Pickup Artist

Lew Blum calls himself a civil servant for property owners. But he’s been called a few other things, too.

Pickup Artist

By Suzanne Sataline
November 12, 1995
Inquirer Sunday Magazine

THE HOSTAGE BEHIND BARS is a ’93 Ford Thunderbird with a sassy Carmen-esque red paint job. For the ransom of $90 Patricia Tannehill can drive away free – no ticket, no record, no Denver boot to stalk her down.

She proceeds to have a conniption fit on the sidewalk of 40th near Girard.

“Ninety dollars! They must have somebody working their way through town!” She is sputtering, practically spitting tobacco leaves every time she drags on her cigarette. The nurse technician from Southwest Philly had merely parked her luxury sedan that morning at University City Townhouse at 40th and Market and stepped into a nearby restaurant for a plate of eggs with a companion.

But Tannehill’s car did not have the requisite green residents’ sticker. When she returned an hour later, the T-bird had flown. Her only clue as to its whereabouts hung high above the lot. Lew Blum, the guy with the Hook-a-saurus, had her car!

She is pacing the sidewalk, in sticker shock.

“They charge more than a ticket!” Tannehill spouts. “This is nothing but a big ripoff, a hole in the wall! Who can I call? The police?”

She cocks her hip, and stands her ground on the chipped sidewalk outside Blum’s place. She is pouting now, and the rain drips from the rolled edges of her black crocheted hat. She gets wetter.

Of course she pays.

They all do. That is one of the facts of getting your car towed: Whether you scream or whether you don’t, it costs the same.

IN THE CATALOG OF THE detested, certain professions rise to the top. Politicians. Reporters.

Tow-truck drivers.

Sure they are loved when needed: when the clutch goes bad, the brakes fail in the rain, after the 11-car pileup on the westbound side of the Walt Whitman. These situations provide the bulk of Lew Blum’s business – up to 18 cars a day during the worst of the winter in 1994.

Every other time, a tow is an affront, a plight to the people who ditch the Chevy at the Rite-Aid and catch the el to work, or park overnight at the lot next door and believe no one will ever find out.

Actually, Lew says, it’s these people who are the violators. They are law-breakers, bums, scammers and thieves, those who pay no heed to the signs as big as a large-screen TV and steal free parking from hard-working merchants. The people who make the city hell for those who park by the rules.

All he does, Lew will tell you, is give back plots of asphalt to the folks who own them. At $90 a pop. Cash.

This might happen four times a day. But these tows invite the worst headaches and produce the most invective from suited-businessmen and Delaware Avenue party girls, all who yearn to know: Has this man no heart?

“Even the cops think I’m a shyster!” Lew offers.

So we ask:

Lew, are you a shyster?


Are you a rip-off artist?

“They think I am,” he says contritely.

Well then, what are you?

“I’m a hard-working, honest businessman,” he says, no trace of doubt in his voice. “I give a service. I perform a duty. I’m like a vigilante for property owners.”

The strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” should be playing . . .

“If there’s anybody they should holler at it’s the people who own the property. I’m just doing as I was told. I enforce the rights! I’m an enforcer!”

Lew Blum as Clint Eastwood?

Yeah, chuckles Lew, who is similarly armed, “Go ahead — make my day.”

In his quest to rid the world of the illegally parked, he has become one of the mechanisms that make the city work, a corollary in the urban theorem that 20th-century vehicles on 18th-century streets with 8th-century manners means you have now entered the towing zone.

Tow trucks were used at the turn of the century, to remove stalled trollies and, later, broken buses. Then they became a way to move cars out of traffic, or to haul a vehicle from the fire lane.

Part of the duty of towing companies, said Anthony Tomazinis, director of the transportation planning studies laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, is “the correcting of human aberrations” – ones that city fathers never imagined.

The smart people in this town park at meters and garages. The others take chances. So when Lew’s people come to haul your Honda away, remember:

If you don’t want trouble, if you want to stay off Lew’s closed-circuit camera, if you want to keep Gina and Gino, the Rottweiler twins, from breaking your eardrums, just keep your mouth shut and hand over the money like the nice man asks.

IN PHILADELPHIA THERE ARE three big names in towing. Actually two – George Smith and Lew Blum, uncle and nephew, respectively. There’s the Main Line Hooker, but he doesn’t belong here, Lew says dismissively.

People know Lew, or, at least his name. It’s everywhere, over vacant lots and apartment buildings, fast food joints and judges’ spots. Everyone thinks he’s been around for a hundred years.

So when you meet Lew Blum there are a few things that shock you.

He is not fat. He does not smoke a cigar. (He prefers Newports.) He is not 100 years old.

