There's nothing unique, I suppose, about walking a few city blocks to the place where you last parked your car and finding, in its place, an enormous sewer pipe and construction equipment. To be fair to myself, and the city, it was the day before the Monument Lighting in Mt. Vernon, so four out of the 10 or so city blocks I normally try to park on were unavailable, not to mention construction everywhere. But I swear when I pulled into my spot at 8 p.m. there were no signs about this construction. I swear, officer!
After locating my car, I caught a Lyft over to the impound lot. My Lyft driver, a 20-something blasting classical music, quickly joined me in swapping stories of people we knew who'd been dragged down by the transportation authority; he had a friend who was very near being considered a criminal due to all the tickets he'd accumulated. We shook our heads as he missed the entrance (it was at 410 Fallsway, instead of the 411 I had been quoted on the phone). Could this feel any more conspiratorial?
When I got inside the towing office, there was a petite young woman in flower-print pants and purple scarf in mid-rant: "I get home late from working all day. It's 7 o'clock. It's dark. I'm tired, and the last thing I'm thinking of is to check whether or not my street, which I pay the city for the right to park on, has been suddenly turned into a 'no parking' zone. I pay to park there!" When she finally handed over her credit card to pay the fee, she threw it down and said, "Go ahead. Take it all! All my hard earned money. Go ahead and take it, Baltimore!"
Behind her in line was a young boy and girl, each no older than 17, chattering quietly in Spanish. When the man behind the counter announced they owed upward of $600 in parking tickets, which was why their car was towed, the boy said "I don't have the money for this, man!" while the girl tucked her chin and started crying.
I was suddenly a lot less upset about my car, and a lot more enraged at the city in general. Because sure, I can afford $300. It sucks, don't get me wrong, and I'll have to pay attention for the next month. But I can still drive straight to the grocery store and stock up on comfort food, while we all know the Internet abounds with stories of people who get slapped with a court fee, or a parking ticket (or a tow) just at the same time that they lose their job or get a big hospital bill, and all of a sudden they have to choose between food and rent: Which would you choose? As the bills ratchet up, they lose their homes or become criminals, and before you know it the cops are knocking on their doors.
It's not a surprise to hear that the system is set up for people who can afford it, and those who can't have no recourse. Can't pay? Can't have your car. Can't get to work on time? Can't have your job. Can't pay bail? Can't get out of jail.
This isn't hurting the middle class, or the upper class, it's hurting the same set of people it always hurts: the poor. The city is putting one more thing on the shoulders of people who are already struggling, and it isn't just bad for them, it's bad for all of us, because it's all of us who suffer. All of us who want to walk down the street without seeing a family sitting on the side of the road, begging for quarters. All of us who want to live in a society that raises people up instead of callously slapping them with tickets they can't afford. I mean, $600 for parking tickets? That's rent! That's a whole month's worth of food!
Because really, Baltimore, how much does it cost to tow a car from one spot to another? Who are the city's institutions here, after all, to serve?
Amanda Fiore (amandafiore.com) is editor for The Baltimore Review and curator of the interdisciplinary reading series, Open Circle. She teaches at the University of Maryland at College Park.