Sipping coffee in the parking lot of the Fairfax Circle Howard Johnson's, Johnny "Bo" Arnold waits patiently for his first Saturday night call. He shoots a suspicious glance from under his black cowboy hat when asked why he likes driving a tow truck. And he does like it. "It's somethin' different," he says, cautiously.

It's also a matter of pride. Arnold's immaculate truck, owned by Henry's Wrecker Service, shimmers under the mercury vapor lamps like a new Rolls. It sports extra chrome, lights and stainless steel running boards -- all paid for by this suburban cowboy himself.

"I spend a lot of time in it. I want it to look good," he says.

Shiny chrome and a clean turquoise finish haven't done much to help the tarnished image of tow-truck drivers that Arnold must deal with each day, a public attitude that the driver with the hook is something of a crook.

"Yeah," Bo grunts in recognition, getting angry. "Because it isn't true. There're still some bad ones out there, but not nearly as many as there used to be. Towers these days aren't any more crooked than any other businessman." t

Then, changing the subject, he asks, "You want to see a rip-off?" He points to a massage parlor along the side of the road as he thunders toward his first tow of the evening. "That's a rip-off."

Certainly the people Arnold responds to this night do not treat him like a crook. The coeds with a flat tire on the beltway are gushing with gratitude. The teen-ager who has plowed his father's sports car into a dirt bank and is obviously worried about having to explain the damage, is calmed when Arnold grudgingly says he believes the youngster's story that he was run off the road by a drunk. The middle-aged couple hospitalized after their car was smashed by a hit-and-run driver will discover later that their new Chevy has been competently towed and securely stored.

Pride and money push Arnold on. His $20,000 or so a year comes from a 25 percent commission on each tow. Carefully, but quickly, he hooks the frame, pricisely stuffs 4x4 wooden blocks under the car to prevent body damage, and chugs off to a garage with his load of mangled steel trailing behind, proud that in the last four years he has not had an accident.

As the night wears on, the action picks up. Arnold begins to pick up too. "I work a lot of hours (60 to 70 a week), but, man, I really love it. Every day is different, every tow." He similes. "Some nights you get to rolling and go like hell without a break until the sun comes up." And off goes the urban cowboy driving mounds of metal like steers the last 30 miles to the yard. u

But the romance that lasts in memory does not come from the nickel-and-dime beltway jobs. As cars get smaller and smaller, the semis, the heavy metal, seem to grow out of proportion. When they go off the ramp, into the bridge, jackknife and sprawl across four lanes oozing diesel fuel, the cowboys get into 5th gear. Arnold's most recent big ride came last summer when a tractor-trailer loaded to the stops with fresh eggs flipped over on the beltway.

The call came at 3 a.m. It was, Arnold knew immediately, "the kind of job you can really get off on." He was the first on the scene with one of Henry's flat-bed trucks, which he used to load the heavy axles and other parts that he separated from the mangled rig. He was soon joined by five others who brought two heavy tow trucks equipped with massive hydraulic cranes, a big tractor and a pickup truck carrying an expensive and sophisticated air bag system that would be used to right the wrecker. Working with a quarter-million dollars worth of equipment, the crew raised the trailer slightly, put the air bags beneath the truck, and cranked up the powerful air compressors. Slowly the crippled carrier rose to its proper stance, and was carefully towed away in parts.

"Three and a half hours later, it was gone," Arnold says with obvious satisfaction, the kind of satisfaction he yearned for 10 years ago, when he was an auto parts clerk. Inside work. Four walls and fluorescent lights. Work, he says, that "drove him nuts." Now, at 39, cruising the outside lane of Interstate 495, single, no attachments, a comfortable five-figure income and in most respects his own boss, Arnold has "all I need." He says of himself, "If I can't do it with my hands, I'm not much good." Arnold has found his niche.

He's fantastic," says Henry Heath, the man who owns Arnold's truck. "If I had a whole crew like Bo, I could take off and stay gone." Heath himself has been hooking his rig to bumpers and frames since he was a boy. At 44, the hard miles he has traveled are reflected in a face lined and ridged like a topographic map. Many of the hard miles for Heath have been uphill against the bad image of the towing business and his own need to find a bit of dignity in his work.

"For so long we have been looked on as second-class citizens," he says. "But we are the professionals. We are businessmen with the right equipment and skilled people. We are not " -- his eyes glow with indignation -- "the crook with a hook."

Two yars ago he helped found an organization called the Virginia Towing and Recovery Operators to overcome "one of the worst public images of any business going," as Heath puts it. With 70 members the group has been somewhat successful in working with police and local government officials to come up with towing rates and regualtions. But their public image is "still the pits," Heath says. "The only tower that ever makes the news is the rip-off artist."

There is also the surly side to the business that hasn't helped the public relations of tow-truck drivers. Three years ago, for example, television correspondent Andrea Mitchell found herself eyeball-to-gun-barrel durng a series she did on towing operations in Prince George's County. Today, Mitchell confesses to "temporary insanity" as she stood before the enraged, gun-toting manager of a Forestville towing company, while his son cursed and threatened her camera crew.

