Maggie O’Neill designs restaurants, a job that often has her flitting between several downtown D.C. locales.
At some point, she says, she realized that she could spend endless extra minutes circling Washington’s packed streets looking for parking, or she could roll into some questionably legal spot, say a quick prayer to the city parking enforcement gods, and be on her way.
Which was the better bargain? she asked herself — “$30, or an hour of my time?”
So, she parked. Recklessly. Brazenly. And naturally, the parking tickets piled up. Soon enough, all the brightly colored paper flapping under her wiper blades began to look like something else to O’Neill, who is also an artist.
They looked a little like cherry blossoms, which have long been a motif in her work.
Now O’Neill has embarked on a project to make some good from all the annoyance. She wants to create an immersive space filled with papery blossoms, each petal folded from the glossy pink detritus of D.C.’s parking wars.
She believes she’ll need 800,000 tickets for a project on the scale she envisions. She confesses that she has maybe 400.
“I have gotten my car towed,” O’Neill says, no hint of shame in her voice. “And I’ve gone down and asked, ‘Can someone tell me where I can get parking tickets? Will someone just give me a roll?’”
“They were like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ”
But tickets are quite easy to obtain when you’re not begging for one. The parking ticket is the hot-pink bane of the District. Our de facto “D.C. commuter tax.” Now, O’Neill hopes we can begin to see them as a thing of beauty.
This month, she kicked off a campaign to get Washingtonians to cough up their parking tickets. (She’s even offering to pay off one lucky person’s parking tickets to get them.) She’s taken up residence in a pop-up gallery in Dupont Circle, open on weekends through April 15, where she’s installed a pink wall of fluffy blossoms made from jumbo-sized, photocopied versions of her own.
Now, if the tickets would only come.
Maybe it’s fruitless. Maybe there aren’t enough tickets in the city. People tend to toss them out, O’Neill muses. They trigger so much shame and guilt, after all.
The District, however, has issued more than 4.5 million parking tickets since 2015. Printed on high-durability thermal paper, they are seemingly impervious to destruction. (Go on, try to tear one up in protest. You can’t.) No reason to think she can’t collect a measly few hundred thousand.
For its part, the city has no intention of standing in the way of her dream — even if it’s not willing to hand over a roll of blanks. In an emailed statement, Christopher J. Shorter, director of the D.C. Department of Public Works, wrote that the agency is “always happy to see creative ways of reusing and recycling materials.”
O’Neill, who has faded, pale pink streaks woven through her blond ponytail, has been painting cherry blossoms for, well, it’s unclear how long — but she and her blooms are enough of a known quantity that last year, she was tapped to fill a whole wall of a cherry blossom-themed pop-up bar with her impressionistic pink daubs.
Then the National Cherry Blossom Festival named her its official artist, an honor that means O’Neill’s effervescent painting of a flower-strewn Tidal Basin has been stripped across posters, coffee mugs and playing cards. Additionally, festival organizers asked her whether she had any additional artistic flourishes to contribute. She told them about her parking tickets.
“My first reaction was, ‘This is very smart,’ ” says Lillian Iversen, senior director of events and marketing for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. “As a resident, I’ve definitely walked up to my car and seen that pink ticket.”
In many ways, the parking ticket is as much a fixture of Washington culture as the cherry blossom.
For most Washingtonians with cars, they feel almost karmically inevitable. Also, they are a scourge.
Sure, sometimes we fail to display our registration or sufficiently pay the meter or fail to turn our wheels toward the curb or park a mere three feet from an alley entrance when everyone knows that five is mandatory.
That doesn’t mean we don’t feel rage. And it’s impossible not to visualize Officers Gill or Stubbs or Wright as proxies for The Man, gleeful as they tuck the slick slips onto cars.
“It’s crazy,” says O’Neill. “They’re vigilant.”
To gauge Washingtonians’ reaction to O’Neill’s project, sit in the gallery and just watch the tickets pour in.
“They look so much better than they do on my windshield,” Vicki McClure groans as she gets a look at O’Neill’s current display, which, for now, has a couple hundred real tickets tucked between in the photocopied ones.
Suddenly, McClure, 49, of Brightwood, reaches in her purse and yanks out one that had been kicking around in the bottom of her bag since she got it in January.
“I want to give all of my tickets,” she announces.
There have been so many. Like from the time she returned to K Street near North Capitol and realized her car had gone missing. When she finally found it, it had a ticket for being parked in a no-parking zone, another for being towed, and one final, deeply enraging one for not paying the meter in the spot where the city had decided to leave her car.
“This is how you treat your residents?” she fumes.
Well, yeah. And visitors, too. (Which is why parking tickets have earned that “commuter tax” nickname.)
An estimated 1.3 million tickets were issued in 2017, according to District data compiled by AAA Mid-Atlantic. That’s approximately two tickets for every man, woman and child in the city.
The number of parking tickets issued in Washington has actually been declining by a couple hundred thousand a year for the past several years, thanks to technology such as payment apps as well as clearer signage. But “for a city our size, it’s just really . . .” says John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA, stopping himself, looking for the right word.
A pervasive scam?
“I think it’s extraordinarily high,” he says.
It’s certainly too high for Ambar Saeed, 33, of Silver Spring, who strides into O’Neill’s gallery on a recent warm Sunday morning.
“I come bearing parking tickets,” she says. “I only brought two, but I know I have a lot more.”
“You feel like their signs are so confusing, that they want to confuse you,” Saeed says as she hands them over to O’Neill.
Giving them away, she says, feels a little like relief.
She sticks around to gaze at O’Neill’s artwork, but before she goes, she asks for one thing in return: A photo of herself leaving her parking tickets behind.
Maggie O’Neill’s D.C. Blooms pop-up gallery is at open Saturdays and Sundays through April 15, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., at 1643 Connecticut Ave NW.