Despite that nighttime growl on the phone (a hoarseness he perfects watching Eagles games), he is quite enthusiastic and charming. He is a trim, single, 40-year-old with sparkly eyes, a devilish mustache, a dashing dark European face attributed to his half-Greek, half-Jewish lineage. Lew Blum is a towing babe.

But it’s his name, not his face, that everyone knows.

He’s done everything to get it out there. All his employees wear Lew Blum T-shirts, and he gives out red satiny Lew Blum novelty jackets. A few years ago he went so far as to co-opt a Connecticut company’s logo of a dinosaur towing away a car. Hook-a-saurus was born, and Lew Blum became bigger than ever.

“Somebody said it somewhere,” he says, his voice rumbling from the fights and cigarettes, “whether it be good or bad publicity, they still got to know who you are.”

Most people don’t know that he is a third-generation tower. His grandfather, Lew Smith, owned a garage, and little Lew, who grew up on North 38th Street, hung around all the time. At 8, Lew learned to retread tires. When his grandfather started towing with a used truck, Lew would ride around with him, careful to position the J-bar correctly. Before long, it was all Lew wanted to do.

As a teenager Lew worked for his uncle, George Smith, until they had a falling out. At 16, Lew left the family business, worked for a variety of garages, and towed using an old truck with a homemade boom. But he got frustrated doing all the work and sharing part of the money. In 1977, he pleaded with Penrose Dodge to give him a chance. For $500 down, they sold Lew a $22,000 truck. On Jan. 1, 1978, he established Lew Blum Towing Co.

He never hesitated to call the business anything else. But he knows there’s a price to pay for all that fame.

“It’s Lew Blum Towing Co. they don’t like,” he explains. “I thought, what if the name was Auto Tow. Then when they’d meet me they’d say, ‘Ah, Lew Blum. I just met him! What a guy!’ ”

But that’s not how it is. Tonight the hothead with the ’78 black Monte Carlo might use other choice adjectives to describe Lew.

Hothead parked his car, the one with the fuzzy dashboard turtle toy, on the 200 block of Race and dashed inside an apartment. He comes back, no car. The guy spews at Lew over the phone, claiming he was just in there a minute. Then he claims he never left the car.

An hour earlier, a kid in an American sedan started a beef, shouting, “Lew Blum don’t know who he’s messing with.”

Everybody, Lew says, is a gangster.

“Is it their stupidity? Their ignorance?” He lurches forward in the cordovan chair. “And then they get mad at Lew Blum for towing their car. Now he doesn’t like Lew Blum.”

And he laughs, a hollow cough.

“I just inherited an enemy. Now the guy in the Buick is going to get me. Now the guy in the Chevy hates me.” He looks down at his blotter. “Anybody else hate me?”

It’s a slow night. Nope, tonight’s enemy list is short.

Lew likes to say he comforts the public. If this is true, his methods are a bit disconcerting.

He has created a fortress out of his cramped office with the filthy mustard walls and shelves dotted with dusty books such as The Bible as History. A 1994 calendar hangs on the closet door.

In the vestibule, the door to the office is locked and stamped with footprints from the disconcerted. Closed-circuit TV cameras record activity at the front door, vestibule, garage door and interior garage areas. A car owner is instructed to wait in the vestibule until he surrenders his driver’s license, keys and cash through a slot in the locked door. Then he must wait until an employee drives the car into a gated area that can be accessed only when Lew electronically opens the garage door. Motion detectors signal when anyone steps up to the doorway or lurks in the garage.

And there’s Gino and Gina, the Rottweilers that run in perpetual circles. One once tore into the arm of an insurance adjuster who entered where he wasn’t supposed to.

Watch where you sit. There on the cordovan leather desk chair rests a .22- caliber Smith & Wesson.

The whole place is designed for minimal contact with the public. If they see you, Lew knows, they’ll fight with you.

The phone rings. A party girl from the Silk City lounge wants to know if Lew has her white T-bird. Yep, Lew replies.

Expletives sear the phone wires. Lew hangs up.

Yep, Lew, someone else hates you.

EILEEN IS ON THE PHONE. Today, Eileen is always on the phone. Eileen is calling again because she cannot believe she has to pay for storage after her crumpled Toyota (suffering death by motorcycle) was towed away.

That’s $200, please.

“This lady,” Lisa Riddick decides, “has got a problem with barometric pressure.”

Riddick is one of the reasons Lew has invested in the cameras, the dogs, the reconfigured office. She is the manager, the tough guy, and Lew’s best friend. When she started five years ago, Lisa would get bugged when folks called threatening to kill her. Then there was the guy who kicked down the door.

Almost every week she told Lew she was out of there.