The dramatic episode drew what Mitchell calls an "amazing response -- and the county actually changed the laws after that."

Mitchell and a score of others offered testimony about towing firms at a series of hearing Prince George's County held two years ago. The county passed stiffer laws requiring licenses and insurance for towing companies and identification on tow trucks.

Montgomery County followed suit with similar rules last January. Fairfax City, Charles County and Anne Arundel County have fixed rates for towing, and the District requires that rates be posted on the truck.

As a result of the crackdown, local consumer affairs bureaus and police departments throughout the area report a sharp decline in complaints against tow companies. But there are loopholes for unscrupulous operators.

Most complaints now come from victims of small tow operators who cruise the parking lots of apartments, offices and shopping malls, snatching cars from fire lanes and other no-parking zones. Some operators even lurk in parking lots and grab cars as soon as the owner is out of sight. In one recent case, before the owner could return for her second bag of groceries, her car had been hooked and towed.

Even if a car is illegally towed, getting it back often involves an expensive, sometimes all-night odyssey of frantic calls to the police, long trips to storage lots and possibly ugly encounters, as Jack Davis found out the hard way.

The 48-year-old former Redskin and professional wrestler recently found his car missing -- towed from New Carrolton Mall during a 15-minute visit to a restaurant. When he went to a local gas station to retrieve the auto, he refused to pay the towing charge and attempted to drive away. A fight ensued involving, Davis says, five employes of the towing company. When it was over, Davis says, he had two broken ribs, a shattered jaw, two missing teeth, bites all over his body, and "was snatched half-bald."

Davis is suing the firm over the incident, but he is one of the few people who take the time and trouble to pursue such mishaps. "Most people are just interested in getting their car back," says John Comas, an invstigator for the Maryland state's attorney's office. Problems still exist.

"In Montgomery County it was the last service industry of any kind to be totally unregistered until the County Council passed new laws last January," says Gerald Wise, owner of Wise Towing in Rockville. He blames inconsistencies and loopholes in rules for remaining abuses and bad press.

"What we are trying to do," says Gordon Singer, owner of Singer Towing in Laurel and president of the Maryland towers' association, "is get rid of the man that's cruising down I-95 or the Beltway, doesn't have a name on his truck, doesn't have insurance, doesn't have a storage lot, and could care less about the image of the tower. He just wants to make a buck any way he can.

"We call this guy a gypsy. When he sees a car on the side of the road, he immediately pulls up, puts his lights on and says, 'May I help you.' You are anxious to get off that road, so you say, 'Yes.' Now, the first thing that's going to happen is you will get knocked off for $50 or $60 for the tow. Then he is liable to take you some place that may or may not take care of you, and you are going to get knocked off again.

"If you are from out of town, he may drop you off at a gas station and tell you they will be open in 15 minutes and leave."

Singer began a tow business 20 years ago while he was still a magistrate for the Prince George's County People's Court. "I loved towing, and I hated law, and when I had my third heart attack, I took up towing full time." h

"What we are trying to show in our associations is that we invest a great deal of money in our businesses," says Bill Southerland, a great bear of a man whose muscles tense like a defensive tackle on a goal-line stand when he hears the towing industry attacked. He owns Beltway Service Center in Alexandria. "When John Q. Public has to pay $25 or $35 for getting his car towed a mile, he feels that he's getting ripped off. All you did was lower the back and hook it up."

"Let me give you an example," Heath says, warming to the subject. "In 1971, it cost me $6,000 to put a fully equipped one-ton tow truck on the road. I just bought a new one-ton cradle snatcher [which cradles the rear wheels, instead of hooking the fram] for $15,000 and put in another $3,000 for a radio, winch and other necessary equipment. Now I can't risk sending that truck out with any untrained operator who is going to tear it up or tear up the car he's towing. So I spend several weeks training the man, which costs me another fortune. And to keep a good man who knows what he's doing costs me at least $300 a week."

Add to that the cost of gasoline for trucks that average 7 miles per gallon but get 4 when towing, the cost of tires, parts and maintenance for the trucks, taxes, licenses and insurance, most of which have gone up 200 to 300 percent in recent years, "and you can see what the investment is like in this business," says Heath.

Nevertheless, independent operators frequently try to undercut the price structure. Heath lost a new-car dealer's business last summer when he would not lower his prices. "He took a fly-by-night joker that offered to do it for less. I got the dealer back when the man busted up more cars than he towed, but look at the revenue I lost while that jackass was taking my business."

Towers also complained bitterly about the increasing number of cars they have to "eat" -- those towed in and never retrieved by owners. Some are abandoned cars which the police have ordered towed. Most are junkers. "But to stay on the police list, you take the good with the bad," Singer says.

Their biggest gripe, however, is with insurance companies who refuse to take responsibility for wrecked cars of no value after the settlement is made with the owners. "Here's your car," Heath says, "worth nothing, sitting on my lot, gathering storage charges. I call you up and say I want my money. You say, 'Go to hell. I've been paid for it, do what you want with it.' Now, I can sue for the charges, but that costs more than the car is worth. After a year or so, I say the hell with it and take a bulldozer and mash it. What do I get for all this? A dollar per 100 pounds of metal. Even then, if you want to be nasty about it, you can sue me for destroyng your car."

