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Das Boot

There are a few ways around the city's merciless system of punishing parking scofflaws. After $5,000 in fines and a trip behind enemy lines, I started to catch on.



By Ted Kleine

My date with the Denver Boot began in the summer of 1996, when I sold my pickup truck, the Black Rhino, to a guy named Jimmy Bimbo. I loved that truck--she was great for camping and hauling furniture, and she won every collision she was ever involved in--but she was 11 years old, a rusty hulk with a cracked head gasket and a deep dent that kept me from opening her driver's side door. Bimbo, a roofer from the northwest side, needed a pickup for a job in Joliet. He offered me $150, and I took it.

After we made the deal, I stood on Magnolia Street and watched him drive away in the Black Rhino, the truck that had carried me to literary parties in New York City and camping trips in Mississippi. Years before, when I'd gotten my very first job, in a downstate city, I piled all my possessions under her dove gray cap, and we moved down there together.

Me and the Black Rhino were as close as Mike Mulligan and his steamshovel. I was so sentimental I didn't even notice my license plate was still bolted to her hindquarters.

Last year, the Chicago Department of Revenue booted 27,915 vehicles, an all-time high. This year, the revenuers' busy boot crews matched that mark on August 1. A yellow boot now adorns a car on almost every city block, especially in the crowded north and west side neighborhoods where the booters do most of their work. The city's been nabbing a lot more scofflaws since 1998, when it debuted the Chicago Adjudication and Ticketing System, which allows booters to troll the streets with a handheld console called an Auto-Cite, typing in license plate numbers.

"In the past, the way to check eligibility was to go around with giant logbooks," says Department of Revenue director Bea Reyna-Hickey. "Now, through our Auto-Cites, they're plugging in plates--anyone who is boot eligible will be on that list."

The new system also allows the city to track drivers from plate to plate. Anyone who throws away a plate, or sells it to a roofer from the northwest side, is still responsible for its tickets. If you own two cars, the Revenue Department will boot your Ford for tickets your Chevy collected. The city is making a lot of money. Overnight, the number of boot-eligible vehicles--cars and trucks belonging to drivers with five unpaid tickets--doubled, from 320,000 to 650,000.

Success always has its critics, though. During last year's mayoral campaign, Bobby Rush vowed to stop the booting, claiming it picked on poor people who have to park on the street.

"Parking fines are disproportionately absorbed by the working poor, because these are individuals who live in areas where they don't have access to garages or driveways," said Rush's spokeswoman, Bess Bezirgan, in January 1999. "In areas that are more urban and crowded, there's no street parking and, by and large, if you live in those neighborhoods, your car is going to get tickets."

You also won't be able to hide your car in a garage, where the boot crews can't touch it. After Rush made the boot a populist issue, the Revenue Department released figures showing that in a two-and-half-month period that winter, it booted 131 cars in the 27th Ward, a near west side neighborhood afflicted with both congestion and poverty. In the semisuburban 41st Ward, out by O'Hare, it booted five. In Beverly's 19th Ward, six.

The department won't release updated figures, but spokesman Charles Edwards concedes that "we boot more north of Madison than south of Madison," adding that "some areas are residential and have off-street parking and people won't get a lot of tickets. Whereas on the north lakefront, you'll find a higher number of boot-eligible vehicles."

The boot crews "work all wards," Reyna-Hickey says. But they work some wards a lot harder than others. As an official closer to the street puts it, "for a booter to get 20 boots a day, he's gotta go where the people are. We mine the veins. Mount Greenwood has tons of areas to park your car. If he's trying to get 20 a day, why would he go out there?"

The same official, though, points out that it's density, not poverty, that makes for a good booting ground: "We boot a lot in Lakeview, and that's not a poor neighborhood."

