When our out-of-town guests arrive for our son's wedding this summer, we are confident they will savor what they experience in the great City of Philadelphia. I hope none of them have the pleasure of visiting a Philadelphia Parking Authority impoundment lot.
We did have said pleasure recently, spending a lovely Friday evening at the lot on Weccacoe Street in a forsaken parcel of deep South Philadelphia, and it was like old times, except worse.
This essentially is a prison compound, where vehicles and their operators are presumed criminals, served by slow-motion wardens whose glacial movements are astonishing contrasts to the alacrity with which their colleagues ticket and pluck vehicles from the streets of Philadelphia. The former must get paid by the hour; the latter, by the score, their efficiency stunning.
I recall the time a parking enforcement officer agreed that a certain Center City kiosk wasn't functioning and assured me and two other strangers standing by said kiosk that "Parking was free on this street tonight." My wife and I took a celebratory walk, only to find a ticket on the car when we returned — written minutes after the conversation with the officer.
Our recent visit to the impoundment lot was the result of a simple mistake, probably common among people who aren't speed-readers. My wife missed a rush-hour no-stopping order embedded in one of those cluster signs that offer a veritable club sandwich of instructions and prohibitions. Who knows how many visitors are ensnared in the same trap?
I understand the necessity to get a vehicle out of the way at a critical time, especially in a busy area such as Old City – but a $251 fine!? It's not as if she did this on purpose. I often remind my colleagues that we chronicle some very peculiar species, but I've never met anyone who got his or her jollies from deliberately sabotaging rush-hour traffic.
Besides, anyone who has endured the reclamation process has suffered enough. You wait in one line to pay a clerk behind a protective barrier designed to repel bullets and hostility. You are told you must have registration and proof of insurance handy. Folks, those things are in our glove compartment. And shouldn't this information be keystrokes away; it takes me but a few minutes to register a car online. After paying, you transfer to a second line for reasons that resolutely escape me. All I know is the woman behind that impenetrable barrier spent a lot of time stapling papers.
When the warden finally signed off on our release, I half expected someone to remove our handcuffs. A gentleman unlocked a prison gate leading to the incarcerated vehicle. I began walking toward ours, but was ordered to get into a PPA vehicle. I balked. Nothing personal; but I was afraid that whatever drained the life from the eyes of the employees here might be contagious. By the time we got out of this hell hole, we felt violated.
I have tried to love these people. It's hard.
I should disclose that I have had a long relationship with the Parking Authority as a former city resident.
I've been ticketed, towed, booted, fined — everything the Parking Authority has to offer.
Sadly for PPA, I married a responsible person, and we later were granted asylum in a community outside its jurisdiction.
On the fateful Friday evening in question, my wife risked leaving that sanctuary town to meet me for dinner after work. We planned to scout a restaurant for our son's wedding-rehearsal dinner. By the time we were released from the custody of the parking authority — complete with a prison-like ID number scrawled on our windshield — the restaurant had stopped serving. We ended up eating near our safe house.
I know people have had worse experiences. I understand the PPA has a mission. Philadelphia, any city, absolutely needs parking enforcement. I realize that PPA employees have family, loved ones, and that this job isn't necessarily quenching their souls' tender fires. No doubt they deal with car thieves and assorted miscreants, and endure bouts of barbarism.
All that said, may I offer a few humble suggestions:
Hire someone to simplify those signs, preferably a slow reader.
You don't have to turn the impoundment complex into the Rittenhouse, but it doesn't have to be the Detention Center.
Hire employees who have at least a passing acquaintance with the human condition.
Apply that ticketing-towing efficiency to the reclamation process.
No doubt you encounter real, live scofflaws, scoundrels, and other miscreants, but do not assume that everyone who gets a car towed is a criminal; people do make mistakes.
Be aware that the car you towed just might belong to a free-spending out-of-towner who might decide to go somewhere else next time.
And lower those fines, and announce that not all the money is going to payroll or smarter tow trucks, that you're giving half the money to some decent cause, say, St. John's Hospice. Even if it's not true, it would make us all feel better.