Because of increasing difficulties and varied procedures for towing late-model cars and the resulting high rate of damage claims, legal costs are another mounting expense for tow companies. Southerland says he spent $13,000 last year battling claims that totaled only $8,000.

Now that's bad business, but I want anyone thinking of suing me to know that I will fight him. I've got a lawyer on retainer, and we fight every case. I spent $5,000 to take one case all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court to win $75."

Southerland says most of his high legal costs come from apartment towing. Although he makes a point of getting a signed authorization for each tow, reports it to the police, and tags and stores valuable items in the car, "When that guy shows up to pick up his car, he's mad as hell. He will blame you for every nick and dent in the car, or of stealing a $2,000 watch or something that was laying on the seat."

Worse yet, Southerland says, are the drunks. "When a DWI [driving while intoxicated] comes to get his car, he's been humiliated and browbeaten and probably fined $500. But he won't give the police any trouble; he doesn't want to go back to jail. No, he waits until he gets here, and then he lets you have it. Right away he'll accuse you of being in cahoots with the police, and then he'll try to get his money back by charging that you damaged the car.

"I don't want to take the time to fool with it, but you have to. You have to sit down and explain to that customer and convince him that he's wrong and actually make him embarrassed that he even suggested such a thing before he leaves. Or sure as hell, you will be fighting him in court."

Tow-truck owners run the gamut from the polished, dapper Judge Singer to the rough, hallow-eyed, gap-toothed cowboys who look like they stepped out of the pages of James Dickey's Deliverance , to determined businesswomen to family operations.

"We're really not a bunch of baddies," says Betty Cornwell, who with her husband Harvey operates Cornwell Towing in Upper Marlboro. A friendly, motherly woman with a thoroughly engaging smile, she likes to tell this story:

"The police called me last winter and said they had an old school bus broken down on the Beltway with two blown tires. No one else would fix it because it belonged to a poor family with no money." Because she "couldn't see letting them freeze to death," Cornwell dispatched one of her big wreckers to fetch the family -- a widowed mother and four sons.

Failing to get any aid for the family from local churches and government agencies, Cornwell got a local salvage yard to donate two tires, and she sent the family on its way with a full tank of gas and several day's worth of groceries. "They were out of money and out of luck. What else could I do?" she asked. "Besides, when I got a card from them telling me they had made it to Texas, it made me feel real good."

Having a heart won't put any operators out of business, but a number of them are eyeing local governments warily. The D.C. Department of Transportation's towing program has, for example, proved a boom to the government and something of a bust for towing contractors. Last year, the program grossed the city some $5 million in revenues from towing fees, cars sold at auction and additional tickets collected, says John Brophy, head of the city's parking enforcement burear. Brophy calls the program a "smashing success," and one that he says has made the city's traffic management program one of the best in the nation. But he also announced that, based on a cost-benefit analysis showing the city could do their own towing for half the current cost, they would terminate their contract with Transportation Management Inc. in January.

Already bitten by cost increases and a slashed budget, TMI will be left holding 27 tow trucks. TMI co-owner Bob Long says the city may be able to cut some costs by buying fuel and equipment in bulk and utilizing its own property for storage lots, but he is incredulous about Brophy's half price cost estimate.

One government program that draws praise from all quarters is the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation's Safety Service Patrol, whose familiar dull yellow pickup trucks are seen cruising the Beltway in Virginia and on I-95, from the Shirlington Circle to Occaquan on an average 40 minute swing, 24 hours a day. The trucks are equipped with extra water fuel, jacks, lug wrenches, fire extinguishers and flares. their tax-supported purpose is to give no-cost aid to stranded motorists. They don't tow, but will call a wrecker.

The purpose of the program, as Safety Patrol driver Tony Ramirez explains, is to get "people off the road as quick as possible so they don't get killed." Ramirez responds to any car stopped on the side of the beltway. But he calls the State Police to check out those who have pulled over to the side to sleep. "I ain't about to knock on the window and wake him up," says Ramirez, "He might be dreaming about somebody killing him and wake up and shoot [me]."

It is, as Tommy Raley, who operates 40 tow trucks in the area, says, "a rough business," run in part by some rough and ready riders. In 1974 during the Arab oil embargo some tow truck drivers felt threatened about being robbed for their spare gasoline on dreary streets in the early morning hours packed guns in the cab.

But the blues most often recanted by these urban cowboys are not echoed in the country and western songs of their sweethearts, like Dolly Parton, whose photo graces the dashboard of more than one wrecker in the area. They are the blues of making some bucks in a job where they can remain as far away from being fenced in as possible in an urban environment and at the same time get their act together as businessmen.

Bob Wheeler, who has gone through a number of ups and downs in the 18 years he has owned Connecticut Avenue Towing in Kensington, probably says it best. "Towing is a way of life. More than just a job. From the flashing lights on the Beltway to a dismal job hauling a car from an underground garage . . . There is romance in this work. Some guys talk about their trucks like women, with the same pride, satisfaction and problems. But the bottom line is that towing is a business, and I guess that is our problem. We are just learning to be businnessmen."