A few weeks ago, my girlfriend, an English teacher in a Brooklyn public school, began preparing to teach her tenth-grade students The Metamorphosis. She asked me for a few examples of the Kafkaesque. I had two: first, a French thriller I saw in high school, in which a man with a thick mustache tells his wife he intends to shave it off, does so, and is thrown into debilitating anguish by her denial, corroborated by friends, that he even had a mustache to begin with; and second, my ongoing battle, then in its seventh month, with the Washington, D.C., Department of Motor Vehicles.
The latter was more personally disturbing. It began when I and my 2002 Honda Civic (hereafter, Mortimer) arrived in town late on a Thursday evening last May—my tummy a little achy from the roadside barbecue I’d picked up in Delaware, but my spirits, otherwise, way up. I was there to report on a Civil War commemoration for The Baffler, but my immediate destination was an apartment building at the corner of 16th and S, where I was staying for the night with a colleague of an associate of a colleague. He warned me on the phone that parking in his neighborhood would be a nightmare, but I shrugged him off, buoyed both by the belief that looking for an open spot—like doing the dishes—passes from the hellacious to the bodacious the moment a properly groovy tune is introduced and by the confidence that finding a spot could scarcely be more difficult in D.C. than in New York, where, despite disincentives aplenty, my Mortimer is never far.
How wrong I was.
I circled round and round and round again. Suddenly, the barbecue seemed to realize that it was ten minutes late for an important appointment. I spied a space in front of a line of cars on Swann Street, just before the corner of 15th. A small voice from somewhere deep in my mind warned it was probably empty for good reason—namely, that it might not be a legitimate spot—but it was quickly silenced by the hurricane-force storm striking landfall somewhere on the netherside of my small intestines.
I went upstairs. I used the facilities. It was about 10 p.m. At my host’s invitation, I ignited and inhaled the fumes of a substance designed by the merciful gods to help mortals care less about perfidious earthly affairs like parking regulations. I read, very slowly, three paragraphs of a popular history about the Civil War, anointed it the most profound work of literature ever, and I went to sleep.
Imagine my surprise when I went to retrieve Mortimer in the morning and found that an officer sworn to uphold the laws of the District of Columbia was charging the car with multiple overnight violations. On my windshield I found one ticket, written at around 10:30 p.m., for parking within 25 feet of a stop sign on the 1500 block of Swann St. NW—the location where, all signs indicated, I was standing at that moment—and another, written at 7 a.m., for parking within 25 feet of a stop sign on the 1900 block of 16th St. NW, where, as far as I could recall, neither I nor Mortimer had ever been in our lives.
Ah, the unloving caress of the predatory state!
In cities all over the country, revenue from traffic and parking tickets has become integral to funding the daily operations of municipal government. “If the city were to stack the amount of parking fines collected in single dollar bills,” an employee of the American Automobile Association observed of Washington, D.C., a few years ago, “it would nearly reach to the average altitude that a commercial airliner flies above the surface of the Earth.” Meanwhile, just last week the city’s Department of Transportation proposed raising the fine for driving over the 25 mph speed limit to $1,000, without even passing the new regulations through the City Council.
Some have begun to fight back. In Los Angeles, where the city brings in about $161 million every year through traffic citations, an alliance rather grandiosely called the Parking Freedom Initiative has pressured Mayor Eric Garcetti to form a working group to study the problem. “It’s a ‘got-ya’ culture,” Garcetti acknowledged in November when the City Council took up the group’s proposals, which basically amount to making parking more expensive in exchange for cheaper fines.
Imagine what could happen if those whose very lives are threatened by the exercise of illegitimate power were joined in protest by those merely robbed or annoyed by it.
It would be idiotic to suggest that police officers who lie about parking tickets commit a wrong in the same category as those who lie about the circumstances in which a civilian has been shot dead in the street. Yet my eye recently caught on a particular detail in the Chicago police scandal, one which—what with city officials’ resignations, the charges filed against the officer who shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, and the Justice Department’s inquiry—largely escaped widespread attention: all the officers present on the night of the shooting lied in their incident reports to cover for their brother in blue.
