So I just came back from a 5,000 mile roadtrip, and soon I’ll be blogging about it and sharing photos. But I wanted to tell you about this little place I discovered called Elvis, Ohio. I had never heard of it. You probably haven’t either. But this little town claims that Elvis was actually born there, instead of in Tupelo, Mississippi, and they have a variety of museums, attractions, and gift shops with Elvis memorabilia. Christian, J-P and I were just passing through, but the old center of town was so charming…almost medieval…that we had to stop. The buildings were made of massive hewn limestone. The streets were cobblestone and all one-way, with no apparent urban planning to them, so you would immediately get lost if you didn’t know your way around.
We decided to stop at a gift shop and get our neighbor Sharon an Elvis gift. She loves Elvis, and during her career as a flight attendant with AA, she actually had Elvis on her flight twice! (She said he was the most gracious, well-mannered passenger she ever had.)
Luckily, there was a parking spot right across the street from the gift shop with “30 minute Free Parking” written on it, so we pulled in. Ten minutes later, gift in hand, we exited the shop only to see that our car was gone. I ran out into the street and saw at the top of the hill a tow truck making a turn, with what looked like my car attached.
I HATE being towed! Especially in a strange city. But why on earth would I be towed, the parking spot was free for 30 minutes.
Thinking perhaps we had emerged from the gift shop at a different entrance, and my car was parked on another of the city’s maze-like streets, I dashed around for awhile. The street signs were all in French, and were so confusing that I quickly got lost. I called Christian on my cell and we finally managed to find each other.
Then I called the local police department. It was about then I discovered that the local population of Elvis, Ohio is actually bilingual…in theory everyone speaks French as their first language (thus the street signs), and English as their second. Which, as so often happens in similar areas like Quebec, ACTUALLY means that everyone speaks French as their first language and speaks NO English.
It took the police department awhile to find someone who could manage broken English, and they informed me that my car was illegally parked and had been towed, and it would cost me 400 Euros to get it out of tow.
EUROS? This is America for Heaven’s sake. Why would they want payment in EUROS? And why so much? That’s almost $600.
After a bit of screaming, I realized I could just pay the fine on my American Express and then dispute the charge, even take them to court, if I had to, because my car had obviously been towed illegally. (Christian headed back to the parking spot to take a picture of the “30 minutes Free Parking” sign, but just came back and told me the sign was missing.) So obviously there’s some sort of racket going on. The police informed me, even more suspiciously, that the fine would have to be paid in cash…no other method of payment was acceptable.
I calmed down a bit and informed the police department that an ATM will only let you remove $400 per day, so I wouldn’t be able to take out enough cash to get out the car until the next day. “Then the impoundment fee will be an additional 400 Euros per day, sir.” A vicious cycle…I would never be able to remove enough cash to pay for my car, because each day they charged almost $600 to keep it in tow. I’d have to find an open bank (TOMORROW, because it was Sunday), withdraw $1200 in cash, and get my car back.
Furious, I put Christian and J-P on a flight home, because they both had to work the next day, and started walking around the city looking for a police officer who spoke English.
I found one, but she had only been a cop for a week. Her English was PERFECT, though. I informed her that I thought there was some sort of underground deal going on to trap tourist’s cars and get loads of cash out of them. She confided in me that, in her training and her first week of work, she thought there were a lot of sneaky things going on like that. She said my car was probably not even in an impoundment lot…they probably just towed it to another part of the city and left it on the street.
She kindly drove me around for a few hours…and sure enough, there was my car, parked right on the street a few miles from the gift shop where I had left it. But there was nothing inside the car…everything was gone.
“That’s policy,” she said. “They take everything out of the car and put it in a box at headquarters, so you have to come down there to get it. That’s when they make you pay the fine. But usually you can negotiate with them and get out for a few hundred bucks or so.”
“Then how do I get to headquarters?” I asked.
“It’s in another town about 50 miles away.” She pulled out a magazine. Everything was written in Arabic, but there was a map of the region, and she pointed to a town where the police station was. She tried to give me directions, but she had just moved to the area from New York so she wasn’t that familiar with it. I figured I could find the police station with my phone’s GPS, so I thanked her and left, advising her that I was a very famous travel writer, and as soon as I got home, I’d write a piece in Newsweek or Time that would bust open the corrupt racket that the cops were running in Elvis, Ohio.
It took me several hours to get outside the town, with the combination of one-way streets, NONE of which were marked on my phone’s GPS, but I finally made it to the police station…and it was closed. I’d have to come back the next day.
I knew that there was an AMAZING natural hot spring about an hour from the area, and if you know me, you know how much I LOVE natural hot springs. So I looked up some info on the net about how to get there, and I headed out. The sun was setting as I sunk into a lovely pool of naturally-hot water, but I heard some scuffling on the hill behind me. I looked up to see a park ranger descending the hill, gun drawn, as he headed toward me.
He revealed that he was, in fact, the cop running the towing racket in town, that he makes $20,000 a month off of that racket, and that he’d be damned if he let some big-city travel writer go back home and ruin it all for him. He had kids to feed. (Apparently a LOT of kids, if it costs him $20k a month to feed them!) And now he was going to shoot me, out here in the middle of nowhere, with no witnesses and endless places to hide my body. He cocked the gun, aimed it at me…
And then I woke up. This morning. I don’t think I’ve EVER had a more annoying, disturbing, and cinematic dream in my ENTIRE LIFE. It was so realistic, I got out my atlas JUST TO MAKE SURE there’s really no Elvis, Ohio.