CLEARWATER — The tow trucks set off from St. Cecelia Catholic Church, led by a white hearse and Ray Bosi's ashes.
The convoy stretched a dozen wreckers deep, driven by men with sunburns and wraparound sunglasses and burning cigarettes. The remains rested in a black and gold urn, tucked into the passenger seat of a Woody's Funeral Home Cadillac.
Here lies Bosi, father of one, grandfather of three, who cruised these streets a million nights before falling off a ladder doing housework at the age of 49. He was not a famous man, but he was loved. In May, he celebrated his one-year wedding anniversary.
Bosi was a Christmas Eve baby. He liked Harley-Davidson motorcycles and old movies and getting on people's nerves. He inherited the family's statuary shop, started in Tuscany by his grandfather, Telmo, and learned to craft statues of ships and pelicans before leaving the business with heart problems. He worked full time in towing, starting a decade ago with AAA, watching the Howard Frankland Bridge.
When he died, his brother Lennie and a woman named Ginger Darling began planning for what came next: the tow truck funeral procession, a local tow tradition. Darling, 59, has organized a dozen in the 30 years she has owned Nationwide Towing, for drivers who died or were killed on duty.
Most of the dozen drivers in the convoy knew Bosi from his last job at Jimmie's Towing, owned by Lennie. Others came out of respect. The local towing industry, cramped, competitive, unappreciated, has formed many rivalries, but this tradition remains sacred.
"On any other day, a lot of these drivers wouldn't stand in the same parking lot," Darling said. "But when it comes to this, we all come together. It's what we are."
On Wednesday afternoon, the procession of chrome and chains turned onto Clearwater's Myrtle Avenue, headed north toward Bosi's shop. Behind the hearse was Lennie, driving his brother's green and white International 4700 wrecker, "Ray's baby." Darling drove close behind, in her one-ton 1987 Ford F-350 flatbed, which she calls "Little Child."
A tiny woman in gold jewelry and blue coveralls, Darling had passed out handmade black bands for drivers' arms or antennas. She calls it an honor to organize the processions, and she keeps the details in a notebook featuring the tow truck from the movie Cars.
Bosi's convoy weaved down Seminole Street, to Jimmie's, on a small corner lot of N Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. Drivers slowed and turned off their flashers and floodlights. Darling stared at the shop and saluted. "Miss you, Ray," she said.
On they drove, at 10 mph, so the heavy-duty wreckers could keep up. Joey Hanousek, a driver for Kotakis Towing, served as a moving blockade, rocketing between intersections and hopping out to stop traffic. His wife, Robin, waited in the cab.
On they drove toward Bosi's home, near the yellow-pebbled lawns of Greenbriar Estates. The drivers stopped outside the front door, near a wooden cross, saluting and honking and sounding their sirens. Darling patted her heart, saluted, gripped the wheel and honked twice.
On they drove across the nine stopped lanes of Main Street. On they drove past strange stares, spurned drivers and a bald man smoking and mowing his lawn.
"What happened here," one man shouted from the sidewalk.
"A funeral," Hanousek shouted back.
The 9-mile procession ended at Kally K's Steakery & Fishery, where the family, in tuxedos and dresses, gathered after the funeral. Bosi's dad, Carl, told the drivers they "did a hell of a job." Three of his sons work in the automotive industry, repairing cars or driving trucks.
"Some of them come a little rough around the edges," Bosi said. "But they got a lot of heart."
The drivers ate shrimp and meatballs, and drank sweet tea before returning to work. Most were still getting calls for help.
"I tell you what," Lennie Bosi told Hanousek. "After this, we're back to being cutthroat."
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.