By Ben Joravsky
The insurrection against unjust parking-ticket laws found a new front last month after former vice president Al Gore paid a surprise visit to Lincoln Park. "What they did was not right," says Peter Kratzer, whose girlfriend lives on the block Gore visited. "It's an unwarranted abuse--someone else should pay for it."
On Sunday, April 22, Gore came to visit a friend who lives on the 1900 block of North Dayton, a pricey part of town. "I walked out of my girlfriend's apartment at about ten in the morning to run some errands," says Kratzer. "When I got back it was about noon, and I got a spot on the street. I was happy to get it because, as you know, it's not easy to find parking around there."
That's when he saw a Secret Service agent. "You could tell he was Secret Service--he looked the part," he says. "He had a black suit coat and a tie and an earpiece. He was posting no-parking signs, and he told me I'd better move my car. He said they were going to start towing at five. He didn't tell me why. He just said somebody is coming."
So Kratzer found a space a few blocks away and returned to Dayton to watch the show. He acknowledges that it wasn't a massive operation--the signs covered just three or four spaces on either side of Gore's friend's house. "At about four the police came, and they started writing tickets," he says. "Word got out that it was Gore who was coming. Apparently he knows someone on the block. At five I heard them say that Al Gore was en route. They said they had his car on the radio, and he was only 20 minutes away."
A couple of people moved their cars, trying to avoid being towed as well as ticketed, but as the minutes ticked by, four cars still remained. "So the tow trucks came and they towed those cars away," says Kratzer. "I don't know the names of the people who were towed. One woman with a broken foot showed up just as her car was towed. She came up on crutches, and she was furious. There was this other car with four-wheel drive. The police explained that you can't tow a car with four-wheel drive. So what they did is they attached it to a tow truck in front and a tow truck in the back, and they lifted the car up off the ground. Then they drove it off with the tow truck in the front going forward and the one in the rear driving in reverse. It was quite an operation."
At about 5:20 Gore's limousine pulled up, and the former vice president got out. "He was alone--he wasn't with Tipper," says Kratzer. "He had some flowers. The people waved. He went into the house. He stayed for a few hours. Then he left. Everyone was friendly."
But Kratzer was still irritated. He didn't think it was fair to ticket and tow people for violating a law they didn't know existed. "If you parked your car the day before and went about your business, you wouldn't know that the street had suddenly become a no-parking zone," he says. "You might have left to go downtown early in the day before the signs were posted. The police told me it's a $25 ticket and a $115 towing fee. That's $140. How can they legally make you pay that ticket and towing fee?"
According to city officials, there's nothing illegal about clearing the streets for security reasons. "The towing operation was overseen by our department at the behest of Secret Service and Chicago police," says Ray Padvoiskais, spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation. "As I understand it, the vice president still qualifies for Secret Service protection, and this is standard procedure to clear a block that he will be visiting." Presumably the Secret Service wants to eliminate any chance of a would-be assassin planting a bomb in a parked car.
Asked if he thinks it's fair to tow when signs go up only a few hours beforehand, Padvoiskais says, "My understanding is that the signs were posted well ahead of that Sunday, probably on the midnight shift. Occasionally what happens is they have to be reposted because someone tore them down."
Kratzer says no signs were up when he went out that morning, but even if they had been up, people weren't given proper notice. "If the signs were taken down shortly after midnight, most people wouldn't know they were there," he says. "So you can't expect them to move their cars."
Of the cars towed, only two were taken to the city's car pound, says Padvoiskais. "The others were relocated. That means we just moved them to another block. That used to happen to me all the time when I lived in Hyde Park. I'd come home and find that my car was moved down the block because they had been removing a tree or something. If you call 311 they'll track down your car."
Kratzer can't see why a former vice president merits such attention. "I understand that a president gets protection for life, but a vice president? My understanding is that Gore now works for Columbia University. Are we in the business of towing cars for university employees?"
Kratzer insists that his complaint has nothing to do with politics. "It's true that I didn't vote for Al Gore," he says, "and I certainly didn't vote him into my parking place. But I would object to whoever it was that was getting this sort of treatment."
