You could see the strain around the man's eyes. He was standing at the window in the police station lobby, frowning over a stack of papers and listening to the clerk tell him what was what.
"That's a lot of tickets," she said. "If an officer happens to run your plate, these tickets are going to pop up and they'll tow it."
The fellow winced as though he had been goosed, and not in the fun way. What had once seemed nothing more than a nuisance in the form of a few yellow squares of paper was now potentially life-changing. When your car gets the hook, life is suddenly chaotic. You have a thousand things to do, but no way to get around and do them.
What, are you supposed to walk from the police station to the DMV? Thumb it? Steal a kid's pogo stick and boing, boing, boing your way up and down Main Street?
It's misery and the man at the window was starting to realize it. He probably should have spent some time searching under the seats of his car for change that time he parked next to the post office just long enough to run in and mail a package.
Ah, but it was too late for retrospection. His options were to fork over a couple hundred dollars to get the matter cleared up, or take his chances and start parking his car in hard-to-find spots. Live day to day with nonstop adventure, playing cat-and-mouse with cops and tow-truck drivers who are very good at cat-and-mouse games.
Good times. And I know what I'm talking about, too, chum, because there was a day when I was Lewiston's Most Wanted Parking Moron. They didn't have sketches of me hanging in the post office, but every officer out there knew my name and they knew what I was driving.
Unfortunately for them, what I was driving was a Subaru Justy, a car so tiny, I could almost wrestle it up the stairs to my apartment every night to keep it out of view. A car that could easily be mistaken for a roller skate or a cruddy snowbank if the light wasn't good. A car that was very easy to hide, is what I'm saying in that poetic way I have.
But, lo! Before ye get thy panties in a bunch, let me clarify something. I wasn't an irresponsible lad back in those crazy days playing the nightly shell game with Lewiston's finest. I was stupid. How stupid? Hark! And let me the count the ways.
I think I owed the city of Lewiston around 400 clams at one point. Maybe it was even closer to 700 clams; I honestly don't remember. All I know is that when it comes to paying parking fines, the city won't accept actual clams as payments. They demand cash. You learn that the hard way.
Back in the day, I collected parking tickets the way young people of today collect tattoos. I'd go off on some exotic adventure and leave my tiny Justy sitting right there on Lisbon Street for days or even weeks at a time to collect dust, angry glares and parking tickets. I'm pretty sure drunk people used to pee on my tires, as well, but the tickets were the worst.
I'd come back into town to discover long fans of them blowing majestically from beneath my windshield wipers. Some would be faded after days in the sun, others would be vibrant yellow, the ink upon them still wet to the touch. Six, seven or eight tickets scattered across my windshield, the writing growing angrier with each new citation. By the end, I think the enforcement officer started using exclamation points and dirty words.
"Overnight parking where prohibited you, !@#!!# moron!" went a standard ticket lain upon my windshield. Or, "No parking any time, you $!@#!! dip @!%$!"
One small mistake I made back then was believing that a meter maid would never leave more than one ticket on a car at any given time. They would simply drive upon the offending vehicle, see that a ticket had already been left there, and keep on going. They'd roll away in that oversized shopping cart they ride around in and look for other vehicles that had not yet been tagged.
But alas, it turns out the ticket people were equipped with both common sense and fine memories, especially when it came to a type of car of which there were only six left in the entire country. They'd see my diminutive Justy out there, remember it from two hours earlier, and write a fresh ticket.
The bigger mistake I made was somehow believing that the whole ticket/fine procedure was based on something akin to the honor system. They wouldn't keep track of who was ticketed and when or anything like that. They'd just trust you to eventually gather up all your tickets, put them in a U-Haul and go to the police department to pay the fines.
But soft! As it turns out, they kept track of every ticket ever written with powerful computers capable of recording your license plate, amount owed and everything. Technology, huh? When a parking dolt like myself reached a certain number of tickets, late charges, idiot fees, etc., you'd get placed on a special scofflaw list. Alarms would sound. Red lights would flash. You'd go into City Hall to register your car and the clerk would actually clutch her chest and stumble a bit when pulling up your account.
"I'm afraid I can't let you register this vehicle," she would say. "Says here you owe five hundred dollars in parking fines."
"I see. Do you accept clams?"
"Mimi, call security."
So now the cops are looking for you because you owe them money and your car is unregistered, to boot. It got to the point where a police officer would let a serial killer go if the opportunity arose to capture me, instead. Oh, the hunt was on, my friends. It was particularly exciting given the fact that as a police reporter, I had to visit the station at least twice every day. I would leave my car parked around the corner, sprint into the station and then dash out cackling with a fistful of crash reports and arrest sheets.
I parked my car someplace different every night. In the deepest shadows of a parking garage, behind a dumpster, inside the dumpster (because my car was small, you see) or any place, really, I thought cops would overlook.
I got away with it for many weeks, too. But verily! A sharp-eyed cop spotted my car stashed inside an old refrigerator box and he called for the hook. The cop got a special commendation for it, as I recall, and maybe a promotion. I hear he wrote a book about the case and now he's in talks with Paramount over the movie rights.
Once your car gets towed, it's game over, man. To get it back, you have to pay the full amount owed in parking violations. You also have to pay the tow-truck driver, the person who owns the lot where they towed it, and four or five other people who just don't like you very much.
Financially, it's a wrecking ball to the checking account. Physically, it will either kill you or make you Ultimate Fighter strong because you have to jog from one place to another to get all those people paid. From the bank to the tow company, from the tow company to the lot, from the lot to the police station, from the police station to City Hall and from City Hall to the closest bar you can find. Not that you can afford so much as one light beer, mind you, after shelling out all that dough. You have to dance for shots of rum and you do it without hesitation.
So, I understood the pain of the man with the grim expression and hand trembling on his checkbook in the police lobby because I'd been there myself. The difference being that this man was likely neither irresponsible nor stupid. He simply parked a few minutes too long on a few too many occasions while running into the bank or the bakery and bam! Before he knew it, those tickets he kept stashed in the glove compartment had grown as thick as a deck of cards with the jokers still intact.
Before he knew it, cops seemed to be eying him on the streets. Tow trucks seemed to be circling his house like glow-eyed vultures. He'd wake up sweaty in the middle of the night, convinced he heard the unholy clank of The Hook.
When you owe the parking gods, you become like the killer in Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," only instead of the steady thump of a heartbeat beneath the floorboards, you hear the groan of an engine from the street.
Me, I don't get tickets anymore. It's partly because I ride a motorcycle. It's partly because the Sun Journal moved its employee parking off the street. I'd like to say it's because I've become more responsible and that I have learned my lessons.
Forsooth! I have not.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. He is paid in actual clams and Shakespeare Cliff Notes. Email him at email@example.com.