Joseph Joyner stood on Alexandria's King Street yesterday, scowling at a parking meter.
"It's hot, it's crowded and these parking meters are the pits -- P.I.T.S.," said Joyner, an Air Force officer from South Dakota. "Here, you get 20 minutes for a quarter. In Rapid City you get an hour for a nickel. I just hate these things."
Joyner is not alone. Treated with derision by millions of motorists who consider them the mechanical equivalent of a gnat, the parking meter, one of America's least loved institutions, turns 50 today.
Although American manufacturers have shipped meters around the world -- they are now used in 41 countries on six continents -- today's is a golden jubilee that few will cherish.
"I live my life in 20-minute cycles," said Phyllis Alexander, who works and parks in the District, which many officials say is the most efficiently metered city in the nation.
"I carry quarters with me everywhere I go. I guess it's one of those necessary evils."
Created in an effort to control the rapidly growing number of cars and trucks that were rolling down America's Main streets in the mid-1930s, the first working parking meter was installed in downtown Oklahoma City on July 16, 1935.
It was not welcome and it was not understood. There were court battles charging that it was un-American to make a person pay to park. And in Oklahoma, a rancher dropped a nickel in the slot and tied up his horse.
The years just after World War II, when auto makers where turning out their wares out at record rates and cities were spreading across America, was the meter's golden age.
Today there are more than 2 million meters in use, eating coins in hundreds of cities. And what first seemed like a fine way to clear congested streets has turned into a prime revenue raiser in many communities.
"We expect our meters to bring in $9 million this year," said Thomas Durkin, assistant chief of parking services for the District government. "As far as cost-benefit goes, they are pretty tough to beat."
The average District meter is a productive machine, bringing in $2.75 a day, $55 a month and $680 a year, according to the Department of Public Works. "As employes, they're ideal," said Durkin. "You know the strong, silent type. They don't talk back and they are solid, steady and dependable."
The District was one of the first U.S. cities to use parking meters, beginning in 1938. Today, the District has about 13,000 meters and Durkin expects to add 2,000 during the next two years, as new developments and restoration bring more motorists into the city. At about $200 a meter, they quickly pay their way. New York City, with 65,000 meters bringing in $30 million a year, leads the nation in revenues.
Like the much sought after nickel cup of coffee, finding a cheap meter these days -- if you can find one at all -- is not easy. District parking at a meter cost a nickel an hour in 1954, a dime an hour in 1964, 40 cents an hour in 1974, and by last year had risen to 75 cents an hour.
Pittsburgh is the nation's most expensive meter market, charging $2 per hour, according to Parking Professional Magazine.
"Even the most expensive meter prices are a bargain," said Michael J. Burns, president of Duncan Industries, the Rolling Meadows, Ill., company that says it makes two-thirds of all meters now ticking, "if you compared it with what you would have to pay in a garage."
But is the meter an idea whose time has passed?
Not at all, says Burns. "We are opening a whole new market in Asia and the developing world. Hong Kong, which had 100 meters five years ago, has 20,000 today. I envision electronic meters and meters that will erase any time remaining as soon as somebody drives away. Where there are cars there are going to be meters. And there are still plenty of cars."