On page three of the Milwaukee Journal’s Sunday edition, July 21, 1935, there is a picture of a stylish woman. Taken on a sunny summer’s day, it shows a fetching lady wearing a chic hat and a trim dress adorned by a flower. Her physical beauty is contrasted by an expression that can best be described as concerned curiosity. The photograph’s caption reads, “Above is shown a fair motorist paying her fee.”
I suppose that’s the way most plagues begin – by having an attractive person stand next to them.
The plague in question? The world’s first parking meters. Dreamt up by professors at Oklahoma State, they were introduced in 1935 on a trial basis. The installation was described in the Journal like this, “Metered curb parking is being tried in Oklahoma City as a means of solving the parking problem … At 20-foot intervals along the curb, parking meters are placed. On parking, one places a coin in the meter, which pays for a specific parking time. The fee varies according to the zone. Five cents pays for 15 minutes in some places, or a half hour or an hour in less congested districts.”
Does that sound like the parking in your town or city?
If the Milwaukee Journal were filing copy on my typical interaction with a parking meter it would go something like this, “The solar-powered wallet violators are seen as a means of fleecing the public. Presided over by soul-dead walking zombies (parking officials) they are the bane of every motorist’s existence. Above is shown is a man wishing that he had bionic strength so he could drive his fist through the machine rendering it inoperable.”
To be honest, I was okay with the coin-operated meters. They were kind of fun (reminded me of slot machines) and they had springs and bobbing needles that made strange noises when you dropped in your quarter and spun the knob. Coin-operated meters had spaces attached to them. That meant it was easier for the average driver to know where to park. Also, occasionally you would pull in and find time left over on the meter. It was a surprise bonus. You can still find some of these coin-operated relics in some small towns.
It’s the new-fangled versions I detest. Around a decade ago, they began replacing coin meters with new paper slip, pay-with-coin-or-credit card systems. These were solar powered and you could cover an entire city block with a single machine. Where the coin-operated meters had a quaint, down-home charm, the paper slip meters were reminiscent of faceless bureaucrats. This was progress.
City governments like them because we all over pay. You buy five dollars of parking and you leave after using up two-dollars worth. Then another driver pulls in and buys five. They’re selling the same time over and over. I’m often tempted to place a pylon on a space I’ve overspent on and tape my ticket to it. If I’ve paid for three hours, I’m taking them. I may want to come back.
That is the scenario if the machines are working. Often, you park, and approach the rip-off meter only to find it is kaput. The screen is blank. Now what? If you leave, without buying a parking slip, the parking meter officer will come by to give you a ticket. The meter not working? Not his problem. You should have tried harder. Go ahead, try leaving a note scrawled on the back of a used envelope that says, “Meter not working.” You’ll find it balled up on the ground beneath your rear tire.
But, let’s say the machine is actually functioning. Odds are you’ll find yourself waiting behind the only person on Planet Earth who has never used one before. They stand there, confused, stunned by cryptic instructions such as “Insert Card” or “Press Pay Buttons.” Occasionally, they turn around and mutter, “Machine’s not working.” This can go on for up to 15 minutes.
Finally, you offer assistance. “When it says ‘remove card’ you take your card out,” you say. This can go on for a few more awkward minutes until you finally say, “To print your ticket you press the ‘print ticket button.’” And so, brandishing his 75 cents worth of parking, he leaves to place the slip on the dashboard of his Impala.
That’s when you finally get the chance to pay $3.75 per half hour. At times like this you may feel like the only person in the world the parking gods have deemed worthy of their wrath. You’ll feel alone and helpless. Take heart. You are in the majority. The love affair that was anticipated when “metered curb parking” was born was short-lived.
For instance, 20 years after they were introduced, it was reported that a 30-year-old farmer had driven his pick up truck into the centre of Marshall, Ill., and then drove it “onto the sidewalk and around the square shearing off the meters like bowling pins.” He got 33 of them but was upset that he’d missed two. “The driver was held without charge,” the news report stated. “He confided he didn’t like the meters.”
Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy