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'Parking': Feelings aren't neutral

The Baltimore Sun

You haven't lived until you've had a car towed in this city and negotiated the many circles of bureaucratic hell necessary to get it back.

The tense drive out to the impound lot, the testy exchanges with the bored clerk behind the Plexiglas, the usurious fees paid to get the car back -- oh, look at me, I'm getting all misty-eyed at the memories.

If you, too, want to relive fun experiences like this, you can watch A&E;'s new reality series Parking Wars, a behind-the-scenes look at the men and women who ticket, tow and (some would say) torment people who park in one of the biggest cities in the country.

Sure, the series is set in Philadelphia, not Baltimore, so it doesn't chronicle the evil ticket squads and tow-truck drivers who drive us nuts here.

But the scenes resonate for anyone who's ever had a big-city parking nightmare.

A recent show, for instance, featured an angry exchange between a motorist and a Philadelphia Parking Authority "booter" clamping a yellow Denver boot to the motorist's truck tire because of unpaid traffic tickets.

(Yeah, what a shocker: The motorist didn't take it well. In fact, he threatened to cut the boot off with a saw.)

Another segment featured a woman who goes clubbing, gets her car towed and ends up simmering with frustration while getting the run-around at the impound lot.

Parking in a hurry on a strange street so you can swill drinks and hit the dance floor -- is this ever a good move?

But this segment was a particular favorite of mine, as it brought back wonderful memories of the longest day of my life, which consisted of three hours spent at one of the impound lots here.

This was a couple of years ago, after my daughter was involved in an accident downtown.

She was OK. The car was not. It was towed to the vast, dreary gulag that is the Department of Transportation lot on Pulaski Highway.

There I was informed that for a mere 315 bucks, which covered towing, storage, administrative fees and transfer charges, I could get my wrecked car released and turned over to a local junkyard.

This will probably shock you: I didn't have $315 on me.

So for the next few hours, I stood in various lines in the overheated office, talking to various clerks behind the smudged Plexiglas window to determine where exactly the car was, what form of payment they accepted (no checks, no MasterCard) and how to sign the car over to the junkyard.

It took 10 years off my life. Watching the club-hopping woman on Parking Wars brought it all back. I probably have post-traumatic stress disorder now.

But the problem I have with A&E;'s new show is the problem I have with all these "reality series."

And that is: How real can they be when a TV camera is right there taking it all in?

It's not a hidden camera, either. So people know they're being filmed.

And when people know they're being filmed, they're not really being themselves. They're playing to the cameras, putting on their best face.

So ticketers and towers who might be the biggest jerks in real life can come off looking friendly and reasonable.

And motorists who might otherwise swear quietly to themselves upon seeing a parking ticket flapping on their car's windshield now might confront the ticketer and launch into a long, theatrical tirade, figuring this is their big shot on TV, their 15 minutes of fame.

On last week's show, a ticket-squad agent named Fatima came across as the sweetest person to ever walk the face of the earth.

She was friendly and polite to everyone. In fact, she so charmed one young man that the two were actually flirting with each other after she ticketed his car.

Does this happen in real life?

Hormones raging among the parking meters in the concrete canyons of a bustling city?

Motorists making goo-goo eyes at someone in a parking-authority uniform who's just slapped a $51 parking ticket on their windshield?

And if it does happen, here's a better question.

How come I never run into ticketers like that?


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