BY WAY OF establishing my credentials, let me state right off that I, too, have had my car towed. I, too, have walked out to find no car where one was parked, have walked the block thinking I might have forgotten where I parked, have even walked around the block thinking I forgot the correct block only to figure out that the car was either stolen or towed and to have wished, considering my car and my financial situation, for the former. After all, one is insured and the other is not.
I, too, have been down to that little trailer on Water Street, sat there with the others, heard all the excuses, listened to the pleas for mercy, looked out on a vista of seized and impounded cars -- cars towed because they were parked in violation of the law and because, and this is the most important reason, there was a tow truck available.
My phone has rung with the outrages of those who have been towed. They all claim to be innocent victims, persons who parked their cars an inch at the most over the nearly invisible white line. They tell stories of persecution, of bureaucratic foulups, of traffic adjudicators who coukdn't adjudicate their way out of a paper bag and, they insist, of a vendetta against cars from the suburbs. The towing program, they allege, is yet another District of Columbia program to bleed the poor suburbanite -- a contradiction in terms if there ever was one.
I listen. I listen patiently and not, I might add, without sympathy. I, too, think that towing is sometimes abused, that sometimes the innocent are towed and that is sometimes used when lesser remedies would do quite nicely. There is nothing wrong from time to time with your basic parking ticket or with those nice Denver boots.
But it is also true that before the infamous and awful towing program, people from the suburbs parked wherever the hell they wanted. They did this because the states of Virginia and Maryland do not have reciprocity programs with the District of Columbia. Everyone knew this and so everyone parked where they wanted. They no longer do that, and the reason is not that the people from the suburbs and elsewhere have a new-found respect for the nation's capital. They are scared of being towed.
You may have guessed by now that somewhere deep down I have a modicum of affection for the towing program. Hard to believe, but it's true. This affection is not based on civic pride -- the fact that the District has the very best towing program in the country. (It's nice to be No. 1 in something besides crime.)
This affection is not based on the fact that the towing program raises money and therefore tends, in some way, to keep my taxes to a minimum that is beginning to resemble the maximum. This affection is not even based on the fact that the program clears the streets and keeps traffic moving. No. This affection is based solely on the fact that towing -- mean, awful towing -- is wonderfully demhocratic. It takes from us all, aside from the fine, what we all have in equal amounts -- time.
If you have been towed, if you have listened to the complaints of people who have been towed, what you discover is that what hurts the most is the time given up to get your car back. To some people this is a violation of the old rules that allowed you to park illegally if you could afford to. If you didn't get caught, terrific. If you did get caught, you paid the fine. Either way, the penalty was always money -- sometimes just a bit more than the cost of commercial parking. It paid to take the chance.
Now, though, this is no longer the case. Towing takes more than just the car. It even takes more than just money. It takes your time, and time, as we all know, is the Great Equalizer. We all have just 24 hours of it in a day. There is no way you can just buy your way out when you get towed. You have to go get your car. You have to wait in line. You have to go down to the Municipal Building and then over to that trailer on Water Street. You cannot simply write a check and be done with it. In fact, until you get your car, you cannot even go home. Towing makes us all poor.
This is what people complain about when they yell about towing and since I have been in their shoes, I know the pain involved. But it is the pain of the poor when they have to pay a fine, and it is the pain of someone who is given a choice of a fine or imprisonment and it is, most of all, an insight into what society would be like if you could not buy privilege -- if everyone were really treated alike. That's why the towing program seems so unfair.
Because it's so fair.