It's for the community's own good, according to Mayor Daley. "Illegal parking can be a nuisance at best, a danger to public safety at worst," Daley writes in the brochure "Parking and Compliance Violation 'Bill of Rights,'" which you really should read if you've just been booted. "And rampant illegal parking can be as much a blight on a neighborhood as overflowing dumpsters or abandoned buildings."

One Tuesday morning this summer, the boot crews caught up with a car belonging to a man named Xavier, who'd been on an illegal parking rampage. A few hours later Xavier emerged from the Department of Revenue's Payment Center at 2550 W. Addison, clutching a stack of computer printouts listing all his unpaid tickets. He was going to have to cough up more than $1,000 to get his car rolling again, and he was livid.

"My car is my job," said Xavier, who lives in Irving Park. "I work for a home health care company, and I have to drive around to different doctors' offices....It's like a setup from the beginning. They put all these signs everywhere, where they know you can't find a parking space. I can't imagine people who have a pizza place."

Xavier didn't have $1,000 in the bank, so he was rushing home to arrange a loan over the Internet. It was urgent, because every day he couldn't drive was a lost paycheck.

"That's why it's so unfair," he complained. "It's the same fine, no matter how much you make....Most people who didn't pay [their tickets] didn't have the money in the first place."

That was the story Ramon Martinez gave as he walked into the payment center, carrying the orange sticker the crews attach to all freshly booted cars. Martinez, who speaks only Spanish, was accompanied by his friend and interpreter, Sergio.

Living in Albany Park, "he's on side streets all the time, and he's getting tickets," Sergio said.

Martinez's job as an auto-body repairman doesn't pay enough to cover parking fines and family expenses, so he let the tickets slide. Now Martinez was going to have to borrow $600 from his parents.

"He didn't have the money in the first place," Sergio explained, "so most of the tickets doubled."

That's catch number one in the 22-plus catches the Revenue Department presents the indigent. There's a $60 service charge for booting the car. If you can't pay within 24 hours, your car is towed to an auto pound, which costs $110, with an additional fee of $10 for each day it languishes there ($20 per day after ten days). If you can't pay within 30 days, the city crushes your car, or auctions it off and keeps the money. Then you have to buy a new car, but you can't drive it until you settle up with the city, because the Secretary of State's office suspends the licenses of drivers with more than ten unpaid tickets. Up until 1990, drivers were allowed to pay off tickets in installments, but over 90 percent welshed. Most people, Reyna-Hickey says, find a way to pay within 24 hours. If you pay within a day, a release crew rolls by and removes the boot. (The city champion scofflaw was a woman who ran up $23,000 in tickets. She paid on the spot.)

"People from all walks of life pay their tickets," Reyna-Hickey says. "There are people who choose not to, or can't pay their tickets. After 30 days, the city is able to destroy or sell their vehicles. In the end, some are unable to claim their vehicles."

The boot business is experiencing "tremendous growth," says Liz Wolfson, chief financial officer of Clancy Systems International, which owns the patent and the trademark on the original Denver Boot. (Chicago uses a knockoff manufactured by Palma, Inc., of Maryland.) The device was invented in 1953 by Frank Marugg, whom Wolfson describes as "a pattern maker, an inventor, a violinist" and a friend to several Denver cops. By the end of the decade, Marugg's boot was in use all over the country by police departments that realized booting a car was much cheaper than towing it.

"Now in the 90s and early 2000s, downtowns have become much more crowded, and there's no more parking spaces," Wolfson says. "People are moving back into the city. The purpose of moving into the city is so you might not need a car, but they're bringing two cars down."

The streets aren't getting any bigger, though. That means fewer places to park, more tickets--and more boots. At parking enforcement trade shows, "more and more people are saying 'We're here to see the boot guy, because we've got three and now we want seven,'" says Kim Jackson, director of professional development at the International Parking Institute.

