Houses of God Turn to the Book of Bankruptcy

In Hard Times, Houses of God Turn To Chapter 11

By Suzanne Sataline
December 23, 2008

EASTON, Md. — The auctioneer told the small crowd huddled outside the Talbot County Courthouse that the property would be sold “as is” — rectory, bell tower, oak pews and rose-tinted stained glass windows included.

“Who gives $700,000, 700, 700?” he called out. One man, a representative for a local bank, raised his finger. The auctioneer tried in vain to nudge the price up. “Sold!” he cried. St. Andrew Anglican Church had just been bought by the bank that had started foreclosure proceedings against it.

“It’s probably good for my soul to be taken down a notch,” said the Right Rev. Joel Marcus Johnson, the rector of St. Andrew, after the auction.

During this holiday season of hard times, not even houses of God have been spared. Some lenders believe more churches than ever have fallen behind on loans or defaulted this year. Some churches, and at least one company that specialized in church lending, have filed for bankruptcy. Church giving is down as much as 15% in some places, pastors and lenders report.

The financial problems are crimping a church building boom that began in the 1990s, when megachurches multiplied, turning many houses of worship into suburban social centers complete with bookstores, gyms and coffee bars. Lenders say mortgage applications are down, while some commercial lenders no longer see churches as a safe investment.

“We are seeing more stress in churches than we have in modern history,” says Mark G. Holbrook, president and chief executive of the Evangelical Christian Credit Union of Brea, Calif., which specializes in lending to churches. The credit union has moved to foreclose on seven of its 2,000 member churches this year, and Mr. Holbrook says he expects to take similar action against two more next year. Before now, it had foreclosed on only two churches in its 45-year history.

Church Mortgage &Loan Corp. of Maitland, Fla., another church lender, foreclosed on 10 church properties in the past couple of years. Unable to sell any of them, the company didn’t have the funds to pay more than 400 bondholders the estimated $18 million it owes, says company lawyer Elizabeth Green. Church Mortgage filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.

Strongtower Financial of Fresno, Calif., says two of its 300 evangelical church borrowers are in default, compared with only one in the previous 15 years.

Dozens more churches are listed as delinquent on their loans, according to a search of county court records nationwide.

Churches were long considered good credit risks, lenders say. Weekly collections tend to be steady, even during recessions, and churches feel a moral tug to pay debts. Most of the nation’s 335,000 churches carry little or no mortgage debt, and are based in buildings that were paid off long ago.

But some churches, especially those not affiliated with major denominations, borrowed briskly to build or expand in recent years. Spending on construction of houses of worship rose to $6.2 billion in 2007 from $3.8 billion in 1997, according to the U.S. Census. Now, churches are seeing congregants lose jobs and savings.

The 125-year-old Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, of Jacksonville, Fla., borrowed about $2.6 million in 2002 to add a new education wing, reflecting pool and tower. In addition, the church’s 1,200 members pledged $1 million to the building campaign, but two-thirds of that money was never actually donated, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. John Allen Newman.

A quarter of the congregants soon stopped attending church, says Mr. Newman, so weekly collections started to dwindle. He and the church leaders cut staff and electricity use to save costs, but in January, facing a foreclosure judgment of $3.3 million, the church filed for bankruptcy protection. Mr. Newman says the church hopes to settle its debts and emerge from bankruptcy proceedings in the coming months.

“There have been too many churches with a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude,” says N. Michael Tangen, executive vice president at American Investors Group Inc., a church lender in Minnetonka, Minn. “They had glory in their eyes that wasn’t backed up with adequate business plans and cash flow.”

St. Andrew, the recently auctioned Maryland church, opened 17 years ago in a former sporting-goods store in downtown Easton. The town of historic colonial mansions and sprawling farms was once home to Frederick Douglass. More recently, the town has become a retreat for Washington’s elite.

The rector of St. Andrew, Bishop Johnson, attracted like-minded conservatives who disliked Episcopal innovations, such as ordaining female priests. In 2005, the church borrowed $850,000 to buy a much larger space that had once belonged to a Roman Catholic parish.

The 1868 Gothic revival structure was large for Bishop Johnson’s congregation of 50 people. But the gregarious Midwesterner, who once raised money for a ballet troupe and orchestra, said he was confident his ministry and donations would grow. “I’m well liked, I’m a lucky man,” he says he felt at the time. He wooed real-estate agents, bankers and well-heeled locals — some of whom didn’t even attend the church — and received pledges worth $200,000.

Some donors said they were impressed with the bishop’s generous food pantry and help given to local Hispanics. For a time, Bishop Johnson said Mass in Spanish on Friday nights for workers at a crabmeat processor, and the parish also offered English classes.

