Tow Truck King Lew Blum photographed by GENE SMIRNOV
PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE: One day, Lew Blum calls and says he wants me to ride along with Ray, his best tow-truck driver, to get a taste of what it’s like out there. This sounds like a capital idea to me — I’m picturing a scene out of Repo Man where we’re driving around all day snorting bathtub speed and blasting Black Flag while looking for aliens and rogue cars. Sadly, none of those things come to pass.
Bright and early one morning in late February, I show up at Lew Blum Towing HQ on North 40th in West Philly. When you walk in the front door to get your car back, you enter a dungeon-esque anteroom where the floor, walls and ceiling are all covered in reinforced steel diamond-plate. There’s a bulletproof service window that’s entirely blacked out except for a mail-slot-shaped peephole. It’s like walking into a secret society, or a snuff film. These structural impediments to direct human contact between the towee and the tower are intended to protect Blum’s employees from harm. Turns out, right or wrong — and nobody ever admits to being wrong — people get really, really mad when you take their cars and make them pay you $200 to get them back. There are often threats of violence, curses and imprecations. One time, a woman registered her extreme displeasure by urinating in the corner. Another time, an elderly man beat his cane to splinters swinging it like a baseball bat over and over against the blackened service window.
Two disembodied eyes appear in the peephole and want to know what I want. When I explain that I’m here to ride with Ray, the eyes tell me to wait a sec while he locks up two bluenose pit bulls, Marco and Princess. The door opens, and a young, dreadlocked man beckons me in. His name is Julian. He’s 27. He’s lived his whole life in West Philly. Before he started working for Lew Blum, he worked at the airport. “Believe me, this is 10 times better than working at the airport,” he says. The office is spartan in extremis, just the dingy light of a naked lightbulb illuminating an old chair crushed into submission by the dungaree-muffled thud of a million asses taking a load off and a matching desk that also looks ready to give up. Julian’s been monitoring the impending arrival of Bryce Harper. “He’s the LeBron James of baseball — no question about it,” Julian says, standing up and offering me the only chair in the room while we wait for Ray to show up for his shift.
Ray Sierra is, I think we can all agree, a perfect name for a Tow-Truck-Drivin’ Man. Ray is a sweet-natured, 50-something half Italian/half Puerto Rican guy who started out in retail before transitioning into towing when his knees started to go. He lives in Levittown — “Takes me an hour each way with traffic” he says — with his wife. Somehow, they’re putting two sons through Kutztown on a tow-truck-drivin’ man’s salary. Ray’s father was a Philly cop turned bounty hunter. Every week or so, a man would show up at the front door and drop off a yellow envelope filled with mugshots of bail-jumpers, and Dad would disappear for a few days or a few weeks. If you squint, you can almost see the Venn diagram where towing illegal parkers intersects with hunting fugitives from the law.
Ordinarily, Ray doesn’t go out until there’s a call from a lot owner to tow an illegal parker. When no calls materialize, we pile into a shiny cherry-red Ford 450 wrecker, load up on coffee at the nearest Dunkin’, and go looking for trouble. “At any given point in time, 80 percent of the cars in private lots are illegally parked,” Ray assures me. “It’s invisible to most people, but I drive around all day, I can see it.
“You see, nobody is afraid of getting towed because they know the cops don’t show up for hours, if at all,” he continues.
For the next four hours, we drive around looking for action. We hit a couple Rite Aids, the lot at Wing Phat off Washington, and the lot next to Aircon Filter near Edgar Allan Poe’s house — and alas, there’s no action to be found. To pass the time, I ask Ray to tell me some Tow-Truck-Drivin’ Man war stories. He doesn’t disappoint.
“We run into some hairy situations. People think that parking-lot enforcement is just a regular tow job,” he tells me. “We put our lives on the line. We run into some hairy situations. I mean hairy.”
He’s not kidding. One time, he cut a guy parked illegally in a Wells Fargo lot a break and lowered his car off the hook; the guy followed him for seven blocks before pulling up next to him near the Home Depot on Roosevelt, rolling down his window, pointing a 40mm at him, and pulling the trigger twice. Ray says one bullet went through the passenger-side door, through the seats, and nearly out the driver-side door, narrowly missing his legs. The second shot whizzed past the back of his head.
A couple months ago, at a different bank parking lot, a guy snuck up behind Ray, pulled his hood over his head, and put him in a headlock, all the while working the lever to lower his car. Ray throat-punched him, and they wrestled for a while until the cops showed up.
Then there was the time two summers ago that he was towing a black Toyota Camry “with very tinted windows” from a lot in the projects around 13th and Girard. “Five young men walk up to me — very young, like 15 to 18,” says Ray. “All five pull up their shirts to show me the 9mm [pistols] tucked into their waistband. They were like, ‘Let it go.’ I’m shaking my head: not gonna happen. And then two of them pull out their guns and smack back the chamber: ‘Don’t make us ask you again.’ We just stared at each other, and finally I just decided it wasn’t worth it.”
Plus, his wife would have killed him if he got shot. Unlike Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man, Ray doesn’t pack heat. “It would just escalate the situation,” he says. “Safety is priority one. If there’s two guns, one of them is going to go off sooner or later.” MORE