It wasn't the sight of something new but the disappearance of the familiar that made Evie Norwinski stop short outside her Woodley Park condominium. Her eyes traced the empty spot where she last saw her blue Volvo parked.

"I was just stunned," she said. "My car was supposed to be out in front of my building. I looked and there was an empty space. I started thinking, did I park it somewhere else? Was it stolen?"

In the weird reality that sets Washington apart from other cities in the nation, car thieves weren't to blame for Norwinski's vanishing Volvo. The culprit was the commander in chief.

When the president makes a stop in neighborhoods and business districts around the city, streets are swept clean of cars to eliminate the risk of bombs. Hundreds of vehicles are towed each year because the president moves about town, making speeches at hotels, taking in a basketball game at MCI Center or attending Sunday services at Foundry United Methodist Church.

Police say the towing is one of the hassles that comes with living alongside the leader of the free world. "Most people understand that the president is in need of security above and beyond that accorded to an ordinary citizen," said D.C. police Capt. Charles Moore.

But many car owners are unforgiving.

Police often don't post warnings until a few hours before a presidential visit, so motorists who arrive earlier don't realize they're in a no-parking zone. The towed cars are dropped arbitrarily across the neighborhood, leaving confused owners to wander the streets hunting for them. Some cars wind up being ticketed twice -- first when they are towed, again while they sit waiting to be discovered.

Adding injury to insult, the towing sometimes leaves scars -- busted lights, dented fenders, broken locks.

"I'm so mad!" said Benee Easley, a probation officer who emerged from D.C. Superior Court one night to find her car missing from its courthouse-approved parking spot on F Street NW. The president was attending a dinner down the street in the National Building Museum. Her Chevrolet Cavalier had been hauled three blocks to an empty metered space.

"There's nothing on these signs that say you're going to get towed!" Easley said. For that matter, there wasn't even a no-parking sign at the spot where she'd left her car, though police had posted them elsewhere on the street.

Police say that moving the cars to the nearest legal spot is faster than towing them to a central lot and makes it simpler for owners to get them back.

But several owners said being reunited with their towed vehicle was anything but simple. Some said that when they called about their missing cars, police told them they had been stolen -- sending the owners, their insurance companies and the police on a phantom chase filled with paperwork.

"It is certainly odd to have the people who have towed your car moments before not know where they've put it and insisting it's been stolen," said Aubrey Dirkes, whose Honda CRX was towed outside his apartment on Calvert Street NW across from the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

In the year and a half that Norwinski has lived on that same street, her car has been towed twice because of presidential visits. In both cases, there was no warning posted when she parked, she said.

"The second time it happened, an officer called me at my office at 11:30 a.m. and said they were about to tow my car [and] if I could get down there in a half-hour I could move it," said Norwinski, a federal attorney. "There was no way I could leave work and get there in a half-hour. He said there would be a record of where my car was towed to. But when I called later, there was no record. When I got home, I set out on foot, walked around the neighborhood and found it."

Her roommate, Cynthia Cummis, insists police never posted warnings Sept. 29, when they towed her white Acura Integra. She found her car two blocks away, parked at a Metrobus stop. She got two $20 tickets -- one for being parked in an Emergency No Parking zone and another for being parked in a bus zone -- which she says she will fight.

"It's enough to make you want to move to Maryland," Cummis said.

Police policy calls for posting the paper "Emergency No Parking" signs three days before a presidential visit. But officers acknowledge they sometimes get far less notice than that from the Secret Service. "We are at the whim of the president's movements," D.C. police Cmdr. Michael Radzilowski said.

For each event, the Secret Service decides how many streets must be cleared. It appears to be one to three blocks in most cases, though the agency declined to comment.

Radzilowski said police policy is not to issue tickets unless at least 72 hours' notice was given. He said he did not know that some motorists were getting tickets with less notice.

Outside the Washington Hilton last Saturday night, police were generous toward two cars parked on T Street NW at the only spots on the street without Emergency No Parking signs. Sgt. Steve Urps said that it was likely someone tore down the signs and that he would give the owners the benefit of the doubt and merely "relocate" the cars.

But by the time President Clinton took the stage at the Italian American gala inside the hotel, the police had damaged both cars.

The owner of one of the vehicles, a former Secret Service agent from Virginia, sat inside the hotel ballroom as D.C. police tow truck operator Lemuel Belton forced open the lock to the man's car. Belton shoved a "slim jim" inside the driver's door, trying to get into the car to release its emergency parking brake.

The former agent, who asked not to be identified, emerged hours later and found his car on another street with a broken lock on the driver's door, a dead car alarm and an unlocked passenger door.

That was nothing compared with the harm done to the other vehicle, a late-model Range Rover. The Range Rover proved too much of a challenge for Belton, who struggled to hook the wheel lift of his rusty tow truck under the nose of the sport-utility vehicle.

As he jacked up the front of the Range Rover, it let out a metallic shriek. The passenger-side parking light exploded, showering the street with bits of glass.

"I wouldn't be up here but for the president," Belton muttered as he strained with the wheel lift under a fender too bulky for his tow truck. Beads of sweat formed on his shaved head. He tried again and again, finally raising the Range Rover's nose a foot off the ground, but as he pulled away from the curb the Range Rover's wheels refused to turn. The tow truck dragged the sport-utility vehicle against its will until Belton hit the brakes.

"Can't do it," he said. The Range Rover stayed, sitting in its own shattered glass. Belton talked about overtime pay he was earning.

One of the oddest tales of towing trauma comes from Dirkes, who last winter found his car missing and was told by police at the Omni Shoreham that it had been towed because of a presidential visit.

From his apartment, Dirkes called D.C. police headquarters to locate his car. "They had no record of it," he said. "They told me I should report my car stolen. They sent an officer over to fill out the paperwork."

As Dirkes and the officer filled out forms, another officer radioed that Dirkes's car had been towed a block and a half away. Dirkes got a $25 ticket, which he paid.

Six months later, the president was visiting Dirkes's neighborhood again. The same officer who had gone to Dirkes's apartment the first time knocked on his door again "to report they had found my stolen car," which they were about to tow away, Dirkes said. This time they issued him a $100 ticket, although the maximum fine for the violation should have been $20. Dirkes protested and police destroyed the ticket, he said.

"I didn't realize how big a pain this could be," Dirkes said. "When I first moved here, one of the drawing points was living between two major convention hotels and a couple of embassies in the neighborhood. I'd never have to worry about security."

Now Aubrey Dirkes worries about a little too much security.