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Monday, Feb. 5, 2007 | When Janice Aud walks down the street, people notice. Some stare, some leap from restaurant patios and chase her for blocks, waving dollar bills and jingling coins. Barber shop patrons burst forth from storefronts to follow her, their new coifs half complete. Dental patients with gauze strips dangling from anaesthetized gums proclaim, through mumbled shouts, the delay-causing events of their morning.
None of these is odd for Aud. She’s a parking enforcement officer, also known commonly as a meter maid, also called commonly by a list of other, unprintable, names. And in 15 years on the job, she’s heard every excuse in the book for an expired meter or a “quick stop” in a no-parking zone.
She walks some days, or drives a one-seat buggy around town and the beaches, enforcing the rules. She uses a chalk stick to mark the wheels of cars in two-hour zones; if she comes back later and the car hasn’t moved, she writes a ticket. She cites FedEx and UPS trucks for parking in passenger loading zones. She tells dry-cleaning delivery drivers their vans can’t be stopped next to fire hydrants. She calls in disabled parking placards to see if they’ve been swiped from someone’s grandpa and are now being abused to get free, unlimited parking.
Aud and her 50-some colleagues patrol the city’s parking spaces under the supervision of the San Diego Police Department. Between 10 and 17 such officers monitor the downtown core every day. The worth of their work is not just keeping drivers in line for the sake of doing so, she says. If people can only stay parked somewhere for two hours, then when they leave, someone else fills the spot and eats a meal or buys a shirt or attends a meeting. And so, the business and retail and restaurant engine that has revolutionized downtown San Diego can continue.
The tickets they write are a major revenue source for the city, bringing in about $17.8 million last year from a department running on a $4.8 million budget.
So watch out, lunchers in the Gaslamp who decide to stay for creme brulee. If time runs out on your meter, Aud or one of her colleagues is almost sure to notice.
It’s a job that gets her hated by nearly everyone. Drivers of the cars she tickets predictably abhor her. A bizarre solidarity among people shopping and working in the area emerges when Aud comes around, where a passerby will run to plug someone else’s meter or lobby her not to cite the stranger’s car.
“They’re mean,” sneers a pedestrian next to Aud in a crosswalk one recent morning, pointing an accusatory finger at her badge. He doesn’t know her, and clarifies he’s not saying she’s mean, personally, but steals away after one last jab, “Collectively — they’re MEAN.”
Aud shrugs off his comments and keeps walking. After years of spiteful parking-related confrontations, her skin’s grown thick. She lists examples of what she’s often called, casually spouting a string of swear words rarely heard from the lips of a 50-something mom of three grown children and grandma of three, let alone heard used to describe one.
Aud still can’t quite figure out why a particular name she was called proved more offensive than the other colorful slurs she’s been slapped with. She was on downtown’s Fifth Avenue one day, and had just finished typing a car’s information into her handheld citation printer when the driver of the car arrived to dispute the ticket.
“Out he came, and at the end of it, he said, ‘You know what? You, you look like a beast!’” she says. And it didn’t stop there. When she ended up next to him in traffic at a stoplight a few blocks later, he rolled down his window and yelled, “You’re not just a beast; you’re an ugly, old beast!”
Aud says it took her at least a year, maybe two, to learn not to take the comments people made about her personally. “I wanted to say, ‘Um, sorry, I’m so sorry I have to give you this,’” she says. “But I learned deflectors — ‘however, nonetheless’ — I learned the lingo.”
And, gradually, she worked her way into a sense that what she was doing was worthwhile. Confrontations and personal attacks aside, she says, she knows at least the business owners appreciate her efforts to keep traffic moving and parking spots turning over for new patrons and clients.
Aud was a stay-at-home mom for many years. When one of her first jobs back in the workforce ended, she applied for an assortment of open city positions. After she dropped her resume in the running for an opening in parking enforcement — she had the prerequisite one year’s experience working with angry people from her job as a credit collector — she and her husband drove downtown to find an officer so they could see what the job was like. Having grown up in Rhode Island, she’d never seen the kind of scooters driven by the parking enforcers in San Diego. They’re skinnier than a car, with sliding doors on each side and a single flashing light on top.
“When I saw the scooter, I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, please let me just be a secretary or something,’” she says. “I almost quit when I found out you have to drive one.”
But Aud swallowed her reluctance and started in February 1992. She learned to use tools like a handheld AutoCite computer that cross-checks license plate numbers, beeping if a particular car has more than five tickets and should be towed. For safety in confrontations, the officers carry pepper spray, and some use their personal camera cell phones to document violations.
Aud has never used the pepper spray. If she senses an imminent assault, she’ll just let the violator go. “There’s no ticket worth issuing or no car worth towing that’s worth getting hurt,” she says.
That’s not the only time she lets people go.
One recent morning, Aud notes a “-0:01” reading on a meter, she starts typing the car’s information into her computer. A blond woman wearing a scarf and camouflage pants bounds across the intersection, narrowly missing the hood of an oncoming car, to shriek, “I was getting change!” to Aud. Because such a short time had passed, Aud lets her go. “Oh, thank you!” the woman said. “It’s Christmas today!”
Parking enforcers sustain a lot of injuries on the job. Aud was hit four times in her first two years driving the scooter, and she tore her rotator cuff slamming the door of the scooter once. Other officers have hurt their shoulders after months of marking hundreds of tires with the chalk stick.
Aud says it often surprises people to realize she’s not a machine. A couple of hours after forgiving the woman’s fine, she asks a construction worker pulling beams of wood from his truck bed if he knows his meter is expired. While he sends another worker to get the payment, she asks about his building project.
He seems shocked at the question and stammers the answer, as if bewildered by efforts for small talk from the same officer who almost dinged him with a fine. But, she says later, she’d rather people were confused than act like a jerk to keep her persona consistent with the yellow-enveloped penalty she’s tucking under their windshield wiper.
And without the interaction with people, Aud’s job would be quite boring, she says. Working this job proved a distraction — a therapeutic one, at that — when her husband died five years ago. He had a golf-ball-sized tumor on his brain that he’d originally dismissed as the flu. He died after a few brief treatments. Aud’s blue eyes fog a bit and she speaks slowly when she describes it.
“I found myself crying and crying, day after day,” she says. “Coming back to work was just wonderful therapy for me. Although when people would yell at me, I’d feel like I was going to cry.”
Aud has also found comfort in a gaggle of fellow female parking enforcers who’ve bonded over shopping trips to Los Angeles and a jaunt to Vegas last year. “You know when you’re in the same job with people and you just kind of click together?” she says of the group. Aud even has a shopping bag from one of their trips in the trunk of her parking scooter, along with a denim jacket and a copy of the newspaper she keeps in case she’s bored on a lunch break.
After a morning of a few, mostly tame, confrontations and 21 citations written, the knee of Aud’s black uniform pant is splotched with chalk, having been grazed by the stick all morning. Even after four hours of walking around town in steel-toed black shoes, she’s smiling. The sun glints off of her turquoise earrings before she turns the corner to make another round of the block.