The man everybody loves to hate is actually -gasp- a pretty nice guy.
It's Lew Blum's world--we just park in it.
You've no doubt seen his signs posted in private lots all over town--there are literally thousands and thousands of them--or perhaps you've felt firsthand his brand of rough justice, when one of his wreckers swooped down and put your car "on the hook," as they say in tow-truck parlance.
We thought it was high time we put a face on these signs, revealing the man, the myth and the legend of Lew Blum.
At first, we weren't even sure there was a real, live-and-in-the-flesh Lew Blum, that he wasn't just another corporate mascot, like Betty Crocker or the Keebler elves. Or if he did in fact exist, that he wasn't some cruel, cigar-chomping fat old bastard.
"Yeah, I get a lot of that--always old and with a cigar," says Blum, impeccably groomed and guarding his age like a movie star. He's got a warm smile that he flashes frequently, and his immaculate pearly whites seem to confirm his assertion that he does not now, nor has he ever, smoked a cigar.
Furthermore, the person once dubbed "the most hated man in Philadelphia" is in love. When his fiancee calls in the middle of the interview, Blum coos kissy-face sentiments into his cell phone. "I'm not afraid to say that in front of any guy!" he announces unprompted after hanging up. "'Cause I love her and I want everyone to know it!"
Some kids grow up wanting to be an astronaut or a football hero, but Blum knew early on that there was only one job for him: tow-truck driver. His uncle is George Smith, another tow-truck baron around town. When he was still in short pants, Blum worked the phone at his uncle's tow lot, studying at the feet of the master. By his late teens, he was towing cars for various operators around town.
One day he towed a stranded motorist to Center City Collision at 1413 Bainbridge, and it was there he met his destiny: a '77 Ford F350 "with a homemade boom, nothing fancy." The guy wanted $2,000 for it. Blum gave him all the money he had in the world--$500--and spent the next four months paying the remaining $1,500 off, towing broken-down cars for $8 a pop.
There are two kinds of towing, says Blum, "disabled vehicle towing" and "parking enforcement towing"--and the latter is far more lucrative. Before long, Blum was doing both.
The way it works is, you have a private lot and you are tired of freeloaders filling up your hard-earned spaces. You call up Lew Blum or any of his competitors, and he posts signs in your lot warning that illegal parkers will be towed.
When you have an illegal parker, you call Blum and he'll send one of his boys over to literally make the problem go away. Blum gets all the money--a $150 flat fee, $25 per day storage cost, plus a 15 percent storage tax--and you get your parking space back. "I enforce the parking rights of law-abiding drivers," says Blum, summing up his mission.
As you can imagine, Blum encounters some pretty pissed-off illegal parkers in the course of his day. "We've had people threaten to blow up the building, shoot the tow-truck drivers," says Blum, who deals with the public from behind bulletproof glass and fortified walls at his West Philly headquarters. "Sometimes people will jump inside their car when we've got 'em on the hook and refuse to come out, and then we have to call the police to get them out. We've had people run alongside the tow truck, reach inside and pull the keys out of the ignition. On two separate occasions, we have had women come into the office and demonstrate their displeasure by urinating on the floor of the hallway."
Sometimes Blum shows a little mercy. "If I can see that they just don't have the money--you know, a single mother with a bunch of kids or if they tell a convincing story--I'll cut 'em a break," says Blum. "I got a heart, I really do. But what I can't stand is when people use their position of power to get out of paying the fee--that I can't stand. I hate it when cops come in and flash their badges. It's always their wife's car or their brother's car or their sister's car or their friend's car. You know, I'm trying to make a living here."
To hear Blum tell it, the one member of Philadelphia's finest who never used his badge for special treatment is John Timoney. "I towed his wife's care once," says Blum, with a broad grin. "[Police Commissioner] Sylvester Johnson was deputy commissioner at the time, and he came down and said, 'How much?' Paid it, no questions asked. I will always have respect for that man."