“He served a part of this community that often times does not get served well,” says Lee Denny, president of the local General Motors dealership. Mr. Denny, an elder in Easton’s Presbyterian Church, donated $10,000.

But expenses mounted. There were mice in the basement and bats in the belfry. It cost about $45,000 to stanch creeping black mold. Once the local Catholic parish began saying Mass in Spanish, it drew off most of St. Andrew’s immigrant members. Weekly donations dropped to about $600 from $1,425 three years ago, says Bishop Johnson. And many of those who had pledged $200,000 toward the mortgage payments told the bishop they needed to delay their gifts, saying their stock portfolios were down.

Last February, the church couldn’t meet its monthly interest payments. The lender, Talbot Bank, a unit of Shore Bancshares Inc., foreclosed in August, seeking $950,000, including principal and unpaid interest. It was one of five properties Talbot foreclosed on in two years, but the only church, says W. David Morse, a vice president at the bank.

At the auction’s end, Bishop Johnson shook hands with Mr. Morse. “These people are not Wall Street bandits, for crying out loud,” the bishop said of his bankers. St. Andrew’s congregants will likely stay in the building for several more weeks while the bank seeks a buyer.

The transaction gave James C. Andrew, the auctioneer, some pause. He was married in the building in 1997 when it was a Catholic church and his two children had been baptized there. “I’ll probably wind up with coal in my stocking for Christmas,” he said.

Health Claims Boost Supplement Firm


True Believers

Health Claims by Sales Force Boost Supplement Firm

By Suzanne Sataline
May 11, 2007

When doctors found a tumor in Angie McHenry’s bowel in the spring of 2006, they told her that her cervical cancer had become terminal. But her uncle, Stephan Huffman, gave her some hope.

Mr. Huffman, a retired high-school teacher, is a sales associate for Mannatech Inc., a publicly traded company that markets vitamins and nutritional supplements. He and his wife persuaded Ms. McHenry to swallow, each day, 32 Mannatech tablets and six scoopfuls of the company’s Ambrotose, a derivative of aloe vera and larch-tree bark.

“He said it would knock the cancer away,” recalled Ms. McHenry, a Coldwater, Ohio, mother of three, in an interview last month. “I would go into full remission. He said he had seen proof in other people.”

Mannatech, based in Coppell, Texas, relies on an army of enthusiastic consumers of its nutritional supplements to sell the products to family, friends and others. These sellers are unsalaried, but receive commissions and bonuses from the company, based in part on their recruitment of other sellers. Some of them make sweeping claims about the power of Mannatech products to provide relief from serious diseases.

In the eight years since Mannatech went public, several questions have loomed large for company executives and board members: Are nonemployee salespeople pushing its products in ways that violate Food and Drug Administration guidelines? And how far should Mannatech go in policing its free-lance sales force?

About half of Mannatech’s supplements, the company says, contain nutritional sugars it calls “glyconutrients.” The body needs simple sugars, but some scientists say there is no proof that sugar supplements provide health benefits. Mannatech say its glyconutrient mixture, called Ambrotose, “supports the immune system.” Because none of the products are approved by the FDA for the treatment of disease, it isn’t legal for anyone to market them as such.

Mr. Huffman, who sold $1,200 of Mannatech products to Ms. McHenry, says he doesn’t recall telling her they would “knock her cancer away.” He adds, though, that “in many instances,” Ambrotose “encapsulates the cancer.”

Ms. McHenry consumed the tablets and powder for two weeks last year, she said, until nausea made them difficult to swallow and her oncologist persuaded her to quit. Mr. Huffman says he returned her $1,200 to alleviate hard feelings. Ms. McHenry died on April 20.

“Nobody is claiming these products by themselves are providing a treatment for disease,” says Mannatech Chairman and Chief Executive Sam Caster, one of the company’s founders.

Mr. Caster identifies himself as a Christian, and some customers are drawn to the company for that reason. He and his wife, Linda, refer to Mannatech as a blessing, and say God spoke through her to give him the idea for the company. Many top salespeople share their religious beliefs. Marshall Howard, a salesman who says he’s a Christian, recently told hundreds of associates at a gathering that they were “chosen” people in the “glorious mission of Mannatech to change hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Such fervor is visible when Mannatech devotees, many of them nonsalaried sales associates, gather for an annual company-sponsored event called MannaFest. At this year’s gathering, a four-day affair held in Dallas in March, at least 10 people came on stage one night to testify that after taking Mannatech products, they recovered or found relief from conditions ranging from paralysis to tumors to lesions. Another 25 people said they took glyconutrients and found relief from afflictions such as leukemia, arthritis, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome and cancer.

