Low key and high tech, Brian Gerz rescues hundreds
of stranded motorists with a smile.
Reprinted from Lancaster Sunday News; Maria Coole, author
A cup of coffee and a Carmello bar are two of the necessities of life for Brian Gerz come mid-afternoon in a week on call.
He had just four hours of sleep the night before.
The day stretches in front of him like an endless two-lane turnpike.
He grabs the clipboard off the dash of his impeccably kept Chevy 3500 wheel-lift tow truck, checks an address and heads for the next call.
Another flat tire. There have been a lot of them on this drizzly, overcast Wednesday.
On sunny days, other guys will comment on how lucky he is being a tow truck driver. On days like this one, they have no interest in trading places.
As an eight-year veteran with Dave's Towing, Gerz, a part-owner of the business, knows all of the ups and downs of being a tow truck driver.
He likes helping people, and he likes the money. The days he has to run on too few hours sleep, though, or in the pouring rain or from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., he can start feeling a little grouchy.
But Gerz, 28, proves "service with a smile" isn't just a slogan from an old television commercial. And what a difference one guy can make to a whole lot of stranded motorists.
In Lancaster County, an average of about 150 drivers a day might call AAA and need a tow truck. And on some days in the busiest months -- January and July -- AAA might get more than 200 calls a day.
Gerz's day starts with a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. By the time he hops in the truck he has several calls from AAA of Lancaster County. Dave's Towing is one of three companies contracted with AAA to be on call, but it also does private tow jobs.
Gerz lights a Marlboro and heads for the first call, a few blocks away.
It's cloudy and cool. The sky seems to want nothing more than to rain.
Adam Fisher of South West End Avenue has already started to change the flat tire but is happy to turn over the rest of the job since he's dressed in a suit for work.
In minutes the spare is in place. Gerz thanks Fisher for doing half the job and tells him to have a nice day.
Think of "tow truck" and the average person might think heavy cable, winch, grimy hands, car jack, and a tough, rough-around-the-edges kind of guy.
Gerz reminds you of a small-town guy picking up a girl for the prom -- in jeans and a T-shirt.
The former mechanic not only knows his stuff, he's polite and does what he can to make a bad situation better. If a car won't start, he'll try to figure out why and correct the problem.
Even when it comes to his equipment, Gerz doesn't follow any stereotype.
He once bought a brand-new tow truck, but didn't like it, so he built his own.
"It has a lot that other tow trucks don't have," Gerz says.
"Most tow trucks are basic... a pain in the butt to drive, hard to steer, and you have to shift," he says.
Not Gerz's truck.
He started with a 1999 Chevy 3500 cab and chassis and added a bed from a 1974 Chevy.
His custom-made home-away-from-home has air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, cruise control, automatic transmission, a lumbar-support driver's seat, CD player, AM/FM radio, and a cellular phone.
He also installed a bigger engine, an extra winch on the front, and an air compressor, along with the tool boxes, winch and tow bar on the back.
He even carries a kit to plug tires, which most tow trucks don't.
"In this business it's hard to predict anything at all. You just have to be ready for it," Gerz says.
Ready or not, his phone rings frequently with calls from AAA, a car dealer or a salvage auction company.
With three loud beeps and a bone-rattling ring, the volume almost vaults a passenger off the seat.
About every half hour of each day, someone needs to be towed, says Dave McComsey, the namesake of Dave's Towing (www.davestowingserv.com).
McComsey has been in the towing business for 21 years and has had Dave's Towing for 10 years.
"We could have a fleet of 20 trucks and not have enough," McComsey says.
Another problem is finding good drivers, he says.
"Without Brian, the business wouldn't be here," McComsey says.
And there are safety issues. It's dangerous trying to change a flat or hook up a car out on the highway.
"You're constantly watching someone doesn't hit you," says McComsey.
He was hit by the mirror on an elderly woman's car in Lititz about five months ago while he was changing a tire. He was bending over, the mirror hit him in the behind, and the woman drove on with her mirror dangling.
Dave's Towing handles dead batteries, flat tires and wrecks, but lock-outs are Gerz's favorite calls to cover.
It's a job most people can't do, and he does it well, Gerz says.
"It makes me feel pretty professional," he says.
On most cars, it takes Gerz a minute or less to get in, says McComsey.
That's a good thing, because more than once drivers have re-locked the keys in the car right after Gerz has retrieved them.
And then there was the time Gerz closed the trunk after fixing a flat and the driver's keys were inside. Then he had to go through the back seat to get into the trunk for the keys. He always asks "Do you have your keys?" now before he closes the trunk.
Sometimes when he gets to a car where the driver is locked out, he gets the car open but the battery is dead and the car is out of gas because the car was running so long.
An amusing lock-out situation that happens mostly around Christmas time, Gerz says -- not amusing for the driver -- is when he gets called to Park City Center.
The driver will call for service after he realizes he is locked out of the car. But when the tow truck arrives, Gerz says, the driver can't find his car.
A few weeks ago, Gerz got a call from the Home Depot where an elderly man had locked his keys in the car, but when Gerz got there, the man couldn't find the car again.
He doesn't always have time, but in this case, Gerz drove around the lot until he found the car for the man.
Gerz prides himself on being a nice guy.
You don't find many nice guys any more, he says.
The day Gerz shared with a reporter turns out to be a pretty mellow day, with about 11 calls in 7 or so hours.
It was nothing like two days earlier when he did 30 calls alone about 12 hours.
Sometimes people have to wait awhile and aren't too happy when he arrives. But there are a lot of people who are really happy to see him.
Dotty Knouse was asleep in the driver's seat when Gerz pulled up.
She had just left work at Keystone Family Restaurant in Mount Joy when her car died.
Gerz spent about 15 minutes trying to start the car, fooling with the side-terminal battery, cleaning the connectors, but it just wouldn't start. Before Knouse left with her ride, she thanked Gerz.
"I appreciate it. I really do."
Gerz towed her car to the Western Auto.
Sometimes it's Gerz's good sense and advice that prevent drivers from getting into even worse messes.
Answering a call in Lititz, Gerz found a man with two flat tires. He wanted Gerz to put the spare on the front so he could drive the car to York on the rim of the back flat. Gerz explains this is not a good idea and calls AAA back to order a roll-back truck to transport the man's car.
Gerz's young age belies his experience. He started working as a teen in the auto business and never stopped.
He used to have a garage and built hot-rods. He used to enjoy going fishing. Now all he has time to do is work.
On his really busy days, he doesn't even have time to grab a sandwich at a Sheetz or Turkey Hill.
A call from the AAA dispatcher sends Gerz to Centerville Road and Columbia Avenue for a dead battery.
Using a system he devised, Gerz picks up his miniature tape recorder and tells the dispatcher she's "on the button," meaning he's recording her as she talks over his speaker phone.
He records the time of the call, the location, the vehicle description, and the type of problem the driver is having. When he gets to his next stop, he transcribes the information onto a call sheet.
At the Turkey Hill at Centerville and Columbia, Gerz gets the van started but it dies again just down the road at Industry Drive.
This time it'll be a tow.
As a light rain starts to fall, he drifts the van into place behind his tow truck, pulls on large brown leather gloves he keeps under his seat, attaches the winch and pulls the front wheels to the wheel lift and secures them.
It's a routine he goes through dozens of times each week. In rain. In snow. In blistering heat. On deserted roads, and on the berm of Route 30 while semis thunder past.
It's not a job for everyone, but Gerz makes it look easy.
"I've seen it all. Every day I see something new."