Friday, 8:00 a.m.
Another working day begins for parking meter 3-1118. The number 3 stands for Third Street; 1118 indicates which block on Third.
Meter 3-1118 can be found on the west side of Third Street, in front of the San Diego Civic Auditorium, across the street from the Ace Parking Lot, a block and a half north of Horton Plaza. Meter 3-1118 rules over a 30-minute parking zone, enforced from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Two humans tend to 3-1118. One is Torres Francisco. Francisco is the man in a blue-gray city uniform, walking fast down urban sidewalks lugging what looks at first glance to be one of those airport suitcase carts. Using a cat-quick, one-hand motion, Francisco opens a parking meter, dumps its coins down a leather funnel into his coin cart. It takes two blinks of an eye, and then he moves on — BOOM, another meter, BOOM, another one, BOOM another one.
I introduce myself and ask, “How often do you collect from this block?”
A soft, measured voice replies. “Once every couple days.”
“What kind of money are we talking about?”
“To be honest, I wouldn’t be able to tell. I just dump it out. Some meters are real empty, some are real full, depends on where people park.”
“Do people tamper with these meters?”
“They’re pretty solid now. We’re happy about that. It depends, though. Some people know how to tamper with anything and sometimes the coin gets stuck.”
A homeless man approaches a white Scorpio that is just now parking next to us. The man is, say, 35, red hair, red thick mustache, dirty J.C. Penny striped shirt, cords, tennis shoes. He carries a plastic squeeze bottle and a handful of used newspapers. The bleary-eyed male has a particularly annoying New York methamphetamine squeal, a piercing shriek that is now assaulting a startled driver. “Good morning sir! How are we today? Trying to get up a little breakfast, can I get your windows for you?” I return to Francisco. “Who does the repairs?”
“We got one tech that does most of them. Coin jams are the most common. We take the top off and unjam the meter. This one here (3-1118) is a digital one; it’s a lot better than the old ones.”
“Have you had problems walking around with money?”
“Knock on wood, so far.”
“How long have you been collecting coins?”
“A little over a year."
“Do you like the job?”
“It’s a good job. You meet a lot of different people downtown, a lot of homeless, they get to know us. I was 26 when I started; I’m 35 now after a year on the job. No, just kidding. It’s an okay job.”
“What do you hate about the job?”
“People get really upset because we’re not allowed to give change for the meters. The department has us writing citations now too, so we get the worst of both worlds. I just had one guy drive off on me.”
“What happens then?”
“They get a citation in the mail. Nobody gets away.”
A homeless man sits on freshly mowed grass ten feet away from 3-1118. The man is middle-aged, wears black pants, a black leather jacket, and an orange wool cap. The clothes have been worn so long that it’s difficult to tell where skin stops and clothes begin. The man rolls a cigarette, then dips a hand into a cloth bag, retrieves an item, puts it back, retrieves another piece of flotsam, puts it back, retrieves another, puts it back, and on and on like a primate lazily grooming another primate in the morning’s warm sun.
A whoosh of blue passes in front of the squatting male. Here is Dean Hoover, 3-1118’s other human tender. Hoover is tall, well over six feet, mid-20s, short black hair, clean-shaven face, wearing dark, dark sunglasses, a blue short-sleeved shirt, and blue shorts. People who watch a lot of daytime TV would use the word “hunk” to describe Officer Hoover.
“Are you the traffic ticket man?”
“Yeah, what do you need?”
“I thought all you people were in three-wheelers.”
“Some of us work on foot."
“Is this a high parking area?"
“Yeah, parking is at a premium on this block.” “How many times a day will you be up and down this street?”
“Six or seven.”
“That’s a lot of walking.”
“I go through a pair of shoes every six to eight weeks, walk eight, ten miles a day.”
The red-headed homeless man returns to meter 3-1118, now hustling an ’86 Buick. “How are we today?" The phrase is spoken so quickly that spittle flies onto the Buick’s passenger window.
I step back, ask Hoover, “Do you ever give people a break?”
“For me, every ticket is different. Depends on the ticket, what it’s for, what the excuse is, whether I believe it or not, whether they’re a chronic abuser. If they’re just running in to get change or they’re in a meeting and just came out and miss by two minutes, I give them a break.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“A little over three years.”