Maggie Hernandez, who used to work third shift for Peapod, got squeezed by the overpopulation of cars and trucks. When Hernandez returned home to Portage Park at four in the morning, she often had to choose between parking three blocks from home--risking a long walk through dark streets--or parking in front of a fire hydrant near her apartment. Sometimes she chose the hydrant. By the time the boot crew caught up to her, she owed $1,430.

"Basically, where do they expect us to park?" Hernandez asked. "The city just keeps getting fuller....There's no parking."

When I drove the Black Rhino, I lived in Uptown, and I had a job that kept me out until 11 o'clock most weeknights. It's not easy to park a Ford F-150 in Uptown at any hour, but close to midnight the only space left was at the end of a block. The tickets piled up faster than I could pay them. Eventually, I moved to Rogers Park, where my compact Mazda often overnighted in one of the metered spaces along Loyola Beach. If it wasn't out by 8 AM, I got a ticket. So I wasn't shocked when in November of last year I found a boot hugging a wheel of my car. But when I called the Revenue Department to find out how much I owed, I nearly lost my will to live. The clerk on the other end of the line spent silent, tense minutes toting up my fines.

"You have 61 tickets," she finally announced, "for a total of $4,790."

Four thousand, seven hundred, and ninety dollars. That was almost as much as I'd paid for the car. It was one-fifth of my annual income, and ten times the money in my checking account. I had a month to scrape it together, and every day I delayed would cost me another $10.

I didn't have any friends who wanted to give me five grand, so like Xavier from Irving Park I logged onto the Internet and started looking for a bank, payday center, or loan shark to spot me the cash. There was only one option: a home equity loan on my condominium. Bank One, God bless those usurers, let me have $5,100, which I'll be paying off at $111 a month until the fall of 2004. I mortgaged myself right up to the scalp, but I got my car back. Three weeks after the boot went on, I brought a bank money order to the payment center on Addison. They wouldn't take it, because it didn't say "cashier's check," so I went back to the bank and took out $5,215 in cash. They took that, and gave me a release order, redeemable at the pound on Sacramento Street. I felt lucky. If I'd been a renter, my car would have been sold or flattened, and the Secretary of State would have pulled my driver's license until I paid my fines, which wouldn't have been possible without a car to drive to work. It seemed an illogical system, but it's one well understood by the anonymous crank who maintains the Web site "Parking Nazis Must Die!" (

"Imagine this scenario," he writes. "You live from hand-to-mouth. You need your car to commute to work. However, at work there is not enough parking. You try to rotate your car to comply with the alternate side of the street limited parking mumbo jumbo, and inevitably you slip up now and then. Each slip-up costs you $20 that you can't afford. However, you'd better afford them because otherwise your car, the means of access to your livelihood will get towed, and then you'll be assessed fines you can afford even less. There is no recourse, no waiver due to hardship, no extension. Pay up or lose your car and therefore your job."

Clutching my release order, I boarded a bus for the auto pound. The clerk at the payment center had also given me a yard-long receipt and a seven-page computer printout listing all my unpaid tickets. I read through it, trying to find out where I'd gone so wrong. Almost all of them were charged to the Black Rhino, but they'd been issued after I'd sold the truck. Twenty-five-dollar tickets, fifty-dollar tickets, sometimes two or three a day, starting in the summer of '96 and ending in February of '97, when the Black Rhino must have broken down for the last time. It was Jimmy Bimbo, or someone he'd sold the truck to. The swindler had been conducting a reign of illegal parking, on my dime. As soon as I liberated my car from the vast, muddy auto penitentiary on Sacramento (it was missing a hubcap, and the windows were covered with grease-penciled letters and numbers), I drove home in a rage that added ten miles an hour to my average speed. As soon as I hit the door, I was on the phone to the Revenue Department. Surely they'd understand.

"I just paid $5,000 in parking fines, but most of them were run up by someone else using my license plate," I said, as though reporting a crime.

"I'm sorry," a nasal-sounding woman recited. "Once you've paid the fines, you've admitted guilt. There's nothing we can do. Remember that for next time."

