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City Parking

It’s a Saturday night in March, and somewhere in San Francisco a couple who consider themselves to be Hip Cultural Participants are sitting in front of their television set, watching Basic Instinct on laserdisc and waiting for their microwave popcorn bag to inflate. One of them is saying, "You know what’s wrong with San Francisco? I tried to protest this movie twice down near Union Square, but neither time could I find a place to park the car."

And the other person nods.

Meanwhile, here in the Mission District, Edgard Santiasmo and his wife Patricia are trolling down Valencia Street in their Corvair with the hazard lights flashing. Edgard turns off the radio, then returns his hands to the leather-wrapped steering wheel. Patricia has wedged her head up in the nook between the dashboard and the windshield, which she says gives her an unobstructed view of the curb. Edgard checks the rear-view mirror every few seconds for spots opening up behind us. I’m in the rear seat, ducking down so not to block Edgard’s line of sight.

Out ahead of us, a sedan turns on to Valencia from a side street. Its headlights are off, which is usually a sign that it has just pulled away from the curb. Edgard guns his motor and rounds the corner. Patricia shrieks, then jabbers at Edgard in Spanish and points down the street at an oncoming car, which is flashing its blinker for a likely U-turn into the open spot. She jumps out of the car and runs along the sidewalk, trying to get there first, her shoulder bag swinging heavily at her side. Edgard zooms past her and pushes the nose of his Corvair into the spot ahead of the other car. The driver jumps out—I can see a shouting match coming—but it’s all a false alarm: the spot is guarded by a fire hydrant. The driver gets back in his car and moves on.

Edgard parks his car in the spot anyway.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

Edgard opens the trunk and pulls out a metal garbage can. He sets this upside down over the fire hydrant, with the lid on top.

"What do you think?" he asks of Patricia.

Patricia pulls a Polaroid camera out of her shoulder bag and frames a shot of the car, but she doesn’t snap the flash. She puts the camera back in her bag. "It has to fool a meter lady before it counts."

"Let’s go get a beer," he says.

 

For the Santiasmos and their friends, the evening’s entertainment does not come after they park the car—Parking the car is the entertainment. Armed with a street map and the Polaroid camera, they are on a scavenger hunt for parking spots in some of the most clogged neighborhoods of the city. Later, they will meet up with the five other teams at Tommy’s Joynt on Van Ness. Lowest score wins free dinner. This spot in front of the fire hydrant counts as two points, since it is two blocks away from the intersection of Valencia & 20th, the epicenter of the parking shortage in the Mission.

However, as Patricia noted, they can’t take the points until a Parking Control Officer passes by, which shouldn’t take long. PCOs are like fruit flies, which will mysteriously materialize within eight seconds if you leave a banana peel in the kitchen sink. During the twelve years of Reaganism, parking enforcement was emphasized much more than parking prevention, and parking violations became a major source of government revenue along with the snack tax. The flimsy-looking three-wheeled vehicles the meter-ladies drive are deceptive; Northrop-Grumman took over their manufacture in 1985, and they are actually paramilitary versions of the same DX730 Tactical Monotank Ticket Tricycle used by army personnel to ticket civilian cars outside the Presidio PX. These $138,000 vehicles come specially equipped with at least three replacement ball-point pens, two boxes of flourescent chalk, a rechargeable walkie-talkie, and an infrared night-vision windshield.

 

Over our beer at Cafe Babar, Edgard explains he came up with Sport Parking as a way to blow off steam. He normally plays on a soccer team in the third division, but every game since late November has been rained out. Cooped up indoors, he became restless.

"Edgard is not himself without a regular chance to kick people," interprets Patricia.

Soon, though, the topic returns to the meter-ladies and the parking scandal that rocked city hall in February. It was uncovered that Mayor Jordan had accumulated $8,000 in unpaid parking tickets. Jordan confessed and then held a "Scoot the Boot" fundraiser at the Olympic Club attended by nefarious lobbyists to wipe out his debts. This led one of the city supervisors to complain in a budget committee meeting that parking tickets "disproportionately affect" [discriminate against] legal immigrants, who come from countries where parking is not as strictly enforced. Edgard bristles at this news, then waves it off as just another futile attempt to mobilize voters. The Santiasmos are immigrants from Peru—Patricia from the cultural town of Cuzco, and Edgard from the huge sprawling metropolis of Lima. Last year, under heavy pressure from the World Bank and American oil companies to convert to Western social customs, the country made the big change from driving on the left side of the road to the right. They have also adopted, for the first time, American-style laws making it a violation to park more than 18" from the curb. This has created pandemonium in the streets. When Edgard returns to Lima on vacation, he is hailed as a great driver and receives more requests from friends to park their car for them than he can possibly fulfill.

