Friday, December 10, 2010

Still Life with Robin: Meter Meditations

Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters  –Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues, 1965

This may sound strange, but I’m nostalgic for parking meters. You know, the old kind that have an actual time-dial on the front and a slot for your coins. You find an unoccupied space for your car and then you go up to your meter in front and you put in your change. It’s so simple. The main downside was how often the meters were jammed or broken. In DC it’s always been a dicey proposition to park at a broken meter, even if you follow to the letter the procedure for phoning in the meter number and getting a broken-meter confirmation code: Good luck challenging that ticket if you get one. Your safest best has always been to move to another space if you can.

Now we’ve lost those silver-headed meters on poles. Instead we have tall green “pay stations.” You park, and get out of your car and wander halfway down the block looking for machine to take your money. Once you find it, you have to figure out how to pay it, get it to print out that little square of paper that shows the time by which you must vacate the space, and walk back to your car and stick that proof-of-purchase slip on your dashboard. It’s the payment part of the process that usually trips me up. Two-thirds of the time it rejects my credit card. I know my credit is good, because the stores never have any problem with the card; I guess I’m messing up one of the steps in the payment process. The pay stations don’t accept paper money, which is a shame, because it now costs two dollars to park for an hour, and I just can’t manage to maintain the quantity of quarters necessary to keep pace with my parking needs. By the way, this is not a complaint about the price of parking on our city streets: Seven and a half minutes for a quarter is pretty good buy, given that if you go into the nearest CVS with a quarter, you’d be lucky to find even a single piece of candy for that price. Most private lots in the neighborhood would run you between four and ten bucks an hour.

Here’s what I really miss about those old meters: the serendipity of pulling up to a meter, getting out with some quarters in hand, and finding that the previous parker has left me with all the time I need. It’s not the monetary savings (because as I said, I don’t begrudge the city a reasonable return for the use of its pavement); it’s just that I like having this bit of luck fall my way. It always brightened my day. Well, today I discovered for the first time that pay stations have their own form of serendipity; it just calls for a bit more of a human touch to make it happen. I pulled my car into a spot. Before getting out to walk to the pay station, I opened the car’s change compartment and saw (no big surprise) that I was completely out of quarters. There I was, contemplating my options if, as is frequently the case, my credit card would be rejected by the machine. As I was fumbling with the card, a woman in the driver’s seat of the car parked next to the pay station rolled down her window and held out her timed parking slip. It was good for the next 45 minutes. She said she’d be happy to let me have it. I accepted gratefully. Here is the pay station equivalent of finding time on the meter. From now on, before I leave my next space I’m planning to offer up my unused time to a newly arrived parker, in the same spirit.

One last thing about those old style meters: You’d hear from time to time about good samaritans who make a practice of adding quarters to expired meters for random strangers. That’s one little good deed that these pay stations seem to make impossible. I’m wondering if there’s some way around that, though. Let me know if you can think of how to do it.  Feel free to use the comments section below.

No comments:

Post a Comment