As the motorist prepares to feed a parking meter on Holliday Street near Baltimore City Hall, James Sellers makes his move.
"She's around the corner," Mr. Sellers warns, referring to a parking meter control agent. "May be here in 10, 15 minutes. Maybe not."
For the quarter the motorist planned to put into the meter, Mr. Sellers says, he'll watch the car and feed the meter if the parking agent comes around. The motorist gives him the coin. The man returns before the parking agent arrives and Mr. Sellers keeps the quarter as a tip.
Mr. Sellers, 33, calls what he does a "public service" for motorists who park on downtown streets.
Officials, however, say he disrupts the turnover rate for parking spaces and costs the city revenue from parking meters and parking tickets.
"He's disrupting the process," says Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, co-chairman of the City Council's Budget and Appropriations Committee.
"I'd like to see him put his efforts to better use. What he's doing is to the detriment of the city."
But Councilman Timothy Murphy, chairman of the Taxation and Finance Committee, says the money lost due to Mr. Sellers "job" is negligible.
Although there is no law banning what Mr. Sellers does -- Mr. Murphy, D-6th, says that legislation could be introduced in the council if the practice spreads -- officials say it adversely affects the availability of metered spaces in areas where motorists are encouraged not to park for long periods.
But Mr. Sellers, a laid-off cook, sees no harm from his "job" of the last two months. He says he's in the "car business" and usually makes about $40 a day in tips from appreciative motorists to supplement his twice monthly unemployment checks.
"This prevents me from even thinking about standing on drug corners, or robbing someone's house. This is honest work," says Mr. Sellers, who works the parking meters about three days a week and looks for a permanent job most mornings.
"I save them time of having to go pay off parking tickets and the money for the tickets," he says. "Some people get tickets while coming down here to pay off tickets."
Tickets for most downtown parking meter violations are $20 and $32.
Mr. Sellers makes it his business to stay a couple of steps behind and one quarter ahead of the parking agents.
He walks the sidewalk and when he sees that a parking agent has spotted a red "violation" flag beside one of his cars, he drops a coin into the meter.
"I know they're kind of mad at me sometimes so I just give them a little grin," Mr. Sellers says. "But they know what I'm doing most of the time and they don't want to give tickets if they know that I'm watching a car for someone. They're doing their job and I'm doing mine."
He also offers motorists change for the meters.
"I ask them if they need quarters for a dollar and if they do, I might at that time only have two or three quarters. So they take them and say keep the change. No one wants a ticket," he says.
Andy Wilmber, of Towson comes downtown regularly. He frequently has Mr. Sellers feed his meters.
"I know the city needs money but I think this man needs some money, too," Mr. Wilmber says. "And if they're both good causes, I think he's better than the city."
But Vanessa Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works, warns that even if the meter is fed, if a car has been parked in a metered space for an extended period, parking agents can still ticket the vehicle.
"The No. 1 concern is the proper turnover of spaces in demand in the downtown area," she said. "A car should move once the [time] limit is up."