Caught in the whirl of the City Hall mambo

James Buch parked his car behind LACMA along 6th Street recently and had to pay nearly $400 to get it back. Resident Tim Cyran, left, says he's seen cars being towed repeatedly in the years he's lived in the neighborhood.
(Christina House, For The Times)

James Buch, a retiree who loves to dance, has been doing the mambo with City Hall this summer. And his partner keeps stepping on his feet.

The saga began June 14, when the 83-year-old salsa aficionado left his home near the marina for a night of dancing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s 12 bucks to park in the garage, so Buch often looks for free parking on the street, as he did that evening.

He felt lucky to find a spot on 6th Street, just east of Fairfax Avenue. But after carving the dance floor for a couple of hours, Buch returned to discover that his 35-year-old Mercedes was gone.

That’s when he first saw the sign, largely obscured by tree branches, designating a long stretch of curb as a towing zone, no stopping any time.


“I admit it. I’m an idiot and a fool,” Buch said, “but apparently there are a lot of other idiots.”

Hey, wait a minute. You can’t talk about my wife like that!

She got a ticket on that very block two weeks after Buch did. She said she and another driver parked simultaneously, consulted each other on whether it was legal, and didn’t see any evidence to the contrary. My wife got slapped with a $93 ticket, but at least she got back to her car before it was towed.

“I was lucky in one respect,” Buch wrote in a letter to The Times. “There was a neighbor sitting on his porch who helped me. He told me the police [had] just towed my car among perhaps four more cars.”


That neighbor, Tim Cyran, told me he’s seen it happen repeatedly in the several years he’s lived there.

The city does a lot of things poorly, like maintaining streets and sidewalks, but it can be maddeningly efficient in other ways. And what is the going price for an honest mistake like the one Buch made?

Just shy of $400.

Buch traveled by cab to the impound lot a few miles away, only to be told it was just past the 7 p.m. closing time and he’d have to come back the next day. And overnight storage would cost him $37.


“It was such a horrible night for me because I was freezing to death and my jacket was in my car, and they wouldn’t let me near the car. I was furious,” said Buch, who was also down to his last $3.

The cabbie was kind enough to take him to a bus stop at no charge, and the shivering 83-year-old salsa king got home at 10. A neighbor kindly drove him back to the impound lot the next day.

Towing charge -- $118.50.

Storage charge -- $37.


City “parking” tax -- $3.70.

City of Los Angeles Vehicle Release Fee -- $115.

They let him keep both arms and the skin on his back.

So that’s $274.20 for the tow and $93 for the ticket. Throw in cab and bus fare, and we get to about $390. At these prices, it’s hard to believe the city can’t afford to trim the trees, which, on 6th Street, would create a clearing so drivers don’t miss the camouflaged signs.


Buch didn’t want the bother of contesting the ticket, but he did want to prevent other drivers from making the same mistake, and he saw an obvious solution.

“If we can get the curb painted red, the GAME is over,” he wrote in his letter to The Times.

Meanwhile, Buch called his council office, which referred him to the city attorney’s office, which referred him to the Department of Transportation, which agreed to look into the matter.

But Buch didn’t wait for an answer. He began driving to LACMA on Saturdays to warn drivers not to make the same mistake he had. He might as well have been wearing a cape as he crusaded for justice. His log shows that on June 21, he “chased 20 cars away.” On June 28, it was 31 cars. On July 5, 46 cars. And on July 19, 22 cars.


“I didn’t get any tips,” he said. “But I got one kiss.”

Late last week, Buch heard back from the city on his red curb idea. A transportation engineer told him department policy is to use signs when a no-parking zone extends “for significant distances,” in this case, about 400 feet. He was also told the city doesn’t have the same authority to tow cars from red curbs as it does from “tow away no stopping any time zones.”

What am I missing? Park at a red curb and you don’t get towed, but accidentally park at an unpainted curb because the sign is obscured and you do get towed?

Lisa Martellaro-Palmer, a city engineer, told me there are three tow-zone signs out there, and that’s true. But the first is blocked by trees, the second is behind a larger sign, and the third is 400 feet from the first. It’s easy to miss all three.


According to Martellaro-Palmer, 44 cars were towed from that stretch in the last year. Cyran, the neighbor with the front-row seat, estimated seeing roughly 15 cars a month being towed for several years.

Whatever the right number, I’m with Buch. Nobody would get towed if the curb was red, because nobody would park there. Makes you wonder whether the city wants to keep that lane clear for traffic or whether it’s out to rake in the dough on tickets and towing.

Either way, you’ve been warned by Mr. Buch, who is now going back to dancing, so don’t park where he did.

“I would paint the curb myself,” Buch wrote in his letter to The Times, “but then I would be arrested for damaging city property.”