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February 12, 2009

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The Chestnut Hill Local
8434 Germantown Ave.
Phila. PA 19118
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Motorists take a licking, but PPA keeps on ticketing

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me get one thing out of the way: The civil servants who work for the Philadelphia Parking Authority are hard-working professionals who provide a valuable municipal service.

With that little piece of housekeeping finished, let me tell you a little story: Several years ago, when I lived in Center City, a massive snowstorm blanketed Philadelphia, effectively shutting Philadelphia down. Nearly a foot of snow fell, which was followed by a brief rain shower that created a glaze of frozen ice. My office closed due to the storm, I mainly rode the blizzard out with hot cocoa and rented movies.

The next morning I walked to Locust Street to clean off my car, which had all but disappeared underneath a carapace of snow. I began by smashing the layer of ice with my elbow. It gave way with a satisfying crack, reminding me of the sensation of breaking the top layer of crème brulee. I began clearing the snow away from my windshield.

I had been in Philadelphia three years, and could by then pick out a Phila. Parking Authority (PPA) ticket from five blocks away. It had not taken long to become bitterly obsessed with PPA. The sight of that innocuous-looking rectangular envelope — the word “VIOLATION” printed white on blue, as if in parody of summer skies — would make my jaws clench in rage.

Beneath the cracked shell of ice, I could see — unmistakably, infuriatingly — the tell-tale outlines of a PPA ticket. I was stunned. On a day in which all but the most essential city services had shut down, the PPA ticketed me for parking beside an expired meter. Angrily I jammed the ticket in my pocket and kept digging.

What happened next further astonished me. As I kept digging, I discovered another ticket, given on the same day, encased in snow about four inches directly below the first ticket. It was as if I had discovered two fossils buried on different strata under the same rock. I let out an anguished yell and wadded the limp, half-disintegrating ticket into my pocket.

When the third ticket was dug out — this one given the evening before — my fury had become tempered with awe. The PPA, I realized, was a marvel of ruthless efficiency in a city not especially noted for its municipal efficiency. Trying to evade the PPA was like trying to stop the tide. They were a force of nature — like the sun or heartburn.

Standing beside my snow-covered car, I imagined a lone PPA employee running around a post-Apocalyptic Philadelphia, Omega Man-style, dodging flesh-eating zombies and enforcing parking restrictions. I imagined a meteor exploding over Philadelphia in a gigantic conflagration of molten rock and tumbling buildings — myself racing to my beat-up ‘99 Ford Ranger only to find a fresh, half-scorched ticket. When I die, I am certain my hearse will be ticketed outside of the funeral home.

I have come to assume that if there were to be some sort of local catastrophe, in fact, the PPA would naturally take over all government functions. What other government agency has the brutal determination to govern under civil strife?

In the years since this incident, I have continued to be astonished by the persistence and drive of the PPA. In one instance, a PPA official screamed at me for asking if it was OK to park in a particular spot. She thought I should have walked around and faced her before asking my question. (Yes; she did give me a ticket.) I also saw the PPA give a ticket to a trucker making a food delivery to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

And it may have been some sort of crazy dream, but I swear I once saw a PPA employee give a ticket to another PPA vehicle. I can’t be sure, however. The PPA has replaced the Boogie Man as the entity that haunts the darkest reaches of my psyche.

To say that I have come to despise the PPA is only part of the story. My visceral reaction to the PPA leads to some pretty fundamental questions: Why can’t our schools be run with the ferocious efficiency of the PPA? Why can’t the streets be as clean as our cars monitored for parking violations? And why is Philadelphia’s planning stuck in the 1960s?

I’m not going to pull punches: I hate the PPA. I hate it like I hate toothaches or Kenny G or stubbing my toe. I hate the way they manage to give you a ticket in the time it takes to get change for the meter at the corner store. I hate the way they swarm to your car within 30 seconds of your meter expiring. It is, I admit, an irrational, completely distorted animus. Walking around hating the PPA more than the Taliban isn’t exactly healthy. What I hate most of all, however, is the sure-as-death way you’ll get a ticket in a block where the schools aren’t effective or the streets clean. 

Here is my modest proposal: If a particular city department isn’t working efficiently, let’s turn it over the PPA. If they can give me three tickets within 24 hours during a blizzard that shut down the city, imagine what they can do with our schools and streets? Shouldn’t the city be efficient at something other than hassling us?

 

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