Appalled by the second cop’s chutzpah, and just plain dumbfounded by the entire thing, I allowed the parking tickets to disappear beneath Mortimer’s cavernous passenger seat, and didn’t give the matter another thought until almost two months later, when I received a notice in the mail saying that because I hadn’t paid up within thirty days I would be fined another $50 for each citation. I decided to contest both tickets, citing the admittedly dubious principle that because they couldn’t both be valid, neither was.
In late October I received a “hearing record” from the Department of Motor Vehicles. It affirmed, in robotic legalese, that both tickets were indeed valid—that the car had, in fact, been moved—because photographs taken by each “ticketing officer” showed my car in front of “different looking streetscapes” at the time of each citation. The letter indicated that these images were available “online,” but did not give any advice on how to access them, and the DMV’s website was inscrutable. The letter also made much of my lack of explanation for leaving the citations unanswered.
I responded on November 24 with a “motion for reconsideration,” the next step in the appeals process, in which I apologized for not responding to the tickets earlier but again insisted that I had not moved the car, and that, in any case, there had not been any posted signs about parking 25 feet from a stop sign. (I knew the last point wouldn’t get me anywhere, because American law does not burden itself with the responsibility of having to make itself known to those subject to its rule, but I wanted to make the point anyway.) I also asked how I could see the photographs being cited as evidence against me.
The following week I received a letter dated Monday, December 1, with a response to my motion.
“Respondent concedes respondent has not examined the photos,” it pointed out, rather stupidly, “and respondent has not provided any additional evidence or analysis of the existing evidence.” The letter still didn’t tell me how I could access the “existing evidence,” much less what “additional evidence,” in this situation, would even mean.
Things weren’t looking good. But then there was this:
Google Maps contains photos of the streetscape from August 2014, which may not reflect exact conditions at the time of either ticket, but do appear to confirm the veracity of the 1500 block Swann St. NW south side ticket—the flowering bush, the ivy-covered bricks, the painted accents on the corner of the home, the hedge-row, the concrete blocks in the otherwise brick sidewalk, unique graffiti on the stop sign and chips missing from the white stop line. Photos for the west side of the 1900 block of 16th St. NW look markedly different from the officer’s photos. Upon further analysis it seems possible to likely that the two officers took photos from radically different angles (thus radically different-looking photos) but may actually be of the same location.
Translation: the officer lied. He or she took a picture of my car in one location and claimed that it was in another. There is no law in D.C. against issuing tickets for the same offense in the same place at different times; theoretically, one can receive citations for idling minute after minute after minute until the officer becomes dangerously donut-deficient or the car is moved. But “they don’t generally want officers issuing tickets, like, back to back,” an operator on the city’s 311 line told me (confirming once and for all my long-held suspicion that there’s a “they”). Clearly, my tormentor calculated that dismissal would be rendered less likely by alleging a new and distinct violation.
“Upon further review,” the letter concluded, “the weight of the evidence supports that the vehicle was parked less than 25 feet from a stop sign on Swann St. as alleged, but not on 16th.”
The writer was obviously possessed of some literary facility, despite slaving away in the bowels of a soulless bureaucracy, as Kafka did for an insurance company. The letter was signed at the bottom, “D. BEST, Hearing Examiner.” Most assuredly, I thought to myself. But that’s not saying much.
My girlfriend says that her students are enjoying The Metamorphosis—they seem to have a preternatural feel for the Kafkaesque—and that I have developed the habits of an old man with too much time on his hands. Be that as it may, the frisson of my vindication lingers on, the very pettiness of the lie making it all the more galling. Most people indeed do not have the leisure or bandwidth to contest bogus parking citations. It pains me to think of my guileful accuser still walking the beat, persecuting innocent motorists, trying to hit those numbers, please the higher-ups.
Given the state’s constant delegitimization of itself in ways blatant and deadly as well as obscure and small, how can anyone be surprised that demagogues are finding an American audience receptive to the notion of taking back the government? Imagine what could happen if those whose very lives are threatened by the exercise of illegitimate power were joined in protest by those merely robbed or annoyed by it. “Dealing directly with the authorities was not particularly difficult,” Kafka writes in The Castle, “for well organized as they might be, all they did was guard the distant and invisible interests of distant and invisible masters, while K.”—the endlessly fucked-with protagonist—“fought for something vitally near to him, for himself.”