Giving students the boot: a day in the life of Gopher Towing

by Anne Preller

Leaving their vehicle parked in the Pizza Hut parking lot Friday, a couple headed towards Dinkytown – away from the restaurant – holding hands.

Dressed in a black University sweatshirt, Gopher Towing driver Jason Harberts watched – disappointment etched on his face.

“In most cases we’ll give them five minutes, to go to the ATM or if they’re just going to the post office or something,” Harberts said as he surveyed the lot.

A green Toyota and a second Jeep in the lot off University Avenue already had orange booting devices on their left front tires.

A few more minutes passed, and Garrett Schneider, another Gopher Towing driver, headed into Pizza Hut to inform the manager of the situation and have the authorization signed. Harberts booted the Jeep.

“By no means do I enjoy doing it,” Harberts said as he prepared the paperwork. “I wish they’d just pay attention to the signs.”

Nine signs are posted in the Pizza Hut parking lot, warning non-patrons they will be towed.

“We just can’t go around and tow cars, boot cars,” Harberts said. “They have to be authorized by whatever business (owns the lot).

“We don’t just volunteer to come down here. (Businesses) call us down here,” Harberts said.

Schneider locked the boot onto the front tire of the Jeep as Harberts reported the booting to the towing company’s dispatcher.

“I’d rather be out helping someone with a jump start or a lockout,” Harberts said.

Harberts has worked for Gopher Towing for about two years. A University junior, he plans to become a licensed chemical-dependency counselor for compulsive gamblers. He estimates he’ll finish at the University by January.

“This is a short-term thing for me,” Harberts said. “I enjoy it, just not necessarily on days like today.”

Days like Friday are the days Gopher gets called in to “blanket” a lot. When illegal parking becomes a problem, a business will call in Gopher to remove the majority of cars parked illegally.

Schneider, a University sophomore, is undecided about what he wants to study and works 25 to 35 hours a week for Gopher Towing.

Schneider got his start at Gopher after his car got impounded. Like Harberts, he said he wishes people would be more respectful.

“I don’t feel that I should have to waste my time doing this, there are plenty of signs,” Schneider said.

After what the Gopher employees said was about an hour, the owner of the first Jeep came back. When he discovered the boot, he approached Harberts and Schneider.

Jason Neis calmly paid his $93 fine and said he was not upset with Gopher Towing. “They’re just doing their job – keeping parking open for people it’s supposed to be for, I guess.”

Neis had stopped in to visit his brother who works in Dinkytown.

“I knew that I wasn’t supposed to park here,” he said.

Harberts thanked Neis for handling the whole situation well and watched him drive off.

“Usually people will come out yelling and swearing. He was really calm,” Harberts said.

Although Harberts’ job makes few people happy, he said he enjoys it because he doesn’t have to bring his work home – a good way to keep his personal and professional lives separate.

“I can go home and spend time with my wife and son,” he said. “I have a heart and everything too. We’re all people too.”

The men behind the boot

Gopher Towing began 20 years ago with one small parking lot on 12th Street Southeast. Now the towing service covers Dinkytown, but its offices are in two large warehouses and impound yards on Tyler Street Northeast.

Gene Buell, owner of Gopher Towing, started answering service calls with just one truck. Now the company has 11 trucks and 14 employees. They impound seven to eight cars per day and boot up to 50 vehicles per day. They also answer service calls.

“Because of the reputation of towers, we get lots of complaints,” Buell said.

But Buell said there can be harmony between business owners and Dinkytown consumers.

“If you ask (business owners) if you can park, they’d probably let you,” Buell said. “These merchants aren’t bad, they’re just trying to make a living.”

Eric Odness, manager of Hollywood Video on Fourth Street, said the store uses Gopher Towing mainly on Friday or Saturday nights.

“The ones that we allow to park here are employees from the other businesses. Everyone else is usually running across the street to the House of Hanson, and they’re parked out there for maybe a minute.

“The rest are usually going down the street to the Loring, and they are usually the ones (Gopher) tries to nail – the ones who are going to be in there forever,” Odness said.

Buell can tow out of 743 parking lots and garages in Minneapolis. He is contracted through local businesses as a service provider. Gopher Towing does not have a contract with the University and only performs services there when requested as a backup.

Buell said he has worked with the Dinkytown Business Association to find solutions to the lack of parking in Dinkytown.

“I don’t want to tow without providing parking,” Buell said.

Dealing with frustration

Back in the Pizza Hut parking lot, the Toyota owners returned and informed Harberts they called the police.

“I realize a lot of people have animosity against us,” Harberts said. “I hope they know its part of my job description.”

But a lot of people refer to Harberts as their “personal angel,” he said. “If they’ve locked their keys in their car for that particular day or when they need to be some place and they left their lights on and their battery has died.”

Buell calls the people he has to tow “limit testers” who are “just trying to find their boundaries.”

Buell also said people who have been impounded are “always pissed off.”

When Jason Lybeck discovered the boot on his Jeep, expletives flew.

“I feel like my rights were violated and like its highway robbery,” Lybeck said.

Lybeck, a small-business owner, said he thought the signs should state the $93 parking-violation charge.

“It’s almost like we’re open game to intimidation. We have to deal with it all of the time,” Buell said.

But Buell said he doesn’t believe he’s hated for the job he performs.

He feels he’s hated by the limit testers, but not by the people who know his business. If it wasn’t him towing cars, somebody else would, he said.

Buell also said the majority of his business is not student-induced.

“I feel that students feel more violated because they don’t understand,” Buell said. “In my point of view, they’re naive. They haven’t realized the value of these parking spaces.”

As Schneider and Harberts finished their day, Harberts removed his sweatshirt.

“Guess I don’t have to hide out anymore.”

The lot blanketing finished, Schneider and Harberts left the Pizza Hut, a long day behind them.

“I used to have a lot of sympathy for the people when I first started,” Harberts said. “But then I realized everyone was just lying to me.”


Anne Preller covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]