There went the weekend. 

We were heading back to the car Friday night. When I had parked, where I did along Julia Street, I was proud of myself for finding a spot that was perfectly legal. No problem. But there would be. When leaving, as I approached the vehicle, I noticed one of those sinister traffic control vans parked alongside. A worker was already putting a boot on the front left tire. I rushed to the car hoping to stop what was surely a mistake, but the other worker assured me that they were correct. The car was being booted not because of where it was parked, but because I had several unpaid violations – just about all of them linked to being snagged by traffic cameras. Things were about to get worse.

I was given a phone number and told that if I would call their office and give them a card number they would remove the boot once the office said it was OK. Eagerly, I did just that, though reading card numbers on an iPhone in the dark of night was a strain. However, I persisted knowing that there was money in the account to cover the cost, which was embarrassingly high and included the extra indignity of $121 for an “immobilization fee.” (This was like being required to pay for being tortured.) I was stunned when, after reading the numbers twice, the card was rejected. That was the topper of what had been a bad week in the world of plastic cards. Earlier that week I had discovered that I had been skimmed and some fraudulent purchases had been made on my card. Fortunately, the bank caught the transactions, but I had to get my existing card invalidated and replaced with a temporary card. So Friday, when the traffic clerk asked for my identity I had not realized that the card said merely that I was a bank “customer” rather than having my name. So there I was: no car, no valid card, increasing anger. I explained, in so many words, to the workers that incidents like this drove people from the city. After all I had done nothing wrong that night. Instead, I had been trolled as the city vehicle prowled the street checking license plates. It was as though the town was after me. I am second to no one in my affection for New Orleans, but this was one of those moments when I wondered, though briefly, what it would be like to live in Abita Springs or to have dined that evening in Metairie instead. For sure I would have finished the weekend with more money.

In the end I was lucky. I was able to take a taxi that night and had enough cash to pay for it. The next day I got a ride to the car pound, where the car had been towed, no doubt with the loving care of the tow truck operator. Using another card I was able to pay for the vehicle’s release, but it hurt. I kept thinking that we were governed by rules made by people who are often chauffeured around in town cars. I wish they could feel what I felt.

Then I thought about other victims of this callous policy. Imagine someone working hourly, or for tips, and having the same experience but seeing a week’s wages disappear just as other bills are due. And what if that person did not have money to take a taxi or a way to get to the pound. The more I thought about it I realized this was more than a policy question; it damn near bordered on being a moral issue. Should people be denied their vehicles and possibly left in dangerous situations because of unpaid tickets?

Of course none of this would have happened had I not done whatever the traffic cameras indicated I did wrong. As I thought through the incident, I realized that vulnerability is mostly a function of where someone lives. I live near Canal Street, which is like a jackals’ feeding ground for traffic cameras. Live there long enough and you will get tickets. That is almost unavoidable. A common situation is when a traffic light turns yellow. I have faced that situation and had a second to stop or hurry across the intersection. If I stopped though the car that was trailing too close behind me would likely plow into the back. If I took the chance I might or might not earn the camera’s click. You really can’t win, though it might have been cheaper to let the trailing vehicle hit me.

Contesting the violation is a farce, no one takes that seriously. They have photographic evidence; you don’t. The real issue is to what standards the cameras are set and that is determined by some higher authority who wants to make money. So the thing to do is to hold your nose, pay the violation and pray to St. Jude for there to be justice one day. (Maybe in this election year someone will have a more thoughtful plan.)

One final note: I had mentioned that my card had been skimmed. As best as I can figure out from the bank’s records is that the incident happened two weeks earlier when I had parked in a French Quarter lot. So, had I parked on the street that night I might have gotten booted; by parking in a lot I got skimmed instead.

Staying at home and relying on pizza delivery might be a better option. I just hope the driver doesn’t catch a yellow light.