Otis Williams is one of those persons who snatches your car from the space where you left it for just a minute.
If you are one of the 30,000 motorists this year who left your car for five minutes to run into a store, or overslept the rush hour by five minutes and came out to find you car gone, it was probably Williams or one of his 25 co-workers who towed it away in less than two minutes.
Twelve hours a day, five days a week, Williams pulls up beside a ticketed car, positions his tow truck, unloads and places the "cradle" under the front or rear wheels, fastens the metal pans and canvas straps in place, slides in the stabilizing bar, grabs the ticket off the windshield and is gone.
He wears running shoes for extra speed. His record is 1 minute and 45 seconds.
"I'm fast because that way I don't run into the owner," says Williams. "They're always mad, especially the tourists."
Williams is a Washingtonian, a McKinley Tech High School graduate who works the same streets he used to cruise in the family station wagon. Now he drives a 1979 Ford "cradle snatcher," a slight man with a frizzy goatee, wearing the dark blue uniform of his employer, Transportation Management Inc.
The Department of Transportation has contracted with TMI to supply the tow trucks and drivers.
Williams is meticulous about his personal appearance,the appearance of his truck, and his work.
"I'm careful because I care about myself and my work. And because I get a $50 savings bond for each month there are no complaints against me," he says.
Williams holds the record for three months of savings bonds.
The 29-year-old, former tractor-trailer driver sees his tow job as a public service. "We keep the street clear. The traffic moves and there are fewer accidents," he says.
Not all of Williams' "customers" agree.
Haywood Kline, 26, and Felicia Cottrill, 20, stood outside the impoundment lot fence at 34th and K streets NW. Kline glowered through the fence at his impounded Ford pickup towed in by Williams a few minutes earlier from Georgetown.
Kline and Cottrill had just finished lunch together. They found his truck missing when they returend to their parking space just after 4 p.m.
"I'm from Manassas and I accidently parked in an area I didn't know was a tow zone. And that's going to cost me $50," said Kline. "It's a rip-off."
He eyed nearby Key Bridge and wondered aloud if he could grab the truck and make it back to Virginia. Finally he and Cottrill took the government-run shuttle bus to 601 Indiana Ave. NW, paid the fine and returned for the truck.
That same afternoon Williams towed a jeep into the Georgetown lot. Almost immediately two young men walked down dusty K Street to the lot.
They were working for a construction firm and had run into a hardware store for materials. "I put money in that meter twice," said Bobby Jones, 23. "And that ticket writer watched us do it," added his friend, Tim Dauncher, 20.
At 4:15 p.m. when they came out of the store, carrying bags of supplies, the jeep was gone.
Williams had himself another "customer."
"I'm going to cry. I can't believe this happened," said Jones over and over.
Jones said he had a choice of paying the $50 fine or making his $188.25 monthly payment on the Jeep.
While he thought about it, he put 40 cents into a soda vending machine. He lost his money.
Declaring the day a total loss, Jones went off to ask his employer for $50.
Reactions to the $50 towing fee vary greatly. One District couple in their air-conditioned Cadillac were upset only because they had been caught. A college student said he wouldn't mind paying the fee if he had been ticketed fairly. And an off-duty police officer said his fee would wipe out the income from his second job. "That $50 really hurts me," he said.
The city's public parking administrator, John Brophy, says the $50 fine is necessary. "It's an economic sanction; it has to be that high so people will remember not to do it again," he said.
The actual towing cost, the money paid to TMI, from each $50 fine is only $19.35, Brophy said. With everything added in, he said the city makes a profit of $20 on each tow ticket paid. That means the city has cleared over $600,000 since the program began in January.
Brophy is quick to point out that the money goes into the general city budget where it is very much needed.
"Look, I grew up poor. I'm from a big family and I understand about that fee. A $50 towing fine would be a crisis for me, too," he said.
Meanwhile back at the impoundment lot, Williams arrived with his final tow for the day. Much to the delinght of his earlier victims, he was towing another TMI truck. It had broken down in Georgetown while on the prowl for victims. CAPTION: Picture 1, Otis Williams maneuvers a dolly into place under the rear wheels of a car that is about to be towed away. By Linda Wheeler -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Haywood Kline (right) views his pickup truck from the other side of the fence at the Georgetown impoundment lot, with his luncheon companion, Felicia Cottrill.;Picture 3, Otis Williams strains to fasten a stabilizing bar in place before towing away another illegally parked car. He can seize a car in less than two minutes. By Linda Wheeler -- The Washington Post; Picture 4, no caption; Picture 5, A familiar scene at the impoundment lot: Car owner Bobby Jones (right) talks with a friend, Tim Daucher, about the $50 it will cost to retrieve Jones' car.