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How The World Wags

Ketchikan Flashback
By Dave Kiffer


September 27, 2004

Ketchikan, Alaska - Last month my family and I spent a few days in Wenatchee, Washington. It was hot (105 degrees), dry (maybe a foot of rain a year) and everything Ketchikan is not. But it did give me a great, big Ketchikan flashback.
jpg Dave Kiffer Ketchikan, Alaska

It happened after I parked the rental car downtown for awhile. When I came back out of the store, there was a big yellow slash on the front tire.

For a minute, I was puzzled. It seemed like a really odd form of graffiti. Had I violated some sort of code? Parked in a "public" spot that was not really public?

Then, as I stared at the chalk mark, a weird feeling swept over me. I suddenly remembered a long-lost dread. It was the internal "oh God, has it been two hours since I moved the car?" alarm.

To use a once frequent downtown Ketchikan word, I had been "chalked."

Once upon a time, before the age of handheld computers, all downtown Ketchikan workers lived or died (metaphorically and financially) by the yellow chalk marks that the parking enforcement officers (PEOs) bestowed upon car tires to mark the passage of time.

You remember the drill. Back in the days when people sold more things than jewelry downtown, workers would scamper out to their cars every so often to see if they had been chalked. If so, you had three options.

The most ethical was to hop in your car and drive around the block to erase the mark from the tire. In those days, parking was a lot tighter downtown so you usually pulled back into the same spot. It was kind of like you were daring the PEO to remember that it was your car in the spot. On the other hand, in a town where half the cars were green Subaru's, green Volkswagon Rabbit's or green Jeep Cherokee's it was probably a relatively safe bet.

The only tricky part was to remember that sometimes a dry road (three days a year, guaranteed) didn't always erase the chalk mark. Several times, I did the "round the block" only to get a ticket because the mark was still there!

The second way was a little more devious. In fact, it never occurred to me until one day I saw one of the early jewelry purveyors step out of his storefront holding a very white handkerchief. He raised it as if to blow his nose, but then he dropped to one knee and quickly wiped away the chalk mark. Then he furtively glanced around to make sure he was unseen, jumped back up and disappeared back into his store. I was naturally shocked and

Being shocked and appalled didn't prevent me from using the "stop, drop and wipe" technique occasionally. Life is an ethically slippery slope, especially when it's raining and you don't want to risk losing that choice parking spot right under your building's awning.

The third option was just to let the $10 PEO kissy-grams pile up on your windshield. I always had a sort of warped admiration for the folks who could afford to do that. That was of course when my naivete actually assumed that they did pay. I had always been raised to pay your fines if you got caught. It was only when I lived in a big city that I learned you could rack up big "tabs" with the PEOs and escape reckoning indefinitely if you were smart.

I had a friend and fellow journalist in Boston who was not smart. One day, she was in a police chief's office being a "pain" in that time-honored, badgering journalist way. He had his sergeant "run" her car plates. She owed more than $1,000 in parking fines. He arrested her and we had to pass the hat to bail her out, but not until the next day.

But I digress.

Now, the good burghers of Ketchikan pondered the situation of musical car spaces for many years. At one point it was suggested that - in order to make things more efficient - that parking fines and PEOs be done away with altogether. That certainly had the support of the downtown workers, although the downtown store owners themselves preferred a little more "fluidity" in the parking spaces to encourage people to actually stop in and buy things.

In the end, the powers that be sided with the store owners (property taxes uber alles!) and decided to keep the fines but make them harder to evade. The Ketchikan Ketchikan PEO's got those little handheld computer doohickies that we see them carrying around today. They key in license plates and then check them when they return later on their rounds. I always imagine that they also play mp3s and video games as well to pass the time. But if your plate matches up later, you are not a lucky winner.

They aren't perfect because sometimes the computer doesn't differentiate that your car is two spaces away from where it was but on the same block. The computer also doesn't care that you might have run three vehicular errands in the past two hours but simply returned to the same space.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Dave Kiffer ©2004


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