Here’s how it worked with me:
We bought a used bookcase on Craigslist. The seller lived in a very popular section of Clarendon, in one of those fancy-lobby high-rises.
We circled and circled, but all the street parking near the place was full, and it was getting late. It was a huge piece of furniture, and we’d have to park close to the entrance to get it to the roof of the car.
So we pulled into one of about four empty spaces outside a dry cleaner that was closed, right next to the building entrance. And, yes, there was a sign that said towing was enforced 24 hours.
I stayed with the car until I had to go up to help my husband lug the piece through the lobby. I put a sign on the car windshield written in Magic Marker: “Moving furniture, back in 10 mins, PLEASE don’t tow,” and put my flashers on.
It took 10 minutes tops for them to sweep in, in the 9 o’clock darkness of a Wednesday night. Just as we huffed and puffed out the door with the bookcase, the tow truck was peeling out of the lot, complete with cartoonlike sparks as the undercarriage slammed the curb. Chasing, running (and, yes, cursing) ensued. No luck.
Our Craigslist bargain just cost us $125 more.
It was frustrating and maddening. Yes, there was a sign. And yes, those are the rules.
But let’s be honest: At that hour, we were not hurting that business.
Frankly, the dry cleaner could make plenty of money by charging for parking in those spaces when the starched shirts are asleep but the nearby bars and restaurants are abuzz. I’d gladly stuff a few bucks into the money slot for peace of mind.
It was a setback for us, but not a devastation.
The problem is, a lot of people aren’t that lucky.
An extra $125 can devastate someone. And if they don’t have the cash that night, after they’ve found their way to the impound lot? It’s another $50 each day you can’t get the vehicle back. That can really hurt someone who is struggling, especially if they need the car for work.
But as cities are powerless to regulate this practice and states struggle with hundreds of complaint calls that come in from people who were towed, common sense is lost.
And we are just fools who paid $103 for a cup of coffee, $180 to pick up takeout Chinese food and, yes, $225 for an old, used bookcase.
Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read other columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.