Wolfson, the Denver Boot woman, says she saw plenty of situations like mine when her company was running parking enforcement operations for villages in the suburbs.

"From the ticket issuance standpoint, what we say is 'Tough,'" Wolfson says. "In Maywood, people were always doing that, getting rid of the junkers and not taking off the plates. Illinois says you're responsible."

Tim Forberg didn't boot my car, but he may boot yours. Three months ago, Forberg, a philosophy major looking to get a foothold in city government, joined the Revenue Department's boot crew. Tall, lean, clean-cut, and bespectacled, he looks like a park ranger in his khaki uniform shirt and wheat-colored jeans. But Forberg has a dangerous job. At the start of his shift each morning, he straps on a bulletproof vest. All the booters wear them.

"Before I was hired, someone was shot at," Forberg explains, as he smooths down the Velcro fasteners on his brown chest protector. "There's always the threat. I think that's what's most disturbing. There's always some menace. 'Don't do that to my car. You're going to get a cap in your ass. Don't fuck with my car.' A good day is when you don't run into the citizens."

That's why booters never work alone. They're accompanied by a parking enforcement aide, who writes tickets, fills out paperwork, and watches the booter's back while he's kneeling in front of a car, ratcheting a clamp over a tire. Today--August 1, the day the booters are breaking last year's record--he'll be accompanied by me and a photographer. We meet him at the Amoco station on the corner of Lawrence and Marine Drive. He doesn't offer us bulletproof vests. Before we leave, he slides open the door of his Econoline van to show us his day's supply of boots. With their spokes pointed roofward, they look like a herd of eyeless yellow lobsters, eager to pinch rubber tires.

Every morning, Forberg's boss orders the booters to go north or south, depending on which pound has the most space. This morning, the lot on Sacramento needs to be filled, so the crews are told to "go fishing" on the north side. Forberg decides to hit Rogers Park: its streets are always crowded, so he'll have no trouble booting 20 cars (the Department of Revenue says booters don't have quotas, though drivers set daily goals).

"Everyone goes to their own area," he says. "We don't target any wards, but when I came on this shift I knew that there's someone who always goes to Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville. Another guy likes the west side. I thought, Rogers Park. I know there are a lot of apartment buildings. Boom, 20 boots before noon. I've gone out to Sauganash, wasted my time."

On Pratt, just west of Sheridan, Forberg starts tapping license plates into his Auto-Cite. Halfway down the block, the computer beeps three times and flashes the words "Hot List Match." Forberg jumps out, grabs a clamp, and ratchets it open until it's wide enough to embrace the tire. When the clamp is biting down good and tight, he attaches the dish, which fits over the hubcap and blocks access to the valve. Some drivers try to shake their boots by deflating their tires, then driving away. If they can't get to the valve, they'll slash the tire.

"We had one guy who caught a driver he'd just booted driving to the gas station on his rims," Forberg says.

Once the dish is on, Forberg secures it to the clamp with a padlock. The whole job takes a little over a minute. The quicker he gets it done, the less chance an irate driver will run out into the street and harass him. "Gone in 60 seconds" is Forberg's goal. He slaps an orange sticker on the windshield, writes the license number in his logbook, and drives off.

"I'm not very good with tools," he says, even though he's just executed a flawless booting. "I've never been a handyman, but you do what you do."

Indeed, before he became a booter, the 33-year-old Forberg taught English in France for seven years, then worked as an adjudication officer at the U.S. passport office in New Orleans. Last year he came home to Chicago with his French-born wife and their two children, intending to get a master's degree in public administration at UIC. Booting cars allows him to study at night. On the job, he likes to drive around in his van listening to WBEZ ("NPR is the only thing that keeps me from going crazy"). He's got a William Styron biography stowed next to the seat, and he'd rather discuss his favorite books--Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian--than talk about parking.

