By Ben Joravsky
As far as Susie McSweeney's concerned, the coup de grace in the city's crusade against her life as a motorist came a few weeks ago, when it ticketed her for posting a For Sale sign in the window of her Honda Prelude.
She'd finally decided to get rid of her car, after running up more than $1,000 a year in parking tickets. Then came the ticket that defied belief.
"That's it, I'm through--let someone else pay all the tickets. I'm done," she says. "I thought I'd seen it all. Then I saw this. I mean, who in the world ever thought it would be illegal to put a For Sale sign in your window?"
Her lament's another chapter in the age-old saga of car wars, in which the city tries to wring every dime it can out of motorists whose hopeless dependency on their cars exposes them to all sorts of arcane laws and exorbitant fines. The simple fact is that there are too many cars in the city and most people would be far better off taking public transportation.
For the last few years McSweeney lived in Lincoln Park and Lakeview and worked in River North, each a congested area where on-street parking's almost impossible to find on a regular basis.
"I had a nice car--a 1993 Honda Prelude with about 60,000 miles on it," she says. "I bought it new. I liked to drive it, except it was a pain to park. I swear I had the worst luck. I got a ticket for everything. Leave your car to run into a store? I'd get a ticket. Park at a meter that's broken? I'd get a ticket. It seemed I was always about ten tickets behind and rushing in to pay them off before I got a boot letter.
"In fact I did get booted once. I had to go to City Hall and pay off all my fines--about $1,200. There was no fighting it. The city wins no matter what."
In January she decided to sell her car. "I got one of those For Sale signs you can get at the hardware store-- you know, the ones that have a red border and are white in the middle. I wrote on it, 'For sale--price negotiable.' Then I put my phone number on it."
On Wednesday, January 27, she parked her car in the 700 block of North Hudson, and soon discovered the ultimate irony: her effort to stop getting tickets had resulted in yet another. "I came out and saw the ticket and I said, 'Oh my God, what did I do?' I figured this has to be a joke. I had paid the meter. I was parked within the lines. Then I looked on the ticket and it said, 'Vehicle posted for sale.' That's a $25 ticket. I thought, 'No, this can't be true.' I was like, 'You gotta be kidding. It's against the law to post a For Sale sign?' I called my family, I called my friends, I told people at work, no one could believe it. They said you have the worst luck--this is crazy."
McSweeney decided to investigate. "I called the Revenue Department. What a joke that was. I went through three assistants and not one of them knew a thing about it. They would take my name and number and say they'd have someone call me back. Finally a woman called me back. I don't know who she was. She must have been some clerk. She said that she had heard about my complaint, but that she was not aware of the law against posting For Sale signs. She said that I would have to call 'City Hall services.' I swear that's what she said. God knows what City Hall services is.
"Anyway, she gave me a number and I called it. And guess what? It was the same routine. I got a woman who said she knew nothing about the For Sale sign tickets. And get this--she told me to call the Department of Revenue. I said, 'But they told me to call you.' She said, 'Oh.' I said, 'I need answers.' She said, 'We don't have any answers.' I said, 'I don't know whether to contest this or pay it. I need to know. I mean, you can put a For Sale sign up to sell your house or sell your dog. Why not your car?' She said she didn't know."
McSweeney decided to fight the ticket. "I wrote a letter to the address they gave me on the ticket," she says. "I basically told them, 'Look, it's one thing if it's an ordinance that's on the books. But it's another thing if it's a law that no one knows about, even in your office!' I thought it was a pretty good letter. But I haven't heard a thing. Who knows how it will end up. In the past when I've written letters contesting tickets, all I ever got was another ticket. They never give you an explanation. Like I said, City Hall always wins."
City Hall press aides also were unaware of the For Sale sign ban, at least when first contacted. "I never heard about it, but I'll look around and get back to you," said Charles Edwards, spokesman for the Department of Revenue.
Sure enough, he called back to say he'd found the ordinance on the books. "It's a law and you can get ticketed for it," says Edwards. "I guess it's one of those laws that a lot of people aren't aware of."
Edwards says he doesn't know who introduced the ordinance, or whether it engendered much City Council debate. But he faxed over a copy and there it was--good old number 9-80-080 (in a section of the city code headed "Parking for certain purposes prohibited").
