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It’s always embarrassing to be swindled, but how much more so when the swindler is Winnie-the-Pooh?
Which may be why Chicago police received no formal complaints on Sunday, September 24, when Winnie-the-Pooh had a Grand Adventure indeed. A guy in a Pooh costume, complete with giant head, scammed fans who’d come to see the Bears-Lions game by charging them $10 apiece to park in a lot at 21st and Michigan.
The lot is actually leased by the Illinois Department of Human Services, which has offices across the street, and not by any characters from the Hundred Acre Wood. Still, the E&T Towing Company bounced the cars quicker than a Tigger, at the standard $105 charge.
I found Pooh’s crimes depressing. Not because the tubby little cubby’s reputation had been sullied, but because it just shows you that the most interesting crimes go largely unreported, and where’s the fun in that? In August, a Latin School parking lot was illegally filled at $20 a head during the Air and Water Show by an official-looking guy with a clipboard. That got so much publicity you’d think one of the Blue Angels had nose-dived into the lot. But a guy in a giant Winnie-the-Pooh head pulls the same stunt, and nothing.
I only heard about Pooh because my husband, Ron, had to drive his friend Tom to the pound to retrieve his car. Tom had not given his money to Pooh, I hasten to add, but to Pooh’s cohort, dressed in a Pooh sweatshirt. He “had a wad of dough,” noted Tom, and looked like a typical parking lot hawker.
Tom drives to every home game and knows the drill. If he gets there early, he finds a meter. If he arrives around 11:30, as he did that fateful Sunday, he looks for one of the many area lots temporarily converted to Bears parking. This time, when Tom returned after the game, his car was gone. “At least I didn’t have to feel bad, though,” he reflected later, “because I wasn’t the only idiot.”
The E&T Towing pound is nine long miles away from the Department of Human Services lot, on a particularly desolate stretch of west Chicago Avenue. Surrounding the lot is a fence topped with razor wire, broken only by a full-body turnstile that buzzes open just long enough to admit dismayed patrons. The office is a kind of trailer with rusty metal plates welded all over the front.
“It was like a prison,” said Tom. “One of the guys who was pissed was making cracks like he was gonna shoot it. The tow truck guy was like, ‘Go ahead!'”
When Ron and Tom arrived at E&T, there were about ten irate Pooh victims ahead of them. One was especially agitated, and Ron dubbed him “the Instigator.” The Instigator angrily accused an E&T employee of setting up the Pooh scam. “Nah, if he worked for us, we would’ve cleaned out the whole lot,” laughed the Truck Guy.
Eventually, the give-and-take between the Instigator and the Truck Guy turned ugly–or, more precisely, uglier.
“The Instigator started talking out loud about how everyone should storm the gate, and they wouldn’t be able to get all of us, and some people would be able to get their cars,” Ron recounted. “The Truck Guy kept gazing off into the expanse of the parking lot. He said, ‘Isn’t there enough violence in the world, sir?’ It was kind of a world-weary tone.”
A police officer arrived and said someone named Flanagan had complained about the scam. “The cop’s like, ‘Aww, this happens every week. I was expecting to see a lot of people in Lions jerseys,'” said Tom. “The cop was joking with us–‘Oh, how did you guys fall for that routine?’ He didn’t care that we got scammed.”
I decided to investigate a bit the next day. Across from the parking lot at the Department of Human Services, building manager Robert Hill leaned back in his chair and opened his eyes very wide when I told him that Winnie-the-Pooh had been scamming Bears fans in his parking lot. “I was wondering where all that broken glass came from,” he mused. Hill was surprised and not particularly happy that neither the police nor the towing company had bothered to contact him. He would have told the towing company to stop towing, he said.
My next stop was the forbidding E&T pound. I pressed a button on the intercom and identified myself to the fuzzy voice that growled suspiciously from it. After a while, a man came out and looked at me through the fence. Eventually I realized he wasn’t coming out, and he wasn’t going to let me in. We spoke through the fence. I tried not to laugh.
His name was Mike Mairson. Asked for his title, he thought for a minute before identifying himself as an E&T manager. He insisted he’d never heard of the Pooh scam, or of any parking scams during Bears games. I asked whether it was company policy to notify parking lot owners in such situations. “We wouldn’t even have the owners’ phone numbers on the weekends,” he said. What about afterward, on Monday? He shrugged.
I wondered if it was company policy to continue towing cars after learning that the violators were victims of a scam. “We’re gonna remove unauthorized vehicles from the location,” Mairson replied flatly. He refused to divulge how many cars were towed. The DHS lot holds 50 cars, however, and was rapidly filling when Tom left his car. A full lot would have grossed $5,250 in tow fees.
Last call, the police. Officer Pat Camden, a Chicago Police Department spokesman, reported no complaints and “no paper trail” on Winnie-the-Pooh. He didn’t seem to believe that Tom and Ron had seen a policeman at the towing pound. Camden insisted scams don’t happen every week around Soldier Field, but said he’d notify the district.
“Community officers will talk to DHS before the next home game, and we’ll see if we can find Winnie-the-Pooh,” said Camden. “But if [the Bears] keep playing the way they are, the next home game, there might not be anyone going to the game.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.