Mr. Caster says the consumer testimonials are perfectly legal because none use the words “cure,” “treat” or “mitigate” in referring to diseases. Mannatech product labels, which are reviewed by the FDA, state that the products are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

Mr. Caster says that message is repeated frequently during conference calls with associates. He says he and the company abide by all laws, and train associates to do the same.

Nevertheless, scrutiny of the company’s marketing has been increasing. The Federal Trade Commission has logged at least 30 complaints about Mannatech since 1998 alleging deception, making false health claims, and improper sales practices. The FTC has brought no action.

After reports about the company’s sales tactics caused its stock to drop in 2005, shareholders filed lawsuits in state and federal courts. Several have been consolidated as a federal class-action in Dallas federal court. It alleges that executives knew about and ignored improper health claims by employees and salespeople, and that Mr. Caster overruled recommendations by the company’s regulatory-compliance committee to discipline big sellers who made such claims.

Mr. Caster says the company has fined some associates as much as $25,000, and has terminated some for making improper claims. “Does something like this ever get away from us?” he says. “Well, of course. Those are the types of things that we’re out there looking for, and that we’ll catch.” He says the company intends to vigorously defend itself in the litigation.

The Texas attorney general’s office indicated in a memo last October that it had been investigating Mannatech for possible health-law violations since 2005. The memo, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, said the state “anticipated filing suit against” Mannatech for alleged violations, including “unproven health claims.” To date, the attorney general has taken no action. A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment.

Mannatech’s vitamins, powders and capsules aren’t sold in any stores. The company sells them over the Internet, and through a large sales force of free-lancers. It has no salaried sales force. Companies whose salespeople are independent, and are paid based on their own sales and those of other sellers they directly and indirectly recruit, are known as “multilevel marketers.”

Mannatech has more than 100,000 active sales associates, arrayed in a hierarchy. Mannatech pays commissions to associates based on the purchases of the associates they recruit and others down the line from them. To be eligible for financial bonuses, an associate must buy $100 in Mannatech products each month. Top Mannatech associates have earned as much as $1.6 million a year, according to compensation information shared with associates at MannaFest.

Books, home and beauty products, and cleaning materials have long been peddled in this fashion. These days, so are many nutritional supplements. Multilevel marketers accounted for $4.4 billion of $22 billion in sales of dietary supplements in 2006, says Grant Ferrier, editor of Nutrition Business Journal.

Mr. Caster helped start Mannatech in 1993. Months later, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Under that law, makers of dietary supplements aren’t currently required to document that their products are safe or effective. But it bars them from claiming, without FDA approval, that any product can treat, cure or prevent illness.

Mannatech went public in 1999, and sales have grown steadily. Last year, Mannatech earned $32.4 million on sales of $410 million, compared with $1.9 million earned in 2002, on sales of $141 million.

Early on, Mr. Caster and his wife turned to friends and prayer partners to sell products and recruit other salespeople, according to Ms. Caster’s self-published book, “Undeniable Destiny.” Steven Barker, a professor of veterinary medicine at Louisiana State University who served as a Mannatech director from 1998 to 2002, said the board was concerned about religious influence on marketing.

“People would become overzealous and start making claims that this was manna and it had miraculous properties, that it was God’s gift,” says Mr. Barker. “Sam is a very religious individual, and he would listen to people making claims they thought were miraculous….The board wanted him to tone it down. They didn’t want it to become a revival, some kind of ultrareligious event.”

Roger E. Beutner, a retired engineer who served on the board until 2003, says “exaggerated” claims about product benefits made some directors uncomfortable.

Co-founder Charles “Skip” Fioretti, then chairman and chief executive of Mannatech, worried that the FDA could take action on unproven claims, says Mr. Barker. In addition, there was tension between Messrs. Caster and Fioretti over business issues. In 2000, the board removed Mr. Caster as president after what he says was a clash of values with Mr. Fioretti. Mr.

Caster became co-chairman, but quit weeks later. Mr. Fioretti did not return calls seeking comment.

Mr. Caster’s supporters were upset, according to Mr. Barker, and Mr. Caster returned as a director within weeks. Mr. Caster says he made it clear that he and his wife intended to talk about their faith when speaking about the company. Eventually, more of his supporters joined the board, and by 2002, Mr. Fioretti had left. Mr. Caster became chairman, and later, chief executive.

These days, God and the Bible are mentioned frequently by some sales associates during meetings and conference calls. At this year’s MannaFest, one associate led a training workshop called “Leadership Lessons from Moses,” which used quotes from Exodus. At “Leadership Skills from a Biblical Perspective,” associate Dottie Anderson described “Jesus as the first network marketer.”