"We've got some guys who are gung ho," Forberg says. "I'm personally not like that. I go back and forth between thinking [booting] is excessive and thinking, 'Well, you're responsible for your tickets.' Sometimes the neighbors come out and it's half the block, and I think in my exasperation, 'Just pay so I don't have to do this.'"

Rogers Park turns out to be almost barren of bootable cars. Maybe, Forberg theorizes, another booter "saturated" the neighborhood the day before. Whatever the reason, we head west to the Lincoln Bend neighborhood, where Forberg boots a Nissan Sentra and a van with accents of rust along the undercarriage.

After lunch, Steve Kelso, the Revenue Department's director of street operations, stops by to check on Forberg. I ask Kelso about the hazards of the job.

"They swing at you, they spit on you, they throw things," Kelso says. "They used to surround them when they were squatting down. They're in a vulnerable position."

On March 16 of last year, booter Chris Johnson was helping to tow a car on the 3900 block of West Jackson. He was standing out in the street when the owner charged out his front door, fired a warning shot into the air, then sprayed the block with bullets. One shot smashed through the driver's side window of Johnson's van.

"If it had been cold that day, I would have been in the truck," Johnson told me when I caught up with him at the old Kraft Building in Streeterville, headquarters of the city's boot operation.

After seven shots, the gun was spent. "The way he was shooting, he was shooting from east to west, and we were standing west of the vehicle," Johnson said. "If he had any [more] bullets, it would have hit one of us."

Johnson was so shaken he took a month off from work. In early August, he was the star witness in the trial of the gunman, 38-year-old Anthony Wells. Wells was convicted of two counts of aggravated discharge of a firearm, a felony carrying a sentence of four to fifteen years in prison. Johnson still can't understand why Wells started shooting over a car.

"Shoot somebody over a car, that's material," he said. "You can get another car."

Two other booters have been fired on--one in Albany Park, the other on the near west side. But despite the risk of bullets, morale on the crews seems high. One burly booter, who goes by the nickname "Hightower," laced a shitkicking oi boy boot to the grille of his van, "so I can tell people, 'I've been booted too!'" Sometimes booters gather in the Kraft Building garage to hold time trials. The fastest booting, under practice conditions, is 22 seconds. And then there's Tom Bombenger, aka the King of Booters, who became a legend when he booted 80 cars in a 12-hour shift that must have been as manic as the closing scenes of Goodfellas.

"I was on a roll," recalls Bombenger, who was working the southeast side that day. "I was trying to hit a goal. One of the hard things is to get units out there who can deliver the boots. We linked up with tow trucks, release units. I was able to get 50, and I thought, 'I got four more hours left. I wonder how many I can do?' You get five, six cars per block, you're gonna get the numbers."

No one has challenged Bombenger's record, not even Bombenger himself. "Some people have tried to get close, but they always slow down," he says. "I'm not going to do it anytime soon. I was sore the next day."

The second time I go on a booting run with Tim Forberg, I meet him at headquarters at 6 AM. (It's considered courteous to boot cars early in the morning, so drivers can pay their fines and get their cars freed by the late afternoon.) A dozen booters are sitting around a spindly-legged table on the third floor. The stained green carpet and off-white walls look drab even by good-enough-for-government-work standards. Some of the crew are still eating bagels and drinking Dunkin' Donuts coffee when Chuck Jones, the assistant director of street operations, sits down for the roll call.

"We are south side, south side," he announces.

This time I'm handed my own Auto-Cite, so I can help Forberg fish for cars. We drive down to 77th and South Shore, where my computer beeps on the second plate I enter, a Mercury Sable. I can't decide whether to feel thrilled by the instant success--the Auto-Cite is fun to play with, since it contains secrets about everyone's parking habits--or guilty about ruining some poor slob's day. Forberg boots the Sable, then boots a Ford at the end of the block, where 77th dead-ends into Rainbow Beach. He's on a roll this morning. After five or six boots, he stops to call in his haul to a dispatcher. Word comes back that the Sable is a "GOA"--Gone on Arrival. It was booted two days ago, but the driver extricated himself, probably with a welding torch. Now Forberg has to wait for a tow truck, which will haul the car to the pound, where the handyman can't touch it. The driver's going to get hit with a second boot fee, plus a $300 fine for damaging city property. The boot will probably turn up in a trash can.

