Its 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 whats 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.
Im in the rear seat, ducking down so not to block Edgards 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 outI can see a shouting match comingbut its all a
false alarm: the spot is guarded by a fire hydrant. The driver gets back in his car and
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 doesnt snap the flash. She puts the camera
back in her bag. "It has to fool a meter lady before it counts."
"Lets go get a beer," he says.
For the Santiasmos and their friends, the
evenings entertainment does not come after they park the carParking 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 Tommys 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 cant take the
points until a Parking Control Officer passes by, which shouldnt 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 PeruPatricia 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
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 Tivolia 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. Theres 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 wont even look at Philippe. The balcony crowd at Savoy Tivoli is
enjoying the show.
"Philippe wins every week," Edgard explains
calmly. "Ill 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 mechanics jump suit with a Penzoil patch on the shoulderwhen
he walks back into the line of cars, the shouting is less confrontational, more
conciliatory. He borrows somebodys cellular phone and makes a call.
A minute later, a tow truck backs down Grant towards
Philippes Mercury. Philippe waves him off and points him to Edgards Corvair. I
pop out of the back seat. As a journalist, Im in a tough bind here. As a rule, I try
not to have an effect on the situation Im writing about, which is sometimes
impossible. By merely opening the car door, Ive given Philippe access to the parking
brake on the Corvair. Im 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 Ill be in big trouble if Im still standing here when Edgard comes
back. Not seeing any other options, I climb in to Philippes 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 dont 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.
"Whats 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 dont even bother to scrutinize the
ticket. Theyre too lazy to go down to court to fight it. 85% of the time,
theyll 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 moviegoersa 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
We wait a minute. The crowd thins, but no Saab driver
I ask if hes considered the possibility that the
Saabs owner might be at one of the local bars.
"Saab owners dont go to bars," he
shoots back. And hes rightwe 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 doesnt win
the free dinner this evening. Back at Tommys 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 mistakeI think everyone
should participate. Im 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. Its not her first.
She hasnt had control over her legs for about two years and is sitting in a
mechanized wheelchair. Shes not the least bit ashamed about using her disease to win
the competition. But shes not offended by Philippes reaction, eithershe
teaches junior high school math and art, and she says "Im accustomed to people
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 vansort of recklessly,
actuallyto the steering wheel. She applies the brakes and clips her wheelchair to
the vans 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.