Even Dan Quayle, the former GOP vice president?
"Anyone. It's just too much. I don't think it's right. I don't think the people should have to pay for those tickets. To tell you the truth, I'd like to see Al Gore pay for those parking tickets. That would make me very happy."
Carlos Clarke Drazen--The Verdict Is In
Things were bad enough for Carlos Clarke Drazen when the RTA announced it was booting her out of its home-to-work van program. But things got worse. "The RTA denied my appeal, and then I had to check into the hospital because of a shortness of breath," she says. "It hasn't been the best week."
Drazen is the north-sider I wrote about on April 6. She has a bone disorder called vitamin D resistance, which, as her doctor puts it, "prevents her body from processing calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D into bone mass." Her bones are "very porous and brittle and can fracture if she is struck a sharp blow or shaken very roughly." From an early age, she's been in and out of hospitals and has had to use a wheelchair, though this hasn't prevented her from establishing a career as an expert in disability rights--she now works for the University of Illinois at Chicago.
For a long time the CTA and RTA--the CTA provides the service, the RTA determines eligibility--were very cooperative. They enrolled her in their "paratransit" program, sending a van to pick her up each morning outside her apartment on the 1300 block of North Cleveland and drive to her office on the 1600 block of West Roosevelt.
But last year the RTA started getting tough. They sent her a notice saying she had to be "recertified" for van service. At a hearing she told RTA officials that she was too fragile to navigate sidewalks without curb cuts, that because of construction there weren't sidewalks on some parts of her route, and that her wheelchair didn't even fit into the strap device on most buses. When she tried taking the bus to work, several bus drivers passed her by. Once she was finally on a bus she realized that any sudden stop or turn might knock her to the floor.
On March 13 the CTA informed her that the RTA had denied her request for full-time van service. From then on she was eligible only for conditional van service, meaning the van could pick her up only during the winter months, November 15 to March 15, or during horrendous weather, such as a torrential downpour or an out-of-season blizzard.
Drazen appealed, and a hearing was held last month. "I repeated all the things I had previously told them," she says. She told them that the regular transit service is too dangerous and unpredictable for someone with her condition, that bus drivers don't always stop, the lifts don't always work, the streets and sidewalks aren't always passable. "They have a stereotypical attitude of a disabled person as someone who uses the buses or trains every now and then. I don't think they ever imagined dealing with people in wheelchairs who need it every day to get to work."
On April 30 the RTA sent her its response in the form of a three-page letter from Kimberly Ann Robb, an RTA Eligibility Review Board representative. "They denied my appeal," says Drazen. If a rattling bus could break her bones, the letter argued, well, a rattling van could too. If a driver doesn't stop or a lift doesn't work, that's not the RTA's problem. "These are operational issues that need to be brought forth to the appropriate Service Board," Robb wrote. In other words the CTA.
"It's a real catch-22," says Drazen. "They're working from the assumption that the system works as it's supposed to. But if the bus doesn't stop for me, I'm stuck on the corner."
The RTA did grant her a reprieve of sorts. Her van service will continue until the construction projects near her home and her workplace are completed and the sidewalks are passable. "They let me know," she says, "that every now and then the CTA will send someone out to check on my route."
To Drazen, the RTA's rigidity is bureaucratic heartlessness that borders on cruelty. She wonders how much money they can possibly save by booting her from the van. And she wonders, who are all the fakers in wheelchairs the RTA is trying to prevent from sneaking onto its vans by making an example out of her?
"To me it's all a big waste of money--the CTA inspector, the appeal process, all of it," she says. "The irony is that the people at the appeals process who interviewed me were in wheelchairs, but the inspector they send out to review my route will probably be an able-bodied man. They should send the wheelchair people out. The whole thing is absurd."
Drazen plans to return to work after she gets out of the hospital, and she plans to keep fighting. "There are some nice people at the RTA and CTA," she says. "Some of the drivers are getting a petition around to try and get me back on. They say, of all the people in the service, I really need it. That's nice of them. So I still have a little hope."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.