"More often than not, we'll get a call from Streets and San," Forberg says. "Garbagemen will say, 'Hey, we found one of your boots again.'"

Later in the morning I catch a taxicab with my Auto-Cite, but when Forberg calls for permission to boot it the answer is "negative."

"I always run taxicabs through the system because they're always rude to me when I'm driving, but we can't boot taxicabs," he says. "I think it's an agreement between Daley and the taxicab association."

Taxicabs are immune, because it's unfair to steal a day's work from drivers who rent cabs. The city works with cab companies to identify drivers who run up tickets.

Minutes later, Forberg taps a vanity plate into Auto-Cite and applies his philosophy major to the job.

"If I had a vanity plate, it'd say UBERMENSCH," he says. "A little tip of the cap to Nietzsche. I'm a big fan of Nietzsche."

There are a few ways to guess, on sight, that a car might be on the boot list. If the driver's window has a lot of gummy residue from parking tickets, the car's probably on the list. Same with cars that are falling apart.

"That's the kind of car people say 'Thank you for booting it,'" he says of a Chrysler with a sagging front fender and a blown-out tire. "You know the driver's not going to come out. It makes sense that he didn't pay his tickets. People who don't take care of their shit in one area usually don't take care of it in another."

Forberg tells me he's booted every class of car, from Ford Festivas to Jaguars, but in two days, it seems like we've mainly caught hoopties and beaters. I want a Lexus, or a Ford Explorer. I feed Auto-Cite the plates of every new car I see, but get no hits.

At the end of the morning, on the way to lunch, we do a "drive-by," typing in the plates of cars we pass on the fly. I spot a Chevy with a National Guard plate, sitting all alone on Yates Avenue. It's a hit. But as Forberg boots the car, the driver stalks out the front door.

"Can I have a break, man?" he begs. "I'm getting married in a week."

Forberg, who won't remove a boot once it's on the tire, is implacable.

"You'll have to talk to a hearing officer," he says, handing the man an orange sticker.

"Give me a break."

The plea is ignored, so the man glowers tensely at Forberg for a few moments, then heads back inside. That one I feel guilty about.

I may have made up for it on the way home. Playing with the Auto-Cite on Lake Shore Drive, I found a hit. I leaned my head out the window and yelled at the driver. "You're on the boot list!" I hope he paid before his car got nailed.

The day before I met Forberg at the Kraft Building, his boss, Steve Kelso, called and asked for my plate number. He wanted to run it through the Auto-Cite.

"You probably shouldn't park here if you're on the boot list," he said. "You never know if someone like Pam Zekman is going to be outside saying 'Hey, how come they didn't boot that car?' I'll run your plate and call you back if there's a problem."

Three minutes later, the phone rang.

"You're on the boot list again."

He read through my record on his computer.

"Do you live on North Malden Street?" Kelso asked.

"I moved away from Malden Street four years ago."

"Well, that's where they've been sending all the notices. When you go out with Timmy tomorrow, he can take you to a payment center and you can get all this squared away."

I didn't ask Forberg to take me to a payment center, but I did tell him I was once again in trouble with the Revenue Department. This time all the tickets were mine.

"If they didn't send the seizure notice to your right address, you shouldn't be on the boot list," he told me. "You can get them to take you off so you can get your tickets paid."