To sell the products, many associates rely on testimonials and case histories. At Mannatech conferences, H. Reginald McDaniel, a Dallas-area pathologist and the company’s former medical director, sells various reports containing case histories. He says he has chronicled hundreds of cases of patients with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, allergies, and cystic fibrosis whose health improved, and some whose symptoms disappeared, after taking glyconutrients. “I’d be derelict if I implied everyone with an improved diet gets a turnaround in health, yet a significant number do,” he says.

During the “testimonials” program at this year’s MannaFest, a mother showed slides of her two sons in hospital beds. After taking glyconutrients, she said, they are now free of brain seizures. A young man walked to the microphone and told the crowd that he had been paralyzed from a car crash before taking Ambrotose.

Jordan Scott, a wan 13-year-old from Lubbock, Texas, said that when she was a toddler, cystic fibrosis frequently left her choking on mucus and battling lung infections. She began taking glyconutrients, she said, and she can now play the oboe, and she placed third at a cross-country meet. “A doctor said I have the lungs of a healthy child,” she said, sobbing and thanking God, as the audience applauded.

Mr. Caster says Mannatech products are “not a cure for cystic fibrosis….I think dietary supplements can improve the quality of life.”

“I have never, ever said” that testimonials “should substitute for science,” Mr. Caster says. Health benefits reported by users, he says, help “guide us in our research.” Mannatech says it is conducting studies on the benefits of using its products.

Some researchers says they doubt that Ambrotose offers any health benefits. Hudson Freeze, who studies complex carbohydrates as a professor of glycobiology at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Calif., contends the body can’t digest Ambrotose because humans lack the enzymes necessary to break down the plant fibers it contains into simple sugars.

Mannatech has said it has completed a study that shows the body can break down glyconutrients, and that it is slated for publication in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The journal’s managing editor, Barbara Nell Perrin, says it will publish an abstract of the study that will not be peer-reviewed.

Mannatech associates often post messages on Web sites, including the MannaShare forum on, seeking tips on selling Mannatech products to people with specific afflictions, including cocaine addiction, hemophilia and Down syndrome.

“If anyone anywhere has any information — studies, testimonies, anything — on glyconutrients and esophageal cancer — PLEASE e-mail it to me,” Mannatech associate Joan Francis, of Batavia, N.Y., wrote in January on one forum, after her father had been diagnosed with the disease.

After posting the message, Ms. Francis says, she consulted with several doctors who recommended amounts of Mannatech glyconutrients to take. Dr. McDaniel, the company’s former medical director, was one of them, she says. Ultimately, she persuaded her father to forgo chemotherapy and take Mannatech supplements.

Her father, George Schaefer Jr., says he was skeptical, but agreed to try. He bought about $700 worth of supplements over two months. Recently, on the advice of his son, he stopped taking the products and switched to chemotherapy, Ms. Francis says.

Betty Wiggins, a Durand, Mich., grandmother who identifies herself as a nurse, says she has advised more than 3,000 people over the past five years to take Ambrotose for everything from vomiting to cancer. For lung

cancer, for example, she says she recommends 100 grams of Ambrotose per day. “I don’t have anyone who hasn’t fully recovered from any illness,” she says. “You aren’t supposed to say someone is healed, for some reason.”

The Texas Department of Health Services periodically reviews Mannatech’s product labels and promotional materials, among other things. Cynthia Culmo, a former director who oversaw Mannatech inspections, says that recommending Ambrotose to treat a disease, or specifying dosage amounts beyond the guidance given on the label, are “likely” violations of federal law.

Mr. Caster says he did not know about Web sites that suggest dosage amounts.

For the desperately ill, the Web sites can be seductive. Jackie Wells, a nurse in New Mexico, was diagnosed last year with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative nerve disease that killed Lou Gehrig. A Web site suggested treatment with glyconutrients, and she consumed $130 of Ambrotose over six months. She has lost use of her arms and now relies on her husband to feed her and brush her hair. “I felt like somebody had taken advantage of me,” she says.

After Jeffrey Cook of Sleepy Eye, Minn., was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, two local Mannatech associates gave him a DVD containing testimonials, recalls his wife, Jane. “The video showed a guy with the same type of cancer,” says Ms. Cook, a licensed nurse. “It had healed him, basically.”

The associates, Melissa and Pat Schroepfer, sold Mr. Cook $1,000 worth of glyconutrient products, says Ms. Cook. Mr. Cook died last October, a month later. The Schroepfers reimbursed her the money. Melissa Schroepfer declined to comment, and Pat Schroepfer, her father, didn’t return calls.

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?