Two weeks ago, I was parking my car on Exhibition Street in Melbourne – when I observed a parking inspector taking out his hardware and looking like he was about to fine the car next to me. I swiftly parked, hopped out of my car and popped change in my meter, asking the inspector if my neighbour had overstayed.
“Yes, he has.”
“Well then, I’d like to put in some money to help them.”
“You must be the registered owner of the vehicle to put money in the meter” was the inspector’s unconvincing response.
I smiled. “You can’t know for sure this isn’t my husband’s car or my sister’s.”
He screwed up his lips and waved his hand. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I am giving them this fine.”
I walked up to their meter with a $2.00 coin in my hand.
“If it doesn’t matter, I would like to do something kind for another person.”
The inspector put his arm in front of the meter before I could put the helpful cash in, taking a photo of ‘overtime’ meter sign and blocking my access to it.
I smiled at him again as I dropped the coins in. “It’s a good thing to do. Maybe one day, someone will help me out like this too. ”
The inspector shrugged repeating that they were getting a fine anway, and that I’d wasted my money. We went on our way.
This afternoon something happened that has upset me deeply. It was a pedestrian, everyday kind of event. But it has really disturbed me, pulling back curtain on the machination of state that is so often hidden behind bureaucracy and government marketing.
After having finished my work today, I needed to dash to the pharmacy and also to get out some cash. I live quite close to a supermarket in Carlton, and drove my car as I was then going on to do another chore in another suburb. I parked my car in spot I was delighted to have nabbed next to others, dashed in, got my things and walked back outside. I was in the pharmacy maybe four minutes.
A parking inspector was in front of my car when I returned. I walked towards it, making eye contact with him. He smiled at me, before turning around and walking away, looking at the wheels of another car. I hadn’t been there long, and so wasn’t concerned – I couldn’t spot a fine anywhere. Until I drove off and noticed a fine tucked deep into the hood of the car. The fine was for $144.00.
A feeling of intense grief and sadness grabbed me. It sounds unreasonable and silly, but I don’t think my response was either upon reflection. A flood of tears ran down my face, a visceral reaction. I turned around to try and find this man and tell him how this fine affects me. I am not naive enough to think that once a fine has been given, that it will be removed by any parking inspector. But as one human to another, I feel that telling this man – a slender older gentleman who smiled at me wanly – how hurtful his action was is a fair exchange. As a representative of the state I suppose I am accountable to him – and thus, he should also be accountable to me.
To my mind, a parking fine is the totem of the ugliest side of our community structure. It is the icy fingertip of a system which can lead so swiftly down to another more dangerous part of our society – sheriffs, gaols and the court system. The system is built to quickly punish financially, to blacken the record for reasonably mundane activities. When I see the lack of action on true offences like violence against women and children coupled with the lack of strong sentencing by repeat offenders, introduced back into our communities – I feel like the state punishes the vast part of our ‘just toddling along’ community both unreasonably and illogically. If only the way our society functioned were kinder, more humane and more eminently more reasonable, I would have been able to explain my stupid mistake to the parking inspector. An earnest (and quick) mistake it was – and one that will now cost me $144.00 – which is more like nearly $300.00 as I am a sole trader.
What frightens me and upsets me so deeply is that our society no longer has room for explanations or reason or discussion. Was my four-minute trip to the pharmacy worth what will eventually be $300.00 from my business? Is that reasonable? No. Who is the loser from my ‘infringement’ – who has lost? Me – for parking for four minutes in the wrong spot. I am fortunate in that I am blessed with work and skills so that I can make money. But what if I weren’t so lucky? What if I were a single Mum whose finances are stretched to the limit, dashing to the supermarket and missing the ‘Loading Zone’ sign as she stuffed a teddy bear biscuit into the mouth of her kid?
So many of us are fortunate that such fines are inconveniences – irritating, but not life-changing. Yet for many people in our community, cash is hard to come by. An old fella or a struggling single Mum could be tipped over the edge by such a fine. What if that fine quickly escalated to $200.00? What if the Mum put off paying a phone or electricity bill to budget for this fine – earning her a dishonour on her credit record and making it much more difficult for her to get credit or eventually get a mortgage? Tell me – is THAT fair? Is it equal to the four minute parking infringement, delivered by grey eyes and fluttering fingers – the parking inspector moving swiftly away, satisfied that he had earned his quota for the day and kept his KPIs.
This afternoon’s encounter with the smiling parking inspector reminded me of how unnecessarily cruel we’re becoming towards one another. Maybe it was just the cream on top of the cake, after listening to Scott Morrison talking about restricting a refugee mother’s access to her new baby. All this relentless cruelty, the belief that a cookie-cutter approach is the only way a society can be managed or formed. The easy crushing of those who follow the rules, who don’t – or wont – or can’t – make a fuss.
I don’t think I was sobbing in my car today for my silly fine.
I was crying because the community I want to believe the best of again revealed its lack of humanity and basic fairness. I wish I had been able to express all this to the parking inspector, so he knew how I felt about our interaction too.
All images by Chad Wys.