the same time. I got in and explained my situation.
“I know where your van is, man.”
“That’s impossible. The cops told me it’s on Federal Hill or in Linthicum till Monday, and you’re telling me you know exactly where it is.”
“Yep. you can waste your money looking around Charles Street, but it’s not there. These slimy bastards tow them across to a lot under the 295 bridge along Gwynn Falls. It’s a racket. The cops are in on it.”
“Let’s go to Federal Hill first, okay?”
“Sure. It’s your money, man.”
As he started the meter my eye followed his hand down to the bench seat where I saw a .45 loaded and unholstered. “What’s with the gun?”
‘Oh great,’ I thought. I have a psychopath Taxi driver zooming me around Baltimore with a death wish. Steven Seagall and Robert Deniro floated across my memory banks. ‘Someone is gonna die tonight.’ I realized I was more afraid of my taxi driver than I was of the local hoodlums.
But Marty was correct. No van, nowhere. “You ready to find your van now?”
I reluctantly agreed and he sped off across the 95/295 elevated highways. I had no idea where we were going, but I knew it was not a good place. He drove around a deserted industrial area and I began to wonder if he might want to shoot me just for kicks and dump my body down by the creek. Heck, he was going to Denver next week and there was no way to track me.