Tow Head

Junkie, jailbird, cat burglar, widow, bride, entrepreneur Laurie Lichtman keeps on truckin'.

Her house in North Miami is a shrine to it all -- the politicians, the movie stars, the crooks she's known. There are a few seascapes by her old pal Murph the Surf. Numerous shoe boxes are stuffed with old photographs of Laurie posing with every notable who ever crossed her path at a function, from Al Gore to Martin Sheen to Jeb Bush. The walls of her office at Midtown Towing are similarly plastered with images of Laurie with her hair up, dressed nicely and smiling. This is evidence, to her, of a life that matters. "These people trust me," Laurie mumbles while flipping through a stack of photos. "That means something."

Laurie today is 55 years old and stands five feet four inches tall on reedy legs. She's got straight white-blond hair, appraising blue eyes, and bright red nails. When she lifts her small hands, to light a Marlboro or make a point, the dark stains of old track marks are revealed under the pale skin of her arms. "I prayed to God to remove the scars," she says. "But the scars are for a reason. They help me convince people of my past. They let me help other people."

The making of a thief Laurie Waters was eighteen when she first tried heroin. Her young husband, a no-account soldier she met in grade school, made the introduction. Within a year, the man was gone, but dope was a permanent fixture in her life.

The towing industry is rough, but Laurie is tougher
The towing industry is rough, but Laurie is tougher
Hauling cars and healing hearts, Gus is Laurie's Midtown muse
Hauling cars and healing hearts, Gus is Laurie's Midtown muse

Laurie grew up in wise-guy central, Fairview, New Jersey. She was a daddy's girl, but pop was a bad influence. Laurie remembers him as a charismatic man with a fine singing voice and exciting involvement in some of the shadier aspects of politics in Fairview. Ostensibly, he worked at the local A&P grocery store. But his real money came from bookmaking.

Joane Tufano, Laurie's mother, has no such fond remembrances. "He ran numbers," Tufano sighs. "He was a drunk, sometimes violent, would bring home women. He would teach her to steal things from the drugstore, things like that."

Tufano, age 75, looks a lot like her daughter, with blue eyes and fair skin, light blond hair in a puffy bob. She was just sixteen when she met and married Edward Waters, then a soldier stationed near London during World War II. He hit her once before the marriage, but Joane says she was too young and dumb to heed the warning. By age 20, she had two children and a new, miserable life in New Jersey. She left him the minute the children were out of the house.

The children were opposites. Clever, wild Laurie became a fearless stunt artist, always trying to get attention. Her older brother Eddy, the serious straight arrow, joined the Army as soon as he could, later becoming a U.S. Marshal. He lives in South Florida too.

While Laurie was on probation for drug charges, her father became ill. Laurie visited him in the hospital. He asked a friend to send his daughter to Florida, to get her away from the life. "But I found a connection the first day here," she remembers. Within days, Edward had died. Laurie wanted to come home for the funeral, but she was warned that she could be arrested since she had violated her parole by leaving New Jersey in the first place. Laurie showed up for the funeral, where she was promptly cuffed and carted off to jail. She was devastated and angry.

"And from that day on, I made up my mind," Laurie remembers with a throaty smoker's chuckle. "I was gonna be the biggest thief, and never trust the law again. The girls in the prison thought I was hard. I never shed a tear. But I cried by myself."

Through jail and failed rehab programs, Laurie's mom stuck by her. Her family's old mob friends tried to get her to go straight. "They used to say to my mother, öWhy the drugs? She's got such a good mind.'" When she got out of prison in 1969, at age 20, Joane convinced Laurie to move with her to Miami. A new location didn't help. Laurie just found new connections, new scams, and the welcoming arms of local criminal figures.

In a strange way, Joane introduced Laurie to her cat burglar mentor. A woman named Florrie Fisher was making the rounds of the national talk shows. Fisher was billed as a former heroin addict, prostitute, and thief who was on an anti-drug crusade. Fisher had written a book about the subject called The Lonely Trip Back. Joane thought the example of somebody who beat the addiction would inspire her daughter. Instead, the book gave Laurie ideas.

Laurie began robbing hotel rooms, which during the Seventies in Miami Beach wasn't all that difficult. One night, she crept into a room, only to be confronted by its occupants. Sitting there were none other than Florrie Fisher and her Filipino husband, who went by the name Phil. "Who knew who I was robbing," Laurie cackles rhetorically. "They invented the cat burglaring game. Florrie had a broken leg and she was getting old. She looks at me, then she looks at Phil. öPhil,' she said, öshe reminds me too much of us. Why don't you train her?'"

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