So he gave her a raise.

That was a half-dozen raises ago. Now she has a house, a new car, a nice life. And she’s only 25. She has endured, this woman with the narrow eyes and strong, angular face, a female Wesley Snipes. When they call her a witch (or worse), she calmly agrees.

And asks for $90.

She straightens out Eileen and her mom in less than an hour. It’s square now. They will pay. Lisa smiles. She talks to Eileen’s mom like she’s an adolescent.

“It’s kind of like a learning experience for you,” she instructs. “If it was me I would have said ‘why is the tow so much?”‘

WHEN PEOPLE HEAR THAT $90 figure, they assume Lew is a billionaire. (He boasts he could sell the business for $1 million.)

But there’s all this stuff people don’t consider.

Lew only earns when he tows. He has two notebooks of letters, contracts with private lot owners (like Rite Aid, Boston Market, Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.) that allow him to police their lots and haul away illegal parkers. Lew gets no contract fee.

So he can never rely on his weekly take. During the winter of ’94, the really bad one, they towed 12 illegals a day, at $90 apiece. They had 18 to 20 breakdowns, at $40 and up. As fall began this year, things were dreary slow. An entire day could yield only three illegals and six breakdowns. And that doesn’t count the three people a night who called and left before Lew’s trucks arrived.

If you think your insurance is bad on your ’89 Probe, consider that it costs him $6,500 to insure one tow truck a year. (He has five.)

Towing itself has gotten harder. Back when cars had metal bumpers, Grandfather Lew could throw chains across the front of a Monte Carlo and tug the thing away with a J-bar. Now, with front features like plastic splashes and valances, Lew Blum’s driver uses a hydraulic lift to scoop up cars to avoid damage.

The lawsuits are numerous. One ornery BMW owner can produce months of drudgery in small claims court with a $350 judgment in the end.

There’s extortion. The city. The cops. Everyone wants a piece.

Lot owners try to get kickbacks for each car towed. (Lew tells them to use another tower.)

The Parking Authority posts tiny signs that nobody can see and gets enough tows to make Lew look like a piker.

When cops get the hook, almost all want a break. They flip their badge, and Lew weighs the consequences of retaliation – and sometimes feels pressure to let it slide.

He keeps those receipts in a bottom drawer, what he now calls the “threat file.” He peels them off one at a time.

“Narcotic cop. Eighth District. Twelfth District. . . . Here’s a captain from Major Crimes. First District. A cop in the 23d.” The stack is four inches thick – tows that could’ve brought him $5,000. Enough to pay salaries, or a couple of months of mortgage. He gets madder the more he works through it.

It’s not that it never happened to him. He’s been towed before. By his uncle, the other Philadelphia towing giant: George Smith.

It was a few years back. One of his trucks even. George offered to cut the price, but Lew said he would pay either all or nothing. He paid in full.

IT’S MOVIE NIGHT AT LEW Blum Towing. Let’s see what’s playing.

The videos are from Lew’s private collection, a medley of live-action shorts recorded off the closed-circuit camera. Lew films whenever he thinks there’s going to be a problem. Call this cinema vitriol.

The staff has some all-time favorites (now since erased):

The Guy Who Pissed On-Camera.

The Guy Who Wagged His Penis.

The Guy Who Threatened to Vomit.

The projectionist, Lew himself, loads a tape into the VCR. The images on the 13-inch jump and warble like bad singing. The first feature pops into view.

It stars a couple of Jersey girls with serious hair. They are shapely things. You can see this from the rather indirect camera angle that beams down into the vestibule, catching their parted tresses and shapely calves. The image is black and white, but you can imagine sequins and gold lycra on these indignant young things.

Next to the girls lurks this hulking body, which turns out to the bouncer from a Delaware Avenue club. One of the blondes is screaming her bloody head off, Lew says, at a door. Except you can’t hear the words because the static is so bad. She sounds like the teacher in those Charlie Brown cartoons: Wah wah wa, wa waaaa.

Lew tries another.

This reel features a beefy guy, T-shirt, sweat shorts, hair buzzed to the height of a golf fairway. Your inclination is to fix him up with one of the Jersey girls.

He catches sight of the camera spying on him. This is a man who has just taken a cab ride into a Godforsaken corner of Philadelphia and relinquished 90 bucks so he can be temporarily imprisoned between a door and a metal gate while he waits to reclaim his personal belonging. There is no one to talk to. And he feels the need to express himself.

“You’re a . . . .” Not surprisingly, his words are short on syllables, long on color. He offers to kick Lew where it might do some good.

And then he hurls a wad of spit at the camera.

Did you see, did you see?, Lew implores. Did you see what I have to put up with?