I was learning all sorts of loopholes from these guys. I'd also found out that the city has to send out three letters before it can double the price of a ticket. With my new legal knowledge, I returned to the payment center on Addison Street, and asked for a printout of my tickets. Several had doubled, so I now owed $550. (Tickets double after the third notice, which is known as "Final Determination." Five tickets in Final Determination lands you on the boot list.) I asked for a hearing with an administrative law officer, and was sent to a little chamber--smaller than a courtroom, bigger than an office--which contained a podium, a desk, and a white-haired man sitting at a computer. Another hearing was in progress. A man was complaining because his boot fines included tickets on an old license plate he'd junked years before.

"I'm not paying tickets that someone else got on my license plate," he huffed.

"I'm just telling you how much you have to pay to get your car back," the white-haired officer responded.

"This is some fair system," the man cursed before walking away.

After the officer put me under oath ("Raise your right hand. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, etc, etc, etc"), I testified that I'd been screwed by an incompetent clerk in the Revenue Department. He was sympathetic.

"I think I ought to be taken off the boot list, because I never got a Seizure Notice," I argued. "I also don't think I should have to pay the penalties on these tickets, since I never got any notices on them either."

"Let's check with the Secretary of State's computer system," he said. "That'll be the acid test."

The officer squinted at his screen though bifocals. He placed telephone calls to secretaries in Springfield. He drew check marks up and down my computer printout. And finally he granted a reprieve. I would no longer be the quarry of the boot crews.

"The Secretary of State does show you've moved," he admitted. "The seizure notice was sent to Malden Street on two-thirteen-two thousand. I'm going to take you off the boot list for 21 days, and throw out all the penalties. You'll only owe $300 now."

"I wish I'd known all these rules a year ago," I said. "I probably could have saved a couple thousand dollars."

The officer shook his head.

I have saved the seven-page printout of tickets issued after I'd sold my truck. I believe a man's files should contain records of his stupidity, as well as his triumphs.

After my hearing, I reviewed the amounts: $50, $60, $100, $120. All tickets I'd never received a letter about. All doubled. I toted up all my penalties with a calculator. They came to $1,920. Damn. I've been wanting to buy a new color TV for the last year. Now I know why I can't afford one. It seemed like such a rip. If I'd gotten those notices, I would have known someone was running up tickets on the Black Rhino. I could have checked the addresses, hunted down my truck, and torn off the plates. Call me cheap, but I thought I deserved a refund.

The day after my hearing, I returned to the payment center with my sheaf of ticket printouts and my foot-long receipt.

"I'd like another hearing," I told the receptionist.

"Can I see your ticket?" she asked.

"I don't have a ticket. I think I was overcharged on these fines I paid when my car got booted."

"When was your car booted?"


"November?" the receptionist exclaimed in a don't-waste-my-time tone of voice. "I don't know if we can do anything about that. You're going to have to go to the Revenue Department"--she pointed to the bank of cashier's windows--"and get an adjustment."

I got into line, and explained my problem to one of the cashiers.

"Sir"--the word "sir" has two functions in our language: to show respect or to show impatience--"there's nothing we can do about this. Once you pay, you admit all responsibility for these fines."

It was the same line I'd gotten last November. I went back to the receptionist.

"I couldn't get an adjustment."

"Maybe you should see the supervisor."

The supervisor was polite, but her hands were tied as well. There was nothing she could do, but if I wrote to a man named Matt Darst he could review my case. She gave me Mr. Darst's address, and that evening I wrote a letter that concluded:

"When I looked back at the tickets I paid in November, I saw that most of them included penalties. I never received penalty notices for those tickets, nor did I receive a Seizure Notice. At the time, I didn't know these were required. How could I have? The Revenue Department had failed to notify me. At the time, all I knew was that the city had my car, and I had to pay $4,790 to get it back.

"I believe I deserve a refund on all the penalties I paid last November. The Revenue Department erred by sending notices to the wrong address. The city should not be able to profit because of that."

I haven't received an answer yet, but based on what I already know of Chicago's parking establishment, here's the response I'm expecting: Tough.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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