Credit: Jamie Ramsay

On my way home from work one night in the summer of 2007, I parked in the lot of a shuttered Pizza Hut while I grabbed a burrito from La Pasadita. I’d made it about three steps out of the parking lot when I realized I didn’t have my wallet, so I turned around and headed back to my car. The apprehension I felt at seeing a man standing next to it in the dark turned into a different kind of dread as he explained that there was a boot on my car, it would cost $75 to get it off, and he would be recording our conversation.

He pointed to a sign across the lot warning against unauthorized vehicles; I pointed out that it wasn’t visible in the dark and I was parked in front of a different sign, which said the lot was for Pizza Hut customers only (and, I added, the fast-food joint was gone). We went back and forth for quite a while, until he finally said he’d give me a break and take the boot off my car without charging me. (I suspect it was really because he thought I would be a pain in the ass in court, but I didn’t care too much what the reason was.)

Whether they’re booting or towing cars, the companies that are contracted to monitor private lots have been causing headaches and sometimes bodily injury to Chicagoans for more than 50 years. A 2011 study by the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America named Chicago the worst city and Illinois the worst state in the U.S. for aggressive towing practices, but the issues predate that study by decades. Mike Royko began writing about now-notorious Lincoln Towing in the 1960s, and in 1988 recalled “thrilling stories of car owners being knifed, beaten with tire irons, stomped, mauled and otherwise chastised when they objected to their cars being seized” in a piece for the Tribune. In 1972—a year after the company was ordered to pay $27,500 in damages to a man whose face was allegedly slashed by employees when he tried to retrieve his car without paying the fee—folk singer Steve Goodman immortalized them in the song “Lincoln Park Pirates.” Part of the chorus goes: “It’s way, hey, tow ’em away / We plunder the streets of your town / Be it Edsel or Chevy, there’s no car too heavy / And no one can make us shut down.”

All these years later, it still appears that no one can make them shut down. The Illinois Commerce Commission began investigating whether to revoke Lincoln Towing’s license nearly two years ago but has yet to make a decision. And it’s just the most recognized name. Last year the ICC also began an investigation of Bridgeport-based Rendered Services, which has been accused of moving cars to illegal parking spots in order to tow them (the company, like Lincoln Towing, has a one-star Yelp rating). A few months later the City Council approved a “towing bill of rights” that requires, among other things, that “relocators” photograph illegally parked vehicles and record video and audio of the tow, to be provided to vehicle owners on request. It hasn’t stopped the complaints, though: according to data provided to DNAinfo Chicago by the ICC, in the first nine months of this year drivers lodged about 200 complaints against Lincoln Towing, most of them alleging illegal tows. As Goodman’s song goes, “The Lincoln Park Pirates are we . . . and we always collect our fee.”   v