It Ain’t Easy Being a Tow Truck Driver in Vancouver
The city's most hated take us for a ride.
January 20, 2017
It’s 7 a.m. and the crows overhead are still flying to their day jobs, but Derek Brown, 58, is already on the clock, navigating his bulky white Busters tow truck through the streets of Vancouver. “It’s an interesting business; it certainly keeps me on my toes,” he says candidly. “I’ve had people spit in my face, push me, you know, things like that. I can take care of myself, but who wants to come to work and have people try and attack you?”
He’s a solid man, with boyish good looks, a heavy brow and forearms like Christmas hams. “A guy came at me one time with a tire iron,” says Brown. “He didn’t hit me with it because I told him, ‘You might hit me once, but the next half-dozen hits will be on you, good buddy. You might hurt me a little bit, but I’m going to hurt you more.’” After 25 years of towing for Busters, Brown has seen his fair share of grisly fatal accidents and once discovered a dead body in a vehicle—the result of a gangland hit. “I’ve encountered almost everything you can imagine in towing. It sticks with you quite a bit.”
As he cruises along Broadway for the morning rush, Brown acknowledges his fellow tow truck drivers with a wave of his thick hand as they trawl up and down the street like giant white sharks. “Certain streets through the city are designated as rush routes. Between 7 and 9:30 a.m. we tow all the illegally parked cars to keep the traffic moving—otherwise you’d have gridlock,” he explains. “It’s bad enough as it is, because they’ve changed a lot of the streets to accommodate bike routes; it’s really starting to slow down the movement of traffic.”
Much like Drake and Unitow, Busters offers private towing and roadside assistance, but since 1999, they’ve also held the City of Vancouver contract to provide tow services for emergency and roadwork crews, event preparation for marathons and fireworks and, of course, the removal of vehicles that are guilty of bylaw infringement. As soon as a parking enforcement officer has electronically issued an order to tow, Busters dispatch is alerted, and a driver is immediately notified.
The two-way radio crackles to life with the coordinates for the next job and Brown swings his truck over to the 1000 block of West 12th. “There has to be a ticket,” he says. “I’m not just driving around picking up cars. If that was the case, I’d be a millionaire.” As he reverses toward an illegally parked Acura, Brown simultaneously lowers the hydraulic arm on the rear of his truck, which glides under the vehicle and lifts the front wheels off the ground. Jumping out of the cab, Brown smoothly performs his daily routine of hooking chains to the chassis and attaching magnetized brake lights to the roof of the vehicle.
“I don’t get too excited if someone starts yelling while I’m loading their car,” says Brown as he ratchets down one of the wheels. “I’ll say, ‘Listen, this is just the way it is. I didn’t put the ticket on your car and I didn’t park your car here. I’m just doing the job that I’ve been asked to do.’” A quick glance reveals that the parking brake is on, so Brown grabs two large plastic wedges and forcibly shoves them into the jamb, opening the door just a crack. He then inserts a flexible strip of plastic attached to a string, which he manipulates around the push-button lock, pulls tight and lifts up, unlocking the door. The ear-splitting wail of the Acura’s car alarm fills the morning air as Brown releases the parking brake, jumps back in his truck and drives away.
“They perform a service that people often don’t want—unless it’s their driveway being blocked or they’re the ones stuck in traffic on a Friday afternoon.”
From her office at city hall, Vancouver’s director of streets, Taryn Scollard, empathizes with the Busters tow truck drivers. “They’re unfortunately disliked, usually for all the wrong reasons,” she explains. “They perform a service that people often don’t want—unless it’s their driveway being blocked or they’re the ones stuck in traffic on a Friday afternoon.”
The city regulates parking by implementing myriad rules and regulations, and motorists who don’t fall in line are liable to be slapped with a fine. In 2015 alone, the City of Vancouver issued almost 383,000 tickets, generating $16.7 million in revenue. But Scollard refutes the public perception that ticketing vehicles is a cash grab. “We make way more money from parking meters than we do from people paying their parking tickets,” says Scollard, who explains that last year, Vancouver’s 10,000 parking meters collected more than $49 million. “The obvious thing is to jump to the revenue it generates, but it actually only represents about one percent of the city’s total income.”
