Towing Signs Meant What They Said

'I admit it. I was in the wrong," begins the letter from Ira H. Haber of Gaithersburg. "But I still think I was the one who was taken advantage of. Let me explain."

One recent Monday evening, Ira was heading for a gym class in downtown Bethesda. Parking spaces do not grow on trees there, to say the least. Running late, Ira scoured the legal spaces near the gym along Wisconsin and Woodmont Avenues. Zip.

So Ira decided to park in a private lot that is reserved for three small businesses. He noticed the signs that said parking was for patrons of those stores only, and that violators would be towed away. But since it was 7:30 p.m. and all three stores had closed at 6, Ira figured it would be okay.

He found out otherwise to the tune of $50, which the towing company charged to return his car. Ira calls that sum "unreasonable." He feels just the opposite about having parked in the private lot. He says he didn't do any of the businesses any harm.

"Whaddaya say?" Ira concludes. "Am I the victim or the criminal here?"

You're certainly the victim in a financial sense, Ira. Your poorer-but-wiser checking account has already told you that. But I'd say you're the victim in another way -- the victim of the popular notion that if you're about to be inconvenienced, you can disobey any sign and expect to get away with it.

I don't mean to single you out, Ira, because you don't deserve that. Many, many people would have done what you did. But just because you were late doesn't give you the right to park in a private lot.

Why not park three blocks farther away and walk to the gym? You were in Bethesda for exercise anyway, right? If you had done that, you would have saved not only the $50 towing fee, but the 22 cents it cost you to complain to me.

It does seem illogical for a tow truck to yank you out of a lot after business hours. But the owner doesn't necessarily need a clear parking lot during business hours only. He might be about to use the lot for a flea market, or a birthday party for his great aunt. Doesn't he have the right to use his property however he likes -- and to expect it to be clear?

As for the $50 towing fee, Ira, it's exactly what you could expect to be charged anywhere else. You haven't been "Montgomery Countied." What you have been -- I hope -- is taught a lesson.

"Dedicate this story to Harold Greene," my caller requested.

"You mean the judge who broke up AT&T?" I asked.

"The very same," said she. And she told a tale that has to make anyone -- including Judge Greene -- wonder about Phone Company, '85.

My caller lives in Fort Washington. One day, near her home, she drove past what she described as an "aged man in an aged Mercedes." The latter had conked out by the side of the road. My caller stopped to ask the former if he needed help.

The man said he'd be very grateful if my caller would telephone his wife and let her know he was all right. As he headed off in the cab of a tow truck, my caller agreed to do so.

But she had neglected to get a phone number to go with the man's name. So she called O-for-operator, said it was an emergency and explained the situation. The operator spent a little while hunting through records for the number, found it and said that she'd notify the wife.

For several days, my caller went about her business with a nice warm feeling inside.

Then her phone bill arrived.

It contained a charge for $1.20. The explanation: "Excessive operator time."

My caller checked with the business office and was told that she had tied up the operator longer than the allotted 45 seconds. But the business representative pointed out a bright side.

If she had been a good Samaritan after 5 p.m., the rep noted cheerily, the "excessive operator time" charge would have been only 80 cents.

What's going on? . . . . At Dupont Circle, where the construction crews spend as much time gawking at the passing surge of humanity as they do constructing. At Tyson's Corner, where speeding up to make yellow lights is worse than ever -- and worse than anywhere else. On I-295, down near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, where there's a daily rush-hour backup of cars waiting to get onto the Beltway access ramp. But will The Selfish and The Grabby take their place in line? Oh, no. They have to zoom past The Patient and The Orderly, all the way to the front of the pack, where they worm their way in.

John Palmateer of College Park says his doctor told him to exercise religiously. So John now does one sit-up every morning. During it, he says "amen."