Ticket Master

Ever since settling in Cambridge, I've grown to love my Saturday morning routine. My Saturday morning routine entails hopping into the Jeep, slipping into the Hi-Rise bakery before the line for a takeout latte reaches New Hampshire, and zipping over to Fresh Pond park for a brisk constitutional with my dog, Chloe, to whom I've grown abnormally attached. My Saturday morning routine does not entail getting into an altercation with Daddy Law.

“Whaddaya think it's for?” snorted the officer, slapping a $25 ticket on my windshield. Clearly, he was a graduate of the same finishing school all Boston-area cops are required to attend.

I glanced at the ticket. It was for parking at a fire hydrant. But before any of you out there get all Judge Judy on me, let me point out what I pointed out to the officer.

“But there's a sign above the hydrant that says no stopping 4 pm-6 pm except Sat. & Sun.”

“I don't care what the sign says,” the officer replied, clearly unmoved. “You can't park at a hydrant.”

I should've said I know you can't park at a hydrant, which is why I thought it was peculiar that you could park at this one, at least on weekends. I should've said it's not like I take all street signs so literally. It's not like I see a no standing sign and think I'll be imprisoned if I walk over and stand under it. It's just that I figured — judging by the sign — that this was some kind of flextime fire hydrant. It was enormous and rusty and painted lime green. I presumed it functioned mainly as a decorative urination destination for neighborhood dogs (I can tell you, Chloe took an immediate shine to it), like those big brown mailboxes with no discernible doors. I should have said the reason I was forced to park there in the first place was that the lot at Fresh Pond park was closed while the water-treatment plant there was being made over to resemble the Taj Mahal.

But all I said was, “They should really move that sign away from the hydrant.”

“Fight it if you want,” he said. “But I'm tellin' ya, you're not gonna win.”

Ten years ago, it wouldn't have occurred to me to fight a parking ticket. It wouldn't have occurred to me to pay one, either. I was still a young wisenheimer then, living by the cardinal twenty-something tenet: I own the road. Tickets were not to be feared, but collected. Traded with friends. Torn off one's windshield and forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until (a) one went to renew one's registration and was forced to empty one's bank account to pay off the outstanding fines, including the ticket for parking in a clergy only spot in Harvard Square (must have been the “Question Authority” bumper sticker that gave me away) or (b) one returned to one's vehicle to find it immobilized by a medieval torture device known as “the boot” (a.k.a. “Das Boot”). One lives and learns. These days, on those rare occasions that I discover a fluorescent orange envelope defiling my windshield, I do the mature thing: I pay it. I pay it because I deserve it. Usually.

I did not deserve the mysterious Fresh Pond fire hydrant ticket. In fact, the confusing sign at that hydrant represented all the confusing signs I've encountered since becoming a driver who prides himself on reading — as opposed to ignoring — this city's perplexing signage. The totem poles with the no parking 12 am-12 pm signs beneath the no stopping 12 pm-12 am signs under the signs that say parking & stopping permitted days and evenings only. The street-cleaning signs so baffling they require Poor Richard's Almanack and a slide rule to figure out which day of which week of which lunar cycle you're allowed to park on which side of the street. And you still have to jump out of bed and run down to your car in your slippers when the Department of Public Works guy cruises around at the crack of dawn screaming, “Move your cars or they'll be towed to Fitchburg!”

I won't even get into the no parking during declared snow emergency signs except to say that I've parked during numerous snow emergencies, though I have no idea if any of them were formally “declared.”

And so it came to pass that on a drizzly Thursday morning several weeks later, I found myself headed to the Office of Traffic and Parking for my first-ever violations dispute. Professionally garbed in a Calvin Klein business suit, the inner pocket of which held three Polaroids (shot from three angles) of the crime scene, I was feeling fairly confident. Just showing up was half the battle, everyone told me. Everyone told me the whole thing would be a piece of cake.

No one told me it would be impossible to find a parking space near the Office of Traffic and Parking itself. My first mistake was falling for a public parking sign pointing toward the building's parking lot.

“Hey! You can't park in here! This lot's private,” said a traffic cop at the entrance.

“But that sign says public parking!”

“Public? That doesn't mean the lot — that means the street!”

