Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Keys to the Problem

It has been thirty years so I can safely tell the story--I think the guy in question is probably either dead or in jail by now.  In any case, I doubt if he could read.  And Hurricane Ike dealt a death blow to the hotel and now it’s completely torn down.

Thirty years ago, my wife was in a surgical residency in Galveston, Texas.  While Galveston is a beautiful place to visit—well, we didn’t really want to live there, but we had no choice if the Doc was going to complete her medical training.  There were very few jobs for a computer guy on a small island whose economy centered on the tourist trade.  Eventually, I was employed as the resident manager of the Flagship Hotel.

The Flagship was unique: a large hotel built on a pier extending over the Gulf of Mexico.  The entire hotel was, quite literally, on the water--actually over the water, with an ocean view for every room.  The Flagship was a great, old, weird hotel with a past that stretched way back into the days when the mafia ran the town, when prostitution and gambling were ignored, and when untaxed liquor ran about as hard and fast as the pounding surf under the hotel.
Those days had been the wild youth of the hotel, but when I ran her when she was a genteel and mature lady whose clientele were families and honeymooners.  About the only evidence remaining of her uninhibited youth was a trap door in my office where one of my predecessors could quickly dispose of the gambling paraphernalia in the event of a raid.  I never had to throw any poker chips down that trap door, but I did occasionally open the door for the view while I did paper work.

I liked the Flagship.  She was a fine hotel, but if there was any one single recurring problem, (other than the occasional hurricanes that eventually claimed her) it was the fact that the hotel was large while the pier it rested on was small.  To be specific, we only had enough parking for 90% of the guests.  And this was a large problem, since parking off the pier along Seawall Boulevard was absolutely impossible.
While the mob was long gone (mostly) from Galveston, there were no shortage of thugs.  A group of which had gotten together and bought a small lot on the main tourist drag just yards away from the entrance to the hotel.  Though the lot was paved and striped for parking, there were signs warning that no parking was allowed, and that violators would have their cars towed away!  Actually, that was the whole point since the lot was owned and operated by Five Thugs Towing, Inc.  At least, I think that was the name.  These gentlemen would tow your car to the far end of the island, and then charge you $85 for the return of your car.    Remember, this is thirty years ago, and back then that was however much money it was back then.  Roughly the price of a three bedroom house.  Or something like that-- my memory is a little fuzzy.  Whatever, it was too damn much money just to ransom your own car. 

This was legal, but about as ethical as putting a tiger trap in a school yard just to collect the used clothes.  And the five thugs who ran this operation were soundly hated by every businessman for blocks around.
When the hotel was full, we asked customers who could not find a parking space on the pier to leave their car keys at the front desk and we would double park their car at the end of the pier (keeping their keys so we could move the car if necessary to allow a blocked vehicle to escape).  This was a real pain, as the bellboys spent a lot of time moving cars around all night long.

One Sunday morning, after several guests had checked out and driven away, I gave a set of keys to a bellboy and told him to move the guest’s double parked car, a Camaro, into one of the empty parking spaces.  After a while, the bellboy came back and said there was not a single Camaro on the pier.  I didn’t believe him, so I double checked.  We did an exhaustive search--no Camaro.  I had a premonition that I knew what had happened, but I checked anyway.  The bellboy who had parked the car the previous night was new, and when I called him at his home, he remembered the Camaro.  He had found “a really nice place to park it in an empty parking lot across the street.”
I made the phone call, and sure enough, it had been towed by the Five Thugs.  The guy at the impound lot was laughing his ass off; I could have the car for $85.  There was no choice--the hotel was going to have to pay the fine, and hopefully bring the car back to the hotel before the owner found out about the  boneheaded mistake.  I got one of the bellboys to drive me to the impound lot in the hotel courtesy car.

The impound lot was damn near in the swamp at the west end of the island.  It was a large lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence containing dozens of cars, tow trucks, and one very angry guard dog.  Just outside the fenced lot were a small shack with a single tow truck sitting in front of it.  Inside the shack was a soulless cretin with his feet up on a desk, grinning like a drunken raccoon.  I ignored his laughing, paid him the extortion, handed him the keys to the Camaro and asked for the car.
The wrecker driver slowly stood up and picked up a huge loop of keys.  A piece of rope about three feet long with a hook at each end held dozens of key rings.  There must have been two hundred keys on that loop.  The driver escorted me out of the shack, locking it behind him, then went to the gate, unlocked it and drove the Camaro out, stopping to close the gate again, locking the guard dog and all the cars and trucks inside the lot.  Finally, he drove the car over to where I stood waiting.

“Here ya’ are, boy,” he said.  “Sure nice doing business with ya.” 
I got behind the wheel, shut the door and began driving back to the hotel.  Within a block, I heard a horn and a quick glance at the rearview mirror revealed that my thug was right behind me in the tow truck I had seen parked in front of the shack.  This wrecker driver seemed really upset, waving his arms, flashing his lights, and honking constantly.  There was no way in the world I was going to stop for this asshole, so I floored the gas pedal on that Chevy.

Have you ever driven a Camaro?  They’re nice.  That tow truck had a lot of power, but the Camaro ran like a stabbed rat.  It was a damn good thing this race was on a Sunday morning!  The streets were deserted with no pedestrians in the crosswalks.  That guy behind me was determined, and we tore across the island running the lights and ignoring the speed limit.  I beat him back to the hotel with just enough time to yell out the window to the guard at the hotel entrance for him to call the front desk and have the security guards and the bellboys out in front immediately.
As I braked to a stop in front of the hotel, a few of my employees were waiting for me (thankfully, for the wrecker driver skidded to a stop right behind me).  I got out of the car, left the door open and stood on the sidewalk beside the car.  The wrecker driver leaped out of his truck, ran to the car and jumped inside.

“Whar’ are my keys?” he roared.  “I know you didn’t throw ‘em out the window, I was right behind you.  You must have ‘em!”
Now it seems this poor schmuck had misplaced that big loop of keys.  The only keys he had in his pocket were the keys to the tow truck he had been driving while chasing me across the island.  Evidently, he believed that I had somehow stolen those keys.

“Gimme my keys!  You gotta’ have ‘em.  I can’t get back into the office.  I don’t have the keys to my house.  I can’t even feed my dawg!”  The voice was a little more pleading and a lot less demanding, but after several long minutes of searching, he knew those keys weren’t in the Camaro.  And he could see that I didn’t have them.  This was Texas in 1980.  I had on a white short-sleeved shirt and a pair of blue jeans so tight you could tell if the dime in my pocket was heads-side up.  I couldn’t have put a fraction of those keys in my pocket without that man seeing them.
It took several minutes for that driver to finally give up and drive away to look for those keys at the impound lot.  Maybe he had dropped them there.  He had searched the Camaro several times, and begged me to tell him if I had seen the keys.  Eventually, he even offered to give me back my money--all to no avail.  I just stood there, shaking my head.  Finally, at the gentle urging of the security guards, he drove away.

I stood there until he was out of sight.  Then, I slowly walked towards the railing at the end of the pier.  I had really enjoyed that race across the island, even though I had been a little busy.  As soon as I had gotten into that car, I had noticed that huge key ring lying on the seat.  As I drove off, I had taken out my pocket knife and cut that rope.
I could just barely walk across that pier, but when I finally got to the railing, I took off my cowboy boots and slowly poured all those keys into the ocean.  I’ll bet they are still down there, right on top of all those old poker chips.

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