“Do you like it?”
“Not really. Once you get used to it, it’s the same old thing.”
“How many tickets are you going to write today — I mean, for this one block?” “Five to ten. It depends, this block has a lot of meters, a lot of turnover, and only 30-minute parking. People don’t think, they don’t bother to read the sign, so they put four or five quarters into the slot thinking it will be good for an hour when they only have 30 minutes.” “Is it 20 bucks for a parking ticket?”
“Twenty for a meter ticket”
A nearby voice screams, “HOW ARE WE TODAY?”
I move two steps further back, ask, “The block’s been empty most of the morning, when does it pick up?”
“Eleven, 12, in that range. It usually stays steady all the way to six. It’s not near the problem it used to be.”
“Business is down, not as many people working, more parking garages. You walk around and you’ll see that even the parking lots aren’t full. There’s just not as many people downtown as there were two or three years ago. And fines have gone up, it costs more for meters; people don’t have as much money, so they don’t take a chance, play the games they used to play. Used to be it was a game. You come by and mark the tire; later, you see them out there rubbing it off.”
“Does that work?”
“No, we know the mark’s been messed with because there’s a clean spot on the tire, so we just come back and mark all four tires.
That way he’ll have a lot of cleaning to do. There are different ways of playing the game. We use our pen, put a little mark on the tire, and if you don’t know exactly where to look, even if you do and the sun hits that place wrong, you can’t see it.”
“How long did it take you to learn the parking tricks?"
“It depends who trains you. There are people who love to play the game on our side, too. If you have one of those people training you, it takes a month, two months. We have choices: ‘Do I chalk the tires with a big mark so people can see it from two blocks away, or do I use a red or yellow or blue crayon, or do I throw a penny or a rock or a leaf or a cigarette butt on top of the tire tread?’ You can stick gum on there too. There’s all kinds of tricks."
“Has anybody ever taken you to court?”
“I’ve had what we call declaration of facts. You write a statement saying why you wrote the ticket and what it was for and everything. I’ve had about ten of those and I’ve gone to court ten or 15 times.” “Have you ever lost?” “Myself and another officer, we wrote tickets seven hours apart for the same thing — vehicle parked on the sidewalk — and the judge, just because the person took the time to go to court, dismissed it. Depends on the judge and his mood."
“You get paid for going to court?”
“We get paid overtime if we go after our shift. For the number of tickets we write— 12-, 14-thousand tickets a year for each officer — we don’t go to court often.”
“What do you do if there’s one minute left on the meter. Do you wait?”
“I don’t worry about it. Some officers will walk away, turn around, come back and write a ticket.”
“In your business, what’s known as a real bad day?”
“Every ticket you write someone will come out and argue with you. Everybody you see talks to you, and you’re just wasting time. They have a big push about writing tickets; that’s our number one job.
Supervisors know if they’ve had 80 people work this area, and everyone comes in with 40, 50 tickets a day, and you work it for six weeks, nothing special is going on, and you come in with ten tickets a day.
They’re going to have a good idea that you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
“What does this machine do?” I point to an object, held in an extremely large left hand, which looks like a battery-operated calculator.
“This prints up the ticket. Every three or four days the supervisor inputs information into it — stolen vehicles, that sort of stuff. I punch in the license number; it will beep if the vehicle’s stolen or if it has outstanding tickets."
“What do you do if you find a car with outstanding tickets?”
“Call the City Treasurer and ask them to confirm it, and they go on a computer real quick: ‘Yup, it’s got so many tickets for such and such violations on these days.’ "
“So then you call up a tow company and they come and get it?”
“How many of those do you get a day?”
“It differs. Sometimes a squad of eight officers will get 20 tows, 30 tows in one week. Next week they’ll get five.”
“What was it like the first time you punched a license number in and it came up as a stolen car?”
“Luckily, there was someone helping me out. It was a Ford Pinto, immaculate, looked like someone had gone through it and had it detailed. I would have never thought it was stolen.”
“You called the cops?” “No, we just call for a tow unless there’s some special hold — a robbery hold, or homicide hold, something like that." Hoover takes a breath,
“Got to go.”
Officer Hoover walks, quick-step, down Third. The red-headed window-washer is working on a Benz. The black leather jacket man rolls another cigarette.