Of the vehicles issued with a ticket and an authorization to tow, more than 60 percent end up in the Busters impound lot, which is a necessary evil, says Scollard. “The majority of our tows are from rush-hour zones, and as much as we often curse a tow truck driver or cars being towed, if we didn’t clear the street blockages, it’d be even more frustrating for all those people stuck in traffic.”
Eliot Scott is the personification of frustration as he bows down to be heard through the small hole in the Plexiglas window at the Busters impound office, located just a short walk of shame from the Main Street SkyTrain station. “I was parked out front of my own house!” he says. Scott, 22, had parked a grey 1985 Volvo in front of his father’s house on West King Edward Avenue while he attended classes at Langara, but the car had boxed in the vehicles belonging to his father and brother. “I was freaking out. I thought it was stolen. This is my mother’s car. I was parked literally on the entrance of our property. . .”
Meanwhile, outside in the impound lot, in truck number 31, Ali Shokri is rolling out for the 3 p.m. rush. “This job is all about the commission,” says Shokri, who’s been towing with Busters since 2004. “I keep my energy for rush hour. At 3 p.m. I become a coyote, because the coyote just grabs it and goes. I have to be fast to clean the city.” Each Busters driver works on commission, collecting 67 percent of the tow fee, the remainder going to Busters. Shokri, 48, is the proud owner of three tow trucks and a $1.8 million North Vancouver home that he shares with 11 pets. “We make that money with our blood. Sometimes you’re in danger. Same as a drug dealer. A drug dealer makes good money, but always people are coming to shoot you.”
Shokri pulls in front of a ticketed blue Toyota Camry on West Georgia and twists his oil-stained figure to peer out the back window as he reverses. Within minutes the Camry is lifted, hooked and secured, and truck number 31 is headed back to the impound lot. “To be honest, 50 percent of the public doesn’t like us, but they don’t understand,” he says. “If you do the illegal thing, you have to get a fine. If you follow the rules, you’re always winning. If you take the shortcut, you’re always losing.”
“We make that money with our blood. Sometimes you’re in danger. Same as a drug dealer. A drug dealer makes good money, but always people are coming to shoot you.”
Saphira de gobeo, 24, found herself the victim of a shortcut after a Busters driver towed her 2005 Pontiac Vibe AWD. “I was parked on the corner of Scotia and 5th and I was too close to the stop sign; whatever, it’s the law. When I realized my vehicle was gone, I went straight down to Busters and when I opened my car door it just reeked of burning.” After an inspection, it was found that the transmission on de Gobeo’s car had been ruined after her vehicle was towed from the front while in park. Although the vehicle is small and could easily be mistaken for a front-wheel drive, the letters AWD are clearly printed on the rear. “I didn’t want to be a bitch, but I was very assertive and called Busters every day until they paid the bill for $3,650. The tow truck driver had to pay for everything.”
It’s a mistake that Mopinder “Robbie” Singh in truck number 25 tries to avoid at all costs. “I’m not stupid. I’m not gonna pull an AWD without a dolly and just drag it all the way,” says Singh. “What’s the point, if I have to pay $3,000? It’s like working a whole month for free.” He’s just hooked a Jeep Grand Cherokee onto the back of his truck and is clomping around in his heavy steel-toed boots, working feverishly to assemble the dolly frame around the rear wheels of the Jeep. Singh inserts a heavy iron bar into the pivot point and employs the full weight of his lanky frame to lever each of the Jeep’s rear tires up onto the two smaller wheels of the dolly.
“If someone gets a flat tire and I help them, they’re happy and it feels so good,” he says. “It’s only bylaw enforcement that is the bad part. It’s a tough job. People hate this name; they say ‘Busters’ should be ‘Bastards.’” Singh extends his middle finger and waves his arm around slowly in the air. “This is my good morning. People say: ‘Fuck you, Busters.’ That’s my good morning. It’s tough.”