"It shall be unlawful to park any vehicle upon any roadway to display the vehicle for sale," the ordinance reads. "Any person who violates this subsection shall be fined $25.00. Each day a vehicle remains in violation of this subsection, shall constitute a separate and distinct offense for which a separate penalty shall be imposed."
The ordinance goes on to say that "no person shall park a vehicle upon any roadway or in any alley to grease or repair the vehicle except for repairs necessitated by an emergency." In other words, the municipal code's chock-full of oddball prohibitions (where else would you change the oil but in the alley?) that only a specialized breed of scholar would know.
"I recall Richard Roeper did a column on something similar many years ago," says John Holden, a former Revenue Department press aide who has the dubious distinction of being one of the city's foremost authorities on parking tickets, having answered so many questions about them. "I know it [the ordinance] goes back a long time--at least 30 years, although I never did get a definitive answer on the matter. I know it's rarely enforced, though I recall there was a situation involving [a southwest-side alderman] and a car dealership on Western Avenue. As I remember, they got dozens and dozens of tickets for having For Sale signs in the windows of the cars they parked on a midway. The alderman introduced an ordinance that would have made it OK for them to park on a parkway. But his ordinance didn't go anywhere. And the more you think about it, the more you can see it has a legitimate public purpose. You don't want to turn a street into a used-car parking lot."
Of course a savvy publicist can find an explanation for any hokey ordinance.
"Well no, not really," says Holden. "A few years ago Ray Hanania did a funny story about stale city ordinances. He found one where they made it illegal to wear hats in an elevator. I'm not making this up. The law was on the books."
Whatever, McSweeney sold the Honda. "I walk and take cabs or els and buses," she says. "If I need a car, I borrow one from a friend. I'm sure I'm not alone. I'll bet you that more and more people are giving up their cars.
"I ended up selling the Honda to a dealership. I gave up on trying to sell it myself. I said, 'This is it--I'm taking the sign down and I'm going to the dealer.' I mean, how can I sell a car without a For Sale sign in the window? I sold it for $10,000. They'll probably turn around and sell it for eleven-five. Isn't that something--the car dealership ends up making a little money. At least someone's happy."
Richard Pegue Gets Street Cred
In his teenage days Richard Pegue could never have imagined this, but there he was up on the auditorium stage at his alma mater, Hirsch High School, with the principal leading the cheers.
Pegue is the legendary DJ who's been spinning records at various soul music stations since the 60s. His overnight show from 9 PM Saturday to 6 AM Sunday on WGCI (1390 AM) is one of the only places to hear vintage R & B.
The celebration last month was in conjunction with a ceremony in which the stretch of Ingleside Avenue that runs along Hirsch was honorarily named Richard Pegue Way.
It was quite a little party. Fifth Ward alderman Barbara Holt, who got the City Council to designate the street in Pegue's honor, held up a brown and white commemorative street sign. Lucky Cordell, the former WVON general manager, spoke a few words about the thousands and thousands of west- and south-siders who grew up listening to Pegue. And Pegue's old high school buddies--WGCI DJ Richard Steele and south-side church choir director Claude Wyatt--joined him onstage to sing a doo-wop number as regulars from his Saturday-night show laughed and cheered. There were, let's see, his wife, Sevina Pegue (better known to listeners as "Outer Drive Annie"), and Jimmy Williams, the T-shirt man, and Tommie Wilburn, the voice of the famous Moo and Oink grocery store commercials, which Pegue produces.
In fact, Wilburn brought down the house when at Pegue's insistence he burst into a rendition of his rapid-fire Moo and Oink spiel.
"We call it the chicken wings menu," he said by way of introduction. "You know at Moo and Oink we sell chicken wings by the bag and by the case. There's enough chicken wings in that one case to have fried chicken wings, boiled chicken wings, barbecued chicken wings, baked chicken wings, and you will still have enough left over for chicken wings and dumplings. And remember, in the summer you know that means it's barbecue time!"
Afterward people gathered to shake Pegue's hand and make caustic comments about the sorry state of commercial radio (since WGCI went to a gospel format, except for Pegue's show there's hardly any place to hear good dusties).
Someone introduced Pegue to Joe Hatch, a high school student who's already spinning records at dances. "That's how I started and look at me, I'm still going strong," said Pegue. "It's 160 hours of gospel a week and then they give me that eight hours on Saturday nights and I just try to tear it up."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Susie McSweeney photo by Jim Newberry.