Now that the pulsating of the veins running through my forehead has subsided and the bile in my throat tastes a little less bitter, I am capable of sharing a story – a cautionary tale – about the brave new world in which we live. Before this past Saturday, I never gave a second thought to the fact that my minivan is called an “Odyssey,” but the events of that day tell a tale of epic incompetence and infuriating heavy-handedness of the government of the District of Columbia.
The day began with a sense of excitement and anticipation, as I was taking my two sons, nephew, and father-in-law to the Washington Nationals game. We arrived at the stadium early (about 11:00 for a 1:05 start) to catch batting practice and maybe score an autograph or two.
About three blocks from the stadium, there were plenty of legal parking spots along the street and signs indicating how to pay for parking by telephone. It would cost $1.50 per hour or about $10 total – a steal compared to the $30-$40 being charged in the nearby lots. The Pay-by-Phone system was simple enough to use: I registered my tag and my credit card number by phone, and was messaged a “Parkmobile” app to use for loading and reloading the meter from my phone. Sweet and simple!
After 13 innings and the game still locked at 3 runs apiece, it was about 5:30 pm and time to get going. We’d catch the rest of the game on the radio during the ride home. But that never happened. It never happened because I couldn’t turn on the radio. I couldn’t turn on the radio because I couldn’t find my car. In the spot where I had left it was parked a blue BMW with Virginia tags, presumably belonging to another baseball fan.
My car was either stolen or towed, but I could see no reason for the latter. I had reloaded the virtual meter a few times from my stadium seat and there were no indications of any prohibitions. I walked down the street to a no parking zone and dialed a number posted on a nearby “If-Towed-Call-This-Number” sign, which connected me to an answering machine at the Department of Public Works.
After listening to Muzak for 15 minutes, I was connected to a “customer service” representative, who took my information (tag number) and confirmed that my car had been towed. For what infraction, she did not know. But she offered that my car had been towed to a lot at 800 New Jersey Avenue, NW. “How thoughtful of DPW,” I quipped. "It's not like we’re all the way over here in SE Washington.” Three sweaty kids, my father-in-law, and I climbed into a taxi and promptly joined the slow procession leaving the stadium area.
Upon arrival at the address on the other side of town, the six of us crammed in the cab gazed in wonderment out the taxi’s windows at the sight of ... nothing. We saw nothing approximating a parking lot. We saw no lot. We saw no Odyssey. We were on an odyssey.
From the location to which we had been misdirected, I redialed the DPW and was eventually connected to the same “customer service” representative I had spoken with 30 minutes earlier. “Um, we’ve just taken a taxi to 800 New Jersey Avenue, NW, but there’s no lot here. What’s the story?” I asked. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That location was incorrect. The correct location is the 800 block of New Jersey Avenue, SE.” “#$%%#$ #@@$#%# ,” I said. “That’s almost exactly where we started.” “You #$%, *&#@ ##@!”
The kids were learning a whole new vocabulary.
The taxi driver took us to the new address given, which was literally two blocks from where my car had been parked. There was a parking lot there, so we got out of the cab and gave the driver his $25. My car, alas, was not in the lot.
The vocabulary lesson recommenced in earnest. I redialed DPW and was eventually reconnected with my friend, who elaborated that my car was NOT in a lot, but parked along the street on the 800 block of New Jersey Avenue, SE. I wasn’t positive that we were precisely standing at the 800 block of New Jersey Avenue because there we no buildings or addresses to indicate. About 50 yards south of where I stood was I Street, SE, which demarks the 900 block of New Jersey Avenue. I confirmed that I was at the 900 block of New Jersey Avenue, SE and could see for about a quarter mile down the vacant street, which goes under I-395 and up to the U.S. Capitol, and that there were no cars parked on the street; nothing, in fact, but gently rolling tumbleweed.
But she insisted that I had to be precisely at 800 New Jersey Avenue, SE to determine whether my car was, in fact, there. So I walked up New Jersey, under I-395, with kids and father-in-law trailing, until the next cross street, which was E Street, SE – the 500 block of New Jersey. There may have been an 800 block, but there were no demarcations to speak of between the 900 and 500 block. Along that stretch, there were no parked cars. My car was definitely not on the 800 block of New Jersey Avenue, SE.
Calculating that my children and nephew had been treated to enough creative poetry, I asked my father-in-law to take them home (to Bethesda) in a taxi, which he did. Meanwhile, the “helper,” who remained adamant that my car was at said location because I couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that I was standing precisely at 800 New Jersey when rendering the “missing” verdict (even though I told her that I walked from the 900 to the 500 block and back with both eyes open and saw no cars), grudgingly agreed to try to locate a “supervisor,” who might be of some assistance. A supervisor might have been of some assistance, but for the problem that THEY HAD ALL GONE HOME FOR THE DAY – a feat I was laboring to accomplish myself.
Left with no other choices, I called the DC Metropolitan Police and reported my car stolen. The dispatcher asked me to remain at my location, which I reported as “approximately” 800 New Jersey Avenue, SE.
About 20 minutes later a police cruiser pulled up and an officer began taking my information for a stolen vehicle report. When I told him the story and the model and year of my car, he put down his pen and said that it was most likely not stolen. The DPW, he said, has a terrible habit of towing cars but failing to log into the system the locations to which they’ve been towed. He didn’t need to work very hard to convince me of his theory.
The officer said he had four cruisers scouring the area for potential drop sites and told me to hang tight and that he’d return. At approximately 8:30pm, the police returned and informed me that my car had been located. It was impounded at a lot in Northeast Washington, which was closed until Monday.
As the last traces of daylight fell behind the Lincoln Memorial, I was hoofing it from Southeast toward Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, where my wife was going to pick me up. I still didn’t know why my legally-parked car had been towed in the first place.
On Monday during the lunch hour, my wife drove me to 15th Street, NE to the impound lot, where the pieces of the puzzle came together. I was given an invoice for the services rendered on my behalf – $100 for towing and $40 for storage. Additionally, to get my car back, I would have to pay for two photo enforcement speeding tickets I had received in the mail in late April for going 41 in a 30 MPH zone on two consecutive days, which I had not yet paid. The payments were 15 and 16 days overdue, so instead of $125 each, they set me back $250 each. Fine, the late payment was my fault, but did it have to come to this? There was no parking violation to pay; there was no other cause for towing my car in the first place.
What had happened was that upon registering my tags to initiate the Pay-by-Phone meter service, a database linked to the computer system of the otherwise incompetent DPW generated a red flag indicating the location of a vehicle associated with unpaid fines. DPW acted with dispatch and efficiency to steal my car to hold as collateral, and then with incompetence about locating it and indifference about the enormous inconvenience and expense of the process.
But the broader lesson from this tale reinforces concerns about privacy and information sharing and the proclivity of government to use our personal information for purposes outside the scope of our expectations and possibly threatening our freedoms. Be skeptical about initiatives like National ID or national databases sold in the name of public safety or health. Read and listen to the concerns raised by people like Cato's Jim Harper and Julian Sanchez. Governments use the personal data you supply for purposes you did not intend, so be judicious about sharing.
And be careful about the allure of technological convenience; it might just be Big Brother waiting to pounce.