Chicago 1981: I was twenty-one years old, and had just gotten out of the Army. I was married and had two kids already, so I needed to make some good money. I got a job at Majestic Towing- they had two tow trucks and an auto body shop. It was here that I’d learn how to be a chaser.
Day one: George Mawson was sitting behind a beat-up desk piled high with a mess of papers, and barely room for his ashtray. “Come on in Ken, welcome to tow truck hustling. I’m gonna show you your new boss.”
In walked Gary Basso. He was a big fat guy with glasses. He stepped behind another cluttered desk, sat down and put his feet on the corner that had enough room. He took a drag off a cigar, looked at it, and asked in a strong Chicago accent, “Do you know how to hustle?”
The eager student, I responded, “Yeah, I’ll work hard.”
He looked me up and down, and said, “All right, let’s go.”
He walked out of the office and I followed. He got into the driver seat of truck one. I jumped in the passenger door, and he turned on the police scanner. “Always have your scanner on, and listen to it closely, so you won’t miss it when there’s an accident.” And he cranked it up a little.
He elaborated on my job description. “While you listen to the scanner, you drive around on the expressway, up and down, all day, looking for a broken-down car. Whenever you find one, you pull over and, help them. With a little emphasis on the word help, he smiled, raised his eyebrows and rubbed his fingers together, to indicate money.
“Make sure you stay within the boundary’s of the police district you’re listening to. In this case, 16th and 17th districts are on one channel. That goes up and down the Kennedy from about Belmont to Harlem. If you stay in that area, you’ll be close enough to an accident that you can get there quickly, when there is one.”
He took off and didn’t get six blocks when the scanner barked, “1732…” A second passed and an officer answered, “1732, go ahead.”
“1732, take the auto accident, 4532 N. Central Park, auto accident with injuries, fire’s on the way.” And 1732 respond. “Ten-four.”
Gary’s mind raced for the best way there, then he quickly turned right on Montrose. “We’re only a mile away. We should get there before the cops.” And he raced to the scene, blowing red lights on the way.
We did arrive before the cops, and heard the ambulance coming as we parked. “Hurry up,” Gary said. He jumped out and walked as fast as he could over to the smashed cars, people still in them. I kept up with him, and we approached the nicest of the two cars. “Always go to the nicest car first. We want the job for the body-work, so we go to the car worth the most money first, the one with the most damage, that would cost the most to fix.”
He looked at both cars quickly, saw one was a young man in a beat up car, who was standing next to his car, apparently not hurt. The other car wasn’t so lucky. He smiled like a concerned citizen at the driver, an old lady with blood on her forehead. “Are you alright ma’am?” He asked. “Is there anything we can do to help?”
She looked at him in a daze. “I don’t know… I can’t feel my legs… And I can’t move.” She looked like she was about to cry, but the old gal had some fortitude.
Gary offered, “Would you like me to call somebody for you? A relative? A doctor? A lawyer? A tow-truck?”
She stumbled for a coherent thought. “I guess, you can call my husband, Bob.” She gave him a name and number and he sent me to the truck. It had a phone in it.
This was 1981, so it was one of the first mobile phones. It had a huge box in the trunk which transmitted the signal to an operator. I jumped in and picked up the receiver. After a ring, an operator answered, “Number please.” I gave her the number, and after explaining to the husband, he said he’d be on his way.
The ambulance and the cop showed up almost simultaneously. I ran back to Gary, still trying to console the old gal. “What happened?” He asked her. She smiled and said, “I must have blown the stop sign, but he was speeding.”
Gary saw the cop walking over, so he acted quickly. “Ma’am, why don’t you let me tow your car for you. We have a tow truck right here, and we won’t charge you anything. We’ll just bill your insurance company. So you won’t have to worry about where your car is.”
She agreed, and Gary was writing down her name and number when the officer approached. I offered a brief to the cop. “This lady needs an ambulance. She can’t feel her legs. The other guy is OK.”
The cop looked at the other car. It was an old beater that looked like it could still drive, and the driver was sitting on the hood. He asked the old lady, “Do you need an ambulance?” She nodded. The cop looked at the approaching paramedic, and pointed at her, to indicate this is where he’s needed.
While the paramedics were tending the old gal, we went back to the truck to wait. The cop walked up to Gary’s window and asked, “Did you guys get the tow?” Gary answered, “Yes, and we’ll take care of you.” The cop nodded, and walked away to do his work.
Gary took out a 50-dollar bill and folded it twice. “Whenever you get a car, make sure you slip the cop 50-bucks. Don’t worry, George will give you your money back in the morning.”
The ambulance left with their customer, and we hooked up the car. When the cop was done with his paperwork, he pulled up next to us, close enough that no one would hear him except Gary and me. “Just walk over and put your two hands on my door, and just let it fall into the car.”
Gary agreed and nonchalantly walked over to the cop car and rested his hands on the door. The windows were rolled down, so Gary let the fifty slip down inside the police car. This was my first involvement in bribing a cop, but a lot more of that would come. They all took the money, expected it, in fact, demanded it. Except maybe for the old one out of ten, who was about to retire.
The next morning, I arrived just as George and Gary were opening up the door. Gary explained, “George, we got a car. An old lady with a brand new car and State Farm insurance.”
George smiled, “Great. Let’s make some calls.”
Then, the real scam began. They showed me exactly how they would trick the insurance company and the old lady into letting us fix the car.
George called the old lady, posing as the insurance company. “Hi Mrs. So-and-so? This is George at State Farm. Are you OK?” After a moment of concern, he added, “We have you car at one of our authorized body shops, so we’re going to go ahead and fix your car right away.”
That made her happy. No doubt, she went back to resting her aching legs.
Then he called State Farm. And with his best impersonation of an old lady, he said, “Hi, this is Mrs. So-and-so. I’ve had an accident. The car is at my body shop, and I want you to let them fix it.” They agreed, and said they’d send an adjuster to write the estimate.
George and Gary shook hands and congratulated each other. George gave Gary his $50 back, plus $175 for getting the job. Gary reminded him of the tow, and George gave him another $25 for the tow.
Gary turned toward me, split the $200 in half and gave me $100. “Here’s your half. Just think when you start getting cars by yourself, the whole $200 will be yours. And there will be days when you get three, four cars.”
He was correct, I’d soon find out. And I spent the next three years or so chasing, raking in the money- I was bringing home $400 to $1600 a week, at a time when most working men made around $150 a week.