On Parking Tickets, Financial Karma, and Valentine’s Day

Pay your parking tickets. Please.

Photo: Gord McKenna/Flickr

Why are my learning experiences always so expensive? Between 2007–2011, around the time I finally quit drinking, I amassed over 50 parking tickets and over $3,500 in fines and fees. A mighty task! A decade later, I am still dealing with the consequences of these tickets and learning (the hard way) that financial karma has a vicious bite.

At first, it didn’t seem like a big deal. I lived in downtown Portland, in a part of town near a school, a newspaper printing plant, and a few offices. During the day, the parking near my apartment building was all taken by commuters and students. At night, the streets were practically empty. Although I could have taken steps to get a parking pass, I chose to wing it, reasoning that I’d get up early enough to move my car. This was a fatal error.

Shortly after I moved into the apartment, the City of Portland put new parking meters all over my neighborhood. My car, which usually stayed parked in one spot for days, unmolested, became a target for parking enforcement. If I failed to get out of bed early enough, I knew I’d find a bright yellow envelope on my windshield. It was like a “fuck you” present from the parking ticket fairy. But did this motivate me to change my ways? Absolutely not.

I was busy at work — an early day shift — and busy after work, drinking myself into my daily blackout. This is not an excuse for the parking tickets, but those hangovers made it very, very difficult to get up and feed the meter in the mornings. Also, my resentment made me stubborn. This meant war. I fantasized about somehow getting revenge on the meter maid, or finding an unmetered place to leave my car. I never bothered to get the (free) parking pass, and the parking tickets piled up. They filled my glovebox and littered my back seat. When the courthouse sent follow-up citations in the mail, I threw them away. Why should I pay for parking in my own neighborhood? I reasoned. My deliberate noncompliance felt good to me. I let my tags expire, and then my plates. I drank more. I drove less. Why should I pay for a car I don’t drive?

It all came to a head a couple of years later, on Valentine’s Day. I’d quit drinking by then — no mean feat — and I had decided that my sobriety meant I had a free pass on all the stupid things I’d done while I was drinking. This included the parking tickets. I was single that Valentine’s Day, and had nothing to do, so I drove across town to do some window shopping and get myself a hot chocolate. I was wearing a red coat and feeling pretty spiffy. I parked on the street, in a one-hour zone, and walked away, keys in my pocket.

When I came back over an hour later, the car was gone. I walked up and down the street for another hour, looking for it. Had I parked somewhere different? Had it been stolen? I called the police non-emergency number, my hands shaking.

“I’d like to report a missing vehicle,” I said. I gave the cross streets where I’d parked, and my license plate number.

“Oh, that car was towed,” the voice on the other end said. “We impounded it. You’re going to need to come down to the courthouse and talk to the clerk at the Circuit Court Office about paying that bail. We close at 5pm.”

Bail? This outcome had not occurred to me. I got the bus downtown to the courthouse and stood in the payment office, sweating. Would I be arrested? How much was this going to cost? Was this the worst Valentine’s Day ever?

When my number was called at the window, I pasted a smile on my face and walked up to the window. The clerk, a pale, nervous-looking guy about my age, tapped my name and date of birth into his computer.

“Whoa,” he said. “That’s a lot of parking tickets.”

“How many?”

“A lot,” he said. “You know that they accrue interest, right?”

I did not know that. I leaned on the check writing platform and tried to breathe normally while he told me the total: nearly $4,000 in unpaid parking tickets, tag violations, and expired registration. Portland’s Bureau of Transportation has a tiered system for parking citations. The first parking ticket costs $37 a pop. After a month, if the 30-day citation notice isn’t resolved, the price doubles. And doubles again, exponentially. After three years of not paying anything — three years of burying my head in the sand — I had racked up crazy high fines. It took everything I had not to burst into tears.

The clerk explained that I would have to pay the fines, the “bail,” and then I would take the receipt to the impoundment yard where my car was being held. The yard charged a daily rate, which I would also need to pay — plus cab fare, to get there before the place closed. He blinked a lot as he told me this information, and I had a sudden moment of compassion for him, in his little booth, getting screamed at by people like me who were too stupid or stubborn to just take care of their parking tickets. If I had the parking pass, none of this would have happened, I thought. This was all my fault — I’d done this to myself.

Everything Is Negotiable, Even Things That Seem Set In Stone

Instead of panicking, I reminded myself that everything, or pretty much everything, is negotiable. I was also incredibly grateful for my savings account, which had close to $2,000 in it — money that a smarter version of me would have used to pay for new tags and registration. I brightened my smile and asked the clerk about my options.

“What’s the minimum I can give you, right now, in order to get the ball rolling?” I said. “I could pay off all of them at once, right now, but only if you don’t charge me any interest.”

He did some math, and we agreed that I could pay off the base rate for the tickets as my bail, and that he’d mail me a letter that included the other accrued fees. I would still be responsible for those, but I didn’t have to fork them over now. I thanked him and handed over my debit card.

“You’re the nicest person I’ve seen all day,” he said, as he gave me the receipt and release form.

From there, I paid $20 for a cab out to the impoundment yard, which was of course on the other end of the universe from the courthouse, and another $500 to get my car out of hock. I drove home with extreme care, praying that I wouldn’t be pulled over and have to start the whole process over again. It was the most expensive Valentine’s Day of my life — and all I got, aside from a much needed wake up call, was my own car back.

Once my car was back in its parking spot — off the street and in a garage, for a change — I was strongly tempted to just ignore the interest from my parking tickets. It would be easy, my stupid brain told me. But I wasn’t listening this time. I applied for a credit card with my bank and got a line of credit that had a lower interest rate than the insanely high rate that applied to my parking tickets. When the card came in the mail, I called the courthouse.

“I need to pay off my parking tickets,” I announced.

“You’d like to make a payment today?”

“Yes,” I said, even though I actually didn’t want to make a payment, in fact I’d never wanted to make a payment and that’s what had gotten me into trouble in the first place. “I’d like to pay the whole balance right now.”

The credit card erased thousands of dollars of debt with the traffic court, and eased the high interest costs. It was an expensive lesson, but a lasting one — to this day, a decade later, I haven’t gotten a single parking ticket and I am scrupulous about paying the parking meter and keeping my tags and registration current. However, I don’t think that the steep price tag alone would have been enough to convince me to change my ways. Parking tickets stay on your legal record for ten years. That means that the mistakes I made in 2007 are finally beginning to disappear. The first one fell off my record in January of this year; the last one will be gone on October 12, 2021. (Yes, I plan to celebrate.)

I’m not the only person who knows about these tickets, either. Every landlord or prospective employer or lender or mortgage broker who wants to look at my credit report or my driving record sees them. I’ve talked about these parking tickets in more job interviews than I can count. It’s embarrassing! And it reminds me of how stupid I was — and how even paying off the dollar amount doesn’t erase the long-term consequences of my stupidity.

If I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be: get the parking pass. An ounce of prevention is worth several thousand dollars worth of cure.

Claire Rudy Foster writes, reads, and balances her checkbook in Portland, Oregon. She’s currently at work on a novel.

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