 

An hour later, we are in the midst of some serious high-pressure action in North Beach. Miraculously, we stumbled across an open spot on Grant Street in front of Savoy Tivoli—a bonafide one-pointer, hands down the best spot Edgard has found in six Saturday evenings of Sport Parking. But two other of his competitors found us, and they have lined up in a queue to take the spot (and the one point) as soon as we pull out. Grant Street is one-way, and only wide enough for one lane of cars. There’s gridlock all the way down to Broadway. Drivers are screaming and honking at Philippe, the clog in this pipeline of autos. Philippe, in turn, is hollering at Edgard to move on and free up the parking spot. Edgard will have none of it. He sits resolutely and won’t even look at Philippe. The balcony crowd at Savoy Tivoli is enjoying the show.

"Philippe wins every week," Edgard explains calmly. "I’ll sleep here if I have to."

Patricia suggests they order a slice of pizza to go. They head up the sidewalk, but I stay in the back seat to watch the action.

Philippe is burly and curly-haired. He wears steel-toed boots and a gray mechanic’s jump suit with a Penzoil patch on the shoulder—when he walks back into the line of cars, the shouting is less confrontational, more conciliatory. He borrows somebody’s cellular phone and makes a call.

A minute later, a tow truck backs down Grant towards Philippe’s Mercury. Philippe waves him off and points him to Edgard’s Corvair. I pop out of the back seat. As a journalist, I’m in a tough bind here. As a rule, I try not to have an effect on the situation I’m writing about, which is sometimes impossible. By merely opening the car door, I’ve given Philippe access to the parking brake on the Corvair. I’m paralyzed with ethical confusion. I do nothing as the Corvair gets pulled up the street. Philippe swerves into the spot and snaps his Polaroid. I realize I’ll be in big trouble if I’m still standing here when Edgard comes back. Not seeing any other options, I climb in to Philippe’s Mercury.

 

Years ago, Philippe used to park cars at parties for Flying Dutchman. He liked the tips and the challenge and the fancy cars, but "the politics of it all" got to him. Each party had its own dispatcher, usually some crew-cut college kid who could sweet talk the hostess in times of trouble. Philippe never got along with college kids and was always assigned to retrieve the vehicles of old men, who don’t tip. He tried to start his own party parking service, submitted low bids on plenty of jobs, but never got the deal. He is convinced that Flying Dutchman spread dirt about him, probably suggested to clients that the DMV had a driving record on him as long as their arm.

Philippe spits as he talks and repeats himself incessantly, jabbering away. I can see why nobody would want to hire him. He swears a lot and talks often about "the parking syndicate." When driving, he reads aloud the letter-number combinations off license plates, then spews out anagrams, looking for implied meaning. He insists that there is a complex code imbedded in the number sequences which "a good friend of his" has nearly cracked. Philippe says he also has friends at the Municipal Court who swear that if your license plate has a 6 and a G in it, the judge will always let you off.

"What’s the first thing to do when you get a parking ticket?" he quizzes me. Before I can come up with something, he answers his own question. "You find some nice car, a Jaguar or an older Mercedes, and you slip that ticket under their windshield wiper. They don’t even bother to scrutinize the ticket. They’re too lazy to go down to court to fight it. 85% of the time, they’ll send in the money."

 

10:00 pm. We are double-parked beside a Saab at the stop sign crossing Washington at Fillmore. The Clay Theater opens its doors and the audience spills out into the street, looking somber and very urban-pouty. They turn their coat collars up to block out the chill.

"The intelligensia," Philippe wisecracks. He is convinced that the Saab belongs to one of the moviegoers—a car this nice would never be parked on the street by a homeowner from the neighborhood. He wants the spot because it is exactly at the corner: a bulls-eye, a zero-pointer, a goose egg.

We wait a minute. The crowd thins, but no Saab driver appears.

I ask if he’s considered the possibility that the Saab’s owner might be at one of the local bars.

"Saab owners don’t go to bars," he shoots back. And he’s right—we hear the quick beep of a remote door-unlocker. Without looking at Philippe, an overdressed couple gets in the Saab and pulls away.

"Bingo," Philippe says, reaching for the Polaroid in the glove compartment.

 

Despite his tireless efforts, Philippe doesn’t win the free dinner this evening. Back at Tommy’s Joynt, we learn that one of the regulars rode shotgun in a van driven by a woman with multiple sclerosis. Using the handicapped plates, they were able to park within a block of all 10 epicenters. Philippe is hopping mad, and feels that there should be a special category for handicapped drivers.

He says, "Make no mistake—I think everyone should participate. I’m just saying there should be categories." He buys himself a beer and heads off to play Mortal Kombat.

I buy a drink for the winner. It’s not her first. She hasn’t had control over her legs for about two years and is sitting in a mechanized wheelchair. She’s not the least bit ashamed about using her disease to win the competition. But she’s not offended by Philippe’s reaction, either—she teaches junior high school math and art, and she says "I’m accustomed to people throwing tantrums."

She offers to show me her van. I decline, but then I see Edgard sliding in through the back door. We head for the front door.

A ramp descends out the back of the van on a surprisingly steep slope. She motors up the ramp and thru the van—sort of recklessly, actually—to the steering wheel. She applies the brakes and clips her wheelchair to the van’s frame. Then she snaps the seatbelt across her chest. The accelerator and brake extend out from the steering column like motorycle handlebars.

I climb in to the passenger seat.

"Where should we go?" she asks.