Corey Levitan | FEAR AND LOAFING

Not every motorist is happy to see our reporter come to the rescue (Tow-truck Driver)

  • Justin Yurkanin/Las Vegas Review-Journal

    As Larry's Towing driver Jeff Hochmann, left, looks on, R-J reporter Corey Levitan maneuvers the wheel lift system, called a "stinger," beneath a vehicle parked at McCarran Airport. Its owner lost the keys and called AAA to tow the vehicle to the dealer, which will produce a new set.

  • Jeff Hochmann, right, a ringer for Woody Harrelson in "Natural Born Killers," shows our reporter how to operate the wheel lift system, called a "stinger." Justin Yurkanin/Las Vegas Review-Journal » Buy this photo

Posted: Mar. 6, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.

The pink Honda Civic has ABANDONED written all over it -- in addition to "This vehicle is illegally parked." The radio and battery were yanked out and all four tires, including the two immobilized by orange boots, replaced with worthless spares.

"No one's gonna try and claim this," says tow-truck driver Jeff Hochmann.

Hmm, I can think of one person who might disagree: the agitated potential assailant who has just scaled his first-floor balcony and is barreling toward us at cougar speed.

Hochmann and I were assigned to tow a car with expired plates from an apartment complex in a high-crime Las Vegas neighborhood. This is the call I've been simultaneously dreading and hoping for since Larry's Towing invited me aboard for the afternoon.

"I've had guns pointed at my head before," Hochmann, 39, said earlier. "You've just got to call their bluff."

Most clients of Larry's Towing are happier to see Hochmann. They've locked themselves out of their vehicles or gotten stranded because of an accident, dead battery or flat tire. But once or twice a week, a private impound call like this one comes over the radio.

"You never know what you're gonna get until you get there," said Hochmann, a dead ringer for Woody Harrelson in "Natural Born Killers."

One time, five unhappy campers jumped on the rails of Hochmann's International medium-duty tow truck and pounded the windows while spitting obscenities at him. Did I mention that they had called AAA for an emergency tow?

"I guess I took too long," Hochmann said. "But I told them I would have to pick up another member on the way (to California) first."

Hochmann tried reason, which usually works once customers realize that the consequences of killing their tow-truck driver usually include waiting even longer to get where they need to go.

"But this was one situation where I couldn't calm them down," Hochmann said.

So he apologized and pulled off.

All tow calls are responded to in order of priority. Preference is always given motorists stuck on the side of a freeway, children or pets locked in a car with the engine running, and stranded strippers.

"You said that last part," Hochmann said, laughing maniacally. "I didn't."

Hochmann, a Las Vegas native, began towing three years ago, after his commercial vehicle fabrication business broke down in the recession. He works from noon to midnight, seven days, for straight commission. (He earns a percentage of what AAA pays Larry's for each tow. That amount varies with difficulty, and Hochmann's cut can rise as high as $40 an hour to tow an RV.)

"What I like most about this job is helping people," Hochmann said. "Needing a tow never happens at a good time. They're always on the way to something, or it's summertime and they're miserable with no air conditioning."

Earlier today, we broke into the cars of two keyless AAA members. Hochmann showed me how to jam thin air bladders into door frames, then pump in just enough air to widen the cracks so that the professional version of a wire hanger can glide in and tap the unlock switch.

This is good information in case this whole not-being-a-criminal thing stops working for me. However, I wanted more drama. And I believe that the agitated potential assailant barreling toward us at cougar speed qualifies.

Of course, I do what comes naturally in a dicey situation after talking tough for half an hour: I cower and freeze.

A city parking enforcement officer steps up to intercept the barreler. The officer was already on hand to collect his parking fine on the slim chance that the owner would appear.

Booted motorists must pay $125 to a parking officer (plus an additional $80 to the tow company if the car's wheels are up but the tow truck hasn't departed) or $135 plus daily storage fees to the tow company once the tow is complete. (If a motorist can drive an illegally parked car away before its wheels are up, the escape is scot-free. However, boots tend to prevent that. And damaging a boot is a serious crime.)

As it turns out, the barreler is not an assailant at all. He's just a guy freaked out about where to get the $125 that the orange window stickers have demanded for two weeks.

Eventually, a woman emerges from the apartment, and cash is somehow scraped together. Hochmann earns nothing from this job. Strangely, though, that's not why he seems disappointed. He explains: "I was looking forward to watching you get converted into a popsicle with a baseball bat."

To see video of Levitan working as a tow-truck operator, check out Levitan's previous columns and videos are posted at Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. If you have a Fear and Loafing idea, e-mail or call (702) 383-0456.

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