Move Your Car! You’re in a No-Excuse Zone

The papers have been full of stories about unhappy car owners, particularly Upper West Side residents who apparently feel the Mayor has reneged on the social contract by fining them for double parking. I’m with them. But rather than simply kvetch to New York Times reporters who are probably double-parked themselves, I’ve decided to go to court.

My personal campaign against City Hall actually started last spring, well before it became fashionable, I might add, when I received a ticket for parking at a bus stop. On the face of it, my crime sounds heinous, I’ll freely admit, and punishment, perhaps including jail time, my just reward.

But there were mitigating circumstances. The bus stop resembled no bus stop I’ve ever seen–perhaps because it was filled with cars from one end to the other. In fact, I felt rather good about myself when I got the last remaining space. For the record, the curb at the location wasn’t painted yellow, the universal bus stop curb color.

It wasn’t until I returned to my ticketed vehicle a couple of hours later that I noticed through the torrential downpour–oh yeah, it also happened to be raining–a bus stop sign almost a full city block away and of such subtlety and understatement that it could have been plucked from an Hermès necktie.

I promptly pleaded not guilty, requested a hearing by mail and included an impassioned defense–though I stopped short of gathering statements from witnesses or including diagrams or photographs, as the instructions on the ticket suggested, since I was already in the hole for $55 and didn’t think I needed to add the insult of film and processing costs.

I heard back from Administrative Judge Martin Schiff in short order. “A bus stop sign is controlling for the length of the block until the next intervening sign,” he wrote. “The absence of yellow lines has no legal relevance.”

However, he did buy my explanation that the sign was so distant as to be virtually invisible and chopped my fine by more than half, to $25. I paid the amount immediately, proud of myself for having challenged the system and of Judge Schiff for having displayed such Solomonic wisdom.

I fought my next ticket a couple of months later, for double-parking, with even greater self-righteous fervor. These were the circumstances: My father had quadruple heart bypass surgery last winter, and when he asked me to drive him upstate during his recovery, dutiful son that I am, I double-parked in front of his apartment building for no more than five minutes to run upstairs and carry his bags down for him.

Perhaps the mistake I made contesting the ticket that I found on my windshield upon my return was in believing that the folks over at the Parking Violations Bureau would appreciate the distinction between law and morality–which aren’t necessarily synonymous.

Was I guilty of double-parking? Of course I was. However, in the process of breaking the law I was upholding a higher one–that of filial responsibility. I suppose that what I was proposing in the explanation that accompanied my not-guilty plea–though I didn’t phrase it in precisely this way–was a Sophoclean rather than a Giulianian concept of the polis such as in Antigone for instance, where the laws of the family take precedence over the laws of the city.

Instead, I appealed to their better instincts, explaining that not only had my dad undergone bypass surgery, but that he’d been forced to return to the hospital for several additional weeks with a diabetes-related infection to one of his incisions. As supporting evidence, I included a ream of insurance claim forms that referred to my father’s various ailments.

The Parking Violation Bureau’s reply was swift and brutal, and while I can’t seem to find the actual document, the general sentiment was: “Good try, buddy.”

I decided to appeal their decision and was instructed to report to the Parking Violations Appeal Board in Brooklyn on a recent Friday afternoon. Lunch was at Gage & Tollner–a chicken paillard and melted goat cheese sandwich with curly fries followed by a piece of cheese cake–just so my trip wouldn’t be a total loss if the decision didn’t go my way.

I arrived at the Appeals Board office promptly at 3:50 P.M. and was surprised to find it virtually empty. I don’t know if that’s because it was almost the weekend or because nobody except me is dumb enough to go to the mat over a parking ticket.

In any case, I was quickly ushered into the hearing room. It was a cramped, inelegant space made all the more so by the fact that I was forced to share it with the three appeals judges who would be hearing my case and who were separated from me by some sort of dinky partition..

The justices introduced themselves, switched on a tape recorder, and pointedly asked me the question that sealed my doom. “Are you challenging any point of law that makes you believe the judge’s decision was wrong?” the jurist seated in the middle inquired.

I confessed that I probably wasn’t. But then I launched into my family saga, leading them through a Discovery Channel-like travelogue of my father’s maladies.

“Could your mother have brought him down?” one of the judges wondered.

I explained that, if anything, my mother was in worse shape than my father.

“I’m familiar with the building,” the judge seated on my right, an older gentleman in a tweed jacket, stated. “Couldn’t the doorman have gone up and gotten him?”

I fear that my explanation–that they lived in a rent-controlled building famous for the lethargy of its staff–failed to impress the judges.

“No further questions,” the judge said and the others nodded in agreement.

With the possible exception of my final remark, I thought I’d offered a compelling case. I was properly humble, even a little nervous. If there was any weakness in my presentation, it was only that I obviously had to be some kind of wacko for showing up to fight a parking ticket late on a Friday afternoon–though I hadn’t noticed the judges kicking each other under the table.

“One more question,” the oldest judge suddenly asked. “Were you taking your father to the doctor?”

I confessed I wasn’t, though I didn’t volunteer where I was taking him–to the country.

Their unanimous verdict against me arrived in the mail about 10 days later. My good deed on behalf of my dad, “unfortunately, does not provide a basis under the law for reversal,” they wrote. “The appellant has not established an existing medical emergency at the time summons was issued.”

After much thought, I’ve decided not to appeal their decision to Supreme Parking Court. Instead, I’m considering applying for a handicapped parking permit. Will the summons-happy cops in the 20th Precinct think twice before slapping a parking ticket on a guy in a wheelchair? Call me a dreamer, but I believe they will.

Move Your Car! You’re in a No-Excuse Zone