It goes without saying that “the street” — this street, and all surrounding streets, streets leading to other streets, avenues, boulevards, rotaries, all paved surfaces in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — was bumper to bumper with parked cars. And as I was now late for my hearing, I began to panic. I made illegal rights on red, went the wrong way down a one-way alley near Kendall Square, banged several illicit U-ies. Of course, through it all, I wasn't worried about getting pulled over, since it also goes without saying that you can drive however the hell you want in this city — you've just got to watch out when (and if) you park.

My brother, Barry, has a theory regarding the unspoken rules of the road. It's a given, he believes, that 99 percent of the people driving in Boston are (a) lost, (b) late, or (c) both, since the reason they're late is because they're lost. Therefore, the drivers who cause the real problems around here are the one percent who still follow the rules.

“I'll never forget this time I rear-ended a Lexus at a traffic light,” Barry recalls. “I couldn't believe it: The guy actually slowed down at a yellow light.”

All I would add to this theory is that the street signs for moving vehicles are about as random as those for parked ones. My personal favorite graces the death ramp at the east end of Storrow Drive, where traffic for I-93, the Tobin Bridge, Nashua Street, and the esteemed Monsignor O'Brien/McGrath Highway all converge for an impromptu demolition derby. synagogue, the sign says.

I've often thought of following that sign, so I can pray for my life before crossing that intersection.

“Hello! Sorry I'm late, but it's kind of a funny story when you think about it because I couldn't find a parking space, see, which is really sort of ironic since you're the —”

“Sign the book and have a seat.”

The parking clerk wasn't much of a people person. She was approximately three times my size and had the buzzcut of a Russian squadron commander. Her cramped office was in a temporary dungeon space with grimy gray walls and the kind of fluorescent lighting that makes the people inside look even angrier than they are. I myself was feeling pretty Zen by this point, unfazed even by a sign near the main entrance that said no public access.

“Lemme see those,” said the parking clerk, pointing with her chin to my Polaroids.

Nervously, I began pleading my case, portraying myself as not some two-bit nonmoving-violations perpetrator, but as a homeowning, taxpaying, law-abiding citizen, much like the parking clerk herself, who had been wrongly accused for misinterpreting a confusing sign at a questionable hydrant and —

“No,” the parking clerk snapped, holding my close-up of the sign. “It says here, no stopping Monday through Friday, so if it was then, you'd be right outta there.”

I was not following the parking clerk's logic. It dawned on me that she is probably the one who writes the signs.

“But what I've been saying is that I didn't park on Monday through Friday. I parked on Saturday, see, so —”

“Hold it right there,” the parking clerk interrupted. “I gotta talk to my signage manager about this one.”

Hence, my long-awaited arraignment with the Cambridge parking clerk lasted exactly four minutes. And went unresolved. Plus, I've got to tell you, I wasn't thrilled about dragging this sign czar into the whole thing. He and I already had a history. Last summer, I informed him that the tow zone sign on my street had fallen off its post, and he informed me that this was a good thing because cars would now park up and down the block, serving as a “traffic-calming” measure. I informed him that, yes, when cars are parked up and down the block and cars are trying to drive up and down the block, traffic on my street is, indeed, very calm. In fact, it's at a standstill, since there's no room for anyone to go anywhere. He replaced the tow zone sign a few weeks later, but people still park there. And they don't get towed. It's obviously all a conspiracy.

A couple of days after my hearing, I got a phone call from none other than the Cambridge parking clerk herself.

“Thank you so much for getting back to me so quickly!” I overenthused. “I hope you've had time to discuss my case with the —”

“What's your license plate number?” the parking clerk interrupted.

I gave her my license plate number.

“You're all set,” she said.

“All set? What does that mean, 'all set'?” I wasn't taking chances. I'd learned that traffic administrators and I speak very different languages.

“Your ticket's dismissed,” she replied.

I was at once shocked and elated. And before she could hang up on me, I managed to find out that the sign czar not only agreed that the sign might be confusing, but he is going to move it 10 feet away from the offending hydrant.

One day, I'd like to be remembered as a hero of the people, a fighter for justice, a regular Joe who battled a ticket and brought down an empire. But for now, I'll settle for the small satisfaction I get every Saturday when I walk around Fresh Pond park. The sign hadn't been moved last time I checked, but the car parked in front of the hydrant was ticket-free.