Parking meters? Sure. Speeding tickets? Delighted. A $50 fine for running out of quarters while returning a video? Go fuck yourself. It doesn’t help that San Francisco boasts some of the country’s highest ticket prices, but then again I’ve racked up tickets in Boston, Portland, Chicago, and Oakland as well. With all that paper stacking up under my wipers, it was only a matter of time before I got the boot - and boy did I get it.
I got the boot on my car so often that I learned to rationalize the process. Okay, I’d tell myself. You’ll park for free for about a year, and then you’ll pay a thousand dollars. And with programs like Project 20 and because most cities need any money they can get, I was usually able to pay only half of whatever I owed before the boot came off. This was my parking M.O., and for a while it worked. Things went swimmingly as they do when you’ve found a nice loophole for yourself, right up until 2010.
My car and I were six months into my “park for free” plan, and I was knee-deep in tickets. After five tickets, the MTA is supposed to boot you immediately, but with bureaucracies being so inefficient, I think I had racked up about 18 at the time. I’d moved a bunch of times since registering my car and renewing my license, so I figured they wouldn’t be able to find me. I was wrong. I came out of my apartment one morning, and there it was – the yellow metal boot.
I rustled up $500, which had historically been enough to get my car out of hock. I worked at a video store at the time and made $1,000 a month, so this amount of money was not exactly small change, but I figured that fair is fair. If I was committed to the plan, I had to pay up when the time came.
I got to the window at MTA headquarters, gave my name, and explained that I had cash to pay my tickets. I was met with a friendly face until the clerk turned to the computer and saw that she was going to have to tell me something unpleasant. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but half won’t cut it this time. You owe $2,500, and you owe it now.”
I was stunned, though in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have been. My plan had fallen apart, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I spoke with the clerk for a while and with her supervisor and his supervisor, all with the same story: I don’t have it. I have this much now. Please don’t take my car. Everyone at the MTA was nice enough, but the bottom line was, “We want your money or your car.” I had brought on this situation myself, but it felt like extortion. I had five days to pay up before they would tow my car to a yard and begin charging me hundreds a day in storage fees. For someone of my economic status, this meant that I had five days to figure it out, or I would never see my car again.
I went home to think. My car was parked in front of my apartment, and from my street-side bedroom I looked at it and thought about what it meant to me. I’d had my car since I was 16. My grandfather had left me five grand for college, and my parents, seeing how my school career was going, offered me the chance to spend the money on a car instead. That junker took me across the country four times, served as an apartment when I was broke, and taught me things I could never have learned in school. The thought of it rotting in some city junkyard started to haunt me. And then I got mad.
Inspired by the threat of losing it, I started to look into ways of regaining my car’s independence. After all, anything that can be installed can be uninstalled, if you know how. I had read about unsolicited good Samaritans who had removed boots and left car owners free of legal fault. According to online articles, these “boot heroes” were people who went around with tools to free unsuspecting car owners from their bonds. I researched their methods along with some other advice and came to the conclusion that I could buy a saw to cut through the metal, buy the tool used by city workers to remove the boot, or try a third untested method. The first two options were cheaper than paying my tickets, but sawing through the boot would be horribly noisy, and it would take too long to obtain the official tool. This left the third option.
I didn’t like the idea of spending that much time messing around with the boot in the street, lest a cop should come along, and it seemed like a long shot. But it was the night before the tow date, and I was running out of options. I paced around my room. I was sad and livid over the thought that my own actions had led me here. I was about to lose something I loved. At 4 a.m. I snapped, ran out into the street, and confronted my problem. It happened so fast and in such a fit of adrenaline that I barely remember it. First I let out all the air from the tire and watched the boot fall just like I’d hoped it would. This left a good amount of room to play with, so I started working the boot around the tire in a circular motion. I was swearing and bleeding and crying with frustration when, suddenly, it popped free. Just like that. I had removed the boot from my car.
As much as I wanted to keep my prize, I’d get in trouble for stealing it, and besides, I would be giving up my only feasible story. From my research on “boot heroes,” I knew that the burden of proof would be on the city, and I couldn’t give that up. They had to believe it wasn’t me. I threw the boot in the bushes, put on my spare tire, and took off. I circled the city, just grateful to be driving my car again, and tried to come up with a plan to hide it. I knew that my car was no longer safe on the street, so I stashed it in a garage for the night. I then went home and slept the soundest I had ever slept in my life.
When I came home from work the following day, the boot had vanished from the bush. For the next week, I saw something I’d never seen before: an unmarked city van slowly circling my block at least once a day, sometimes more. The city was looking for my car. I can’t imagine how pissed they must have been, and I can’t say I blamed them. Sadly, I realized that no matter how long I could wait, my car would never be safe in San Francisco again. The garage was getting expensive, so a friend let me park for a while in front of his house in the avenues, where meter maids never bother to look. And then I drove my car, with expired registration and lapsed insurance, across the country to the safety of the East Coast. The city had run my car out of town, but at least they would never take it out of my hands. Instead I eventually ended up giving up my car on my own terms by donating it to charity.
I’d like to say that I learned a lesson from this. I was carless for two years before buying another, all the while swearing that this time would be different. I had a clean slate. I had a second chance.
But within months, I was at it again.
This story is part of our week-long package of anonymous stories. Learn more about it here.