Volume 74, Number 12 | July 21 - 27, 2004

Notebook


Quality of life beats the quality of mercy. Anytime.

By Alphie McCourt

Uptown, on a crowded street, a 10-year-old boy is caught in the crossfire and is shot in the chest. The newspaper report describes that particular street as a haven for drug dealers and the site of many a gun battle. The boy dies. The media moves on.

A Washington politician is convicted of having sex with a very minor minor. He is sentenced to 10 minutes in prison, to be followed by parole and 20 minutes of community service. In his statement, the politician admits that he “may have engaged in inappropriate behavior.” “If I did, I apologize,” he says. There is no regret, no admission of wrongdoing, no expression of contrition. His statement is perfectly tailored for deniability. He may even keep his seat. In company with millions of others, I may even feel sorry for him, in his weakness. Again the media moves on.

I only got a parking ticket. Early on a Friday evening, it was still daylight, on a street with very little traffic. I had left my wife, as hostage, in the passenger seat, with the engine running and the hazard lights blinking. And I got a ticket. “So what?” you might say. “If you drive a car in Manhattan and park in the street, you must expect to get a ticket from time to time. Think about all the times you got away with it.” You’re right. But this is different. “Yeah, they’re all different. And every inmate of every prison is innocent.” That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?

“He’ll be right out,” my wife tells the ticket lady. And out I come, emerging while the traffic agent is still writing the ticket. I protest. “My wife is in the car and I wasn’t gone five minutes,” I tell her. She will hear none of it. “And what about the limo driver in front of me? He’s right on top of the fire hydrant. Why don’t you give him a ticket?”

“The limo driver is with the car,” she replies. I protest further, suggesting that a ticket for me and no ticket for the limo driver amounts to selective enforcement. “You are double-parked” she announces, backed by the law and the certitude of City Hall.

I look at the parking ticket lady, then at the limo driver and I am tempted to suggest that racism is in play here, that it is a matter of color. Then I remember what my late friend, Ike, once said. Ike was African American. Once, when the topic of race had raised its noxious head, Ike only sighed. He had heard it all before, I would imagine, had heard all sides of the question: the ignorant, the bigoted, the vitriolic, the liberal, the enlightened and the condescending. “Race?” said Ike. “Race is not a good reason. For anything.” So I hold my tongue.

My anger abates, my attitude softens. Still, I can’t help but repeat what I had said about selective enforcement. “Tell it to the judge,” says the parking ticket lady.

“Aha,” I think, “that sounds familiar. She watches ‘Law and Order.’ Just my luck to get a prosecutor in waiting.”

“Tell it to the judge?” My anger begins to boil again. I will never get to talk to a judge and she knows it. If she goes to court, she will, I expect, be paid for her time. I will not. I can afford neither the time nor the money. She must know that the likelihood of my going to court is small. “Tell it to the judge” is a great walk-away line, but it’s an unfair shot. Most New Yorkers don’t go to court and argue parking tickets. Surely she knows that, too. “Who needs the hassle?” we tell each other. We shrug and we pay.

At this point all argument is futile and I know it. Still I persist. “You give me a ticket,” I tell her, “with my wife sitting in the car and the engine running. You’re breaking a neighborhood custom.” I’m on the verge of telling her about the fortune cookie I once opened: “A wise man neither makes nor breaks a tradition” was the message in the fortune cookie. I want to make contact with her, to put a human face on the situation. Quietly, I make one last protest. “You are double parked” she repeats.

“O.K.,” I think. “That’s it. I am in the wrong. The law is on her side.”

Resignation, rigor mortis of the spirit, is setting in. Then she drops the bomb; “Zero tolerance for double-parking,” she sings, with no small degree of pride and self-satisfaction.

“Zero tolerance for double-parking!”

To use “zero tolerance” in the context of a parking ticket is to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.

Anyone who ever got a parking ticket knows that it is an emotional experience unlike any other. You return to your car. The ticket is on the windshield. That’s bad enough. You punch the hood, kick a tire or two, slam the door, curse at the sky. Then you realize that you are only arguing with yourself. Soon the rage passes.

It is another matter entirely when you arrive while the ticket is being written. This is personal. You are entitled to an encounter, if not by law then by — what? The Geneva Convention? The Uniform Code of Military Justice? The Canons of the Catholic Church? The rules of chess? I don’t know. But somewhere there must be a rule that mandates more than a two-word cliché — something that entitles you to a verbal exchange — something that encourages verbal engagement by both sides; remarks, even — as long as they don’t end in “your mother.” And somewhere there must be a rule that expressly forbids provocative, insupportable and perfectly artificial phrases like — “zero tolerance” — something that allows it to be personal.

In my line of work I once attended an all-day seminar on how to handle confrontation. I remember only one thing. “When faced with confrontation,” said the instructor, “level the playing field.” “If the other person is sitting, then sit down. If the other person is standing, then stand up.” A good deal of my own work is done by phone. On the day after the seminar I received a phone call. Early in the conversation I smelled confrontation. I was ready. “Are you sitting or standing?” I asked the caller. “None of your business,” she said. “How dare you inquire into my personal habits.” So much for the playing field.

And a few years ago, at a family gathering, I had the privilege of meeting former New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John Timoney. By this time he was running the Police Department in Philadelphia and doing a fine job of it. I had admired him and I wanted to impress him. “Why is it,” I asked him, “that the police in our part of town refuse to make eye contact? Is it because they’re afraid? As I walk past them I look at them and they always look away. With my white hair and Irish face I’m hardly a threat to them. Why can’t they manage a friendly nod? They want the support of the community but they do nothing to encourage it. Is it because so many of them live Upstate or on Long Island that they’re either nervous or indifferent when they’re working in the city?”

The commissioner listened patiently and gave me his full attention. God knows what was going through his mind. “Here I am,” he must have thought, “with a few hours off, up from Philadelphia, hoping to meet a few friends, maybe even have a relaxed, casual drink or a pleasant dinner. And here’s this lunatic, preaching at me.”

I still cringe when I think about that evening. The commissioner, as I said, listened and nodded as I spoke. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ll pass it on.” Then he spotted someone, shook hands with me, excused himself and walked to the other side of the room. It’s a wonder he didn’t run. It is a greater wonder that he didn’t have me arrested for being a downright bore. He wouldn’t. He’s a decent man. But I would. I would fine me for being dumb and boring; I would add a surcharge, levy penalties and then tow me away if I didn’t pay. I would dub it a “quality of life” offense, raise a ton of revenue and distract us all from other, far more important problems. That’s what despots do.

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