Time's Up

A day in the life of a man people love to hate.

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click to enlarge A NICE GUY, REALLY: Just don't call David Coleman a meter maid. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
A NICE GUY, REALLY: Just don't call David Coleman a meter maid.

Son of a bitch. Muthahfuckah. Nigger.

David C. Coleman is called every name you can imagine while walking the streets of downtown Tampa. Every name, except his own.

Coleman is not a bad person. In fact, he's a pretty nice guy — a Tampa resident born and raised, with a wife and three kids, and a regular paying job.

But the job is the problem. Coleman is one of the 12 parking enforcement specialists for the city of Tampa. His job — eight hours a day, 40 hours a week — is writing parking tickets. And, as Coleman says, "nobody likes to see the orange on their car."

"It's never fun out there, I'll tell you that," he says. "A lot of harassment. A lot of constructive criticism."

He sarcastically enunciates the last two words.

Coleman's day starts out at 8 a.m. in a cramped office full of walkie-talkies and bustling co-workers rolling up yellow "no parking" bags for out-of-order meters. Coleman doesn't talk much as he straps on his Palm Pilot/printer combo and grabs the keys to one of the division's vehicles.

Coleman is lucky today — he scored the "M2" zone, bounded by the St. Pete Times Forum and Morgan, Cass and Whiting streets. The zone requires a vehicle, which offers an air-conditioned break from the other walking routes.

Every day, Coleman checks his vehicle's oil and other fluids, then peruses the body "to make sure somebody who doesn't like us didn't beat it up last night."

At three years, six months, Coleman is relatively new to the parking scene. After a decade in the military and several years working in area warehouses, he was urged by his wife to seek stable employment through the city. Municipal jobs have a better sense of job security, she told him, and parking enforcement is a gateway into that world.

"To me it's good because it's outdoors," he says.

Once he's on the road, Coleman goes to the places where he can score his first ticket: the few spaces around the courthouse that ban any parking before 9 a.m. Then he heads to the two-hour meters and finally, the 12-hour meters on the outskirts of downtown.

On this morning, some poor sap in a beat-up Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera forgot to pay a two-hour meter. Coleman carefully checks for any tags — handicapped drivers or undercover cops can park for free — and starts punching the car's license plate into the Palm Pilot. A ticket prints out a few seconds later and he places it inside the orange envelope and carefully under the windshield wipers.

All in all, it takes about 15 seconds.

"Even if you're in there one minute, it doesn't take long to write a ticket," he warns.

After writing the ticket, Coleman leaves quickly.

"The key I found working here is you write a ticket, leave it there and get out of the area," he says.

Otherwise, there might be a confrontation.

Even though Coleman stands 6'4" and is built like a linebacker, angry citizens do challenge him. People follow him, yell curses from their cars and throw things. They rip up the tickets in front of him. Men stand close to try and intimidate.

"You just turn the other cheek," he says.

Coleman changes up his route often. He stays alert, looking behind him occasionally. He even refuses to take breaks inside buildings or eat lunch at local restaurants.

"I'm telling you — nobody likes to see us," he explains. "And you never know who you gave a ticket to. They might want to talk to you about it."

There is one place he frequents on the two 15-minute breaks allotted to him during an eight-hour shift: the TECO building's cafeteria.

It is completely empty except for a worker pushing a mop along. He heads for the farthest booth in the back and sits down.

The topic turns back to parking persecution.

"They like to call us meter maids," he shakes his head. "Do I look like a woman to you?"

"It's not that I enjoy writing tickets," he continues. "It's just something I have to do to make a living. People say I need to get a job, but I have a job."

Our 15-minute break ends, and the hunt begins anew. Coleman walks purposefully, always keeping a lookout for potential violations. He can spot the red hump of an expired meter from across the street.

Yet, despite his thoroughness, Coleman isn't heartless. He understands the hardships of parking downtown. He knows the signs can be deceiving. And if he is in the middle of punching in your license plate number, and you come out with some change, he'll void out the ticket.

"That's common courtesy," he says," "If I haven't completed it, I can void it out. I try not to be that hard."

Most tickets he writes silently and without joy. When one woman parks at a two-hour meter and walks away, without even attempting to drop a few coins in the meter, Coleman waits by her car to see if she returns with change.

She doesn't, and he tickets.

In four hours, Coleman has written nine tickets. It's a slow day. On average, he writes more than 40 per shift. Since there is no departmental quota on parking tickets, it doesn't bother him. He is much more enthusiastic about not being yelled at.

"I haven't had any verbal abuse today," he says, " and that's a good thing."

He reasons I may have scared the angrier citizens away.

"It's harder to yell at two people, right?"

Coleman drives back to the office to eat his lunch. I thank him for the introduction to the parking world and head back to my car, parked at a 12-hour meter near the library.

As I approach, I notice something orange clinging to my windshield. It's a parking ticket.

You bastards.

What they look for

David Coleman repeated one phrase to me often during our walk: "There's a lot to learn about parking." Most tickets, he says, could be prevented if people understood what parking enforcers look for.

1 Read the fine print. Make sure you've read all the signage at a parking spot. A good example is the 15-minute meters. Even though they are free, you still must turn the meter's knob to activate the time.

2 Watch out for other violations. Parking enforcement specialists look for more than expired meters. You can receive a ticket if you parked facing the wrong way on a street or in a restricted city lot. They also check for expired tags on the 11th of every month.

3 You can get multiple tickets. If you are ticketed at a two-hour meter, the parking enforcer can come back after the two hours and write another ticket. But two tickets is the limit in a day.

4 Handicapped drivers can park for free — and not just in handicapped spots. Just make sure your tag is not expired.

5 Challenge violations through the courts. If you think the parking enforcer made a mistake, don't kill the messenger. Enter a not guilty plea on your ticket and attend your court date. But don't lie; enforcers occasionally take pictures of violations for proof.

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