Stop Action

I got a notice in the mail last month saying that I had a “stop action” on my Michigan drivers license due to unpaid parking tickets. It didn’t say which tickets, or how much I owed, but gave a date of 2007 and the address of the court.

I didn’t think much of it at first, figuring I didn’t have to renew my license until June, so I could take care of it later. I called my insurance company to renew my coverage, but they couldn’t access my driving info.

Uh oh.

The Wild West

Let’s go back 8 years and talk about how this situation came about. I lived in Detroit for many of the first years of the first decade of this millenium. In the mid-2000s, Midtown Detroit was a sweet spot for many white suburban middle-class young (-ish, in my case) people. Rent was cheap, gentrification had not yet quite taken full hold, and it was a lawless place, like the Wild West. You could walk around with open alcohol, drive however you wanted, make a lot of noise, whatever.

Like in the Wild West, the explorers, the colonizers didn’t have to deal with the natives all that often. A little panhandling here and there, some resentful glares, but mostly the newly transplanted suburbanites had their own little enclave just south of Wayne State University.

(Once, I was standing on Trumbull Ave, where I shared an apartment with my girlfriend, and an elder black woman came up to me and started chatting with me. She told me about how there used to be a store over here and some other business over there. “Everything was fine until y’all started moving in,” she said. “Y’all?” I thought, but didn’t say.)

Even the term “Midtown” is a marketing invention to rebrand the Cass Corridor, often the subject of national news stories about crime in Detroit. Some longtime residents still call it “the corridor,” but it’s generally referred to as Midtown, effectively erasing the long history of crime and poverty in the (white, suburban) popular imagination.

I used to joke that in the suburbs you had to pay attention to driving laws, but you could park wherever you wanted, but in the city, you could drive however you wanted, so long as you parked in the right places. But nobody paid their parking tickets back then. It was conventional wisdom that once you got to six tickets, you had to be careful, because on the seventh, they would boot your car. Before that, they never came after you, so there was no point in paying the tickets in this dysfunctional city. Living there for many years, I received many parking tickets. Too close to the crosswalk (who knew?), forgetting to move the car from the meter spot you had parked in over the weekend. That sort of thing.

Fast forward to March 2015. I’m on the phone with the courthouse, where I get a human almost immediately. Nice. She tells me I have 5 tickets from 2006–2007, totalling $390.

“Ouch,” I say.

“Mm-hmmm,” she says. “You can pay via cash, check, Mastercard or Visa.”

I whip out my credit card, ready to get this over with, when, maybe sensing my eagerness, she adds, “but you have to pay in person.”

“What? Why?”

“In fact,” she says. “It’s a two-step process. You go to the parking bureau downtown and pay the $390, and they give you a receipt, which you bring to the courthouse, at a separate location. They will charge you another $45 to reinstate your license.”

“You sure don’t make it easy, do you?” I ask.

So the city of Detroit, emerging from the largest municipal bankrupcy in American history, has decided to put the hammer down and collect dues. I get that. But then they put huge hurdles in the payment process. What if I had moved to Marquette, 8 hours away? It’s 2015. A simple credit card payment over the phone should be doable.

Yeah, I know. If I had just paid the tickets when I got them, it would have cost $50-$100 and I wouldn’t have this headache now. But I didn’t have a lot of money, and I wanted to stick it to the man. You can’t tell me where to park! I laugh at your tickets! Well, the older Erik has to pay for the errors of the younger Erik. This isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. Oh well.

But still. I guess in some ways it’s comforting to know that Detroit hasn’t really changed all that much. It’s still horrendously bureaucratic and dysfunctional.

Epilogue: Paying the tickets

I wrote all that before going downtown to the pay the tickets, which I did yesterday. It was a sunny day, around 50 degrees. A nice March day to go downtown. It took over an hour to get from Ypsilanti to Detroit, mainly because a tanker had burst into flames on I-94. When I finally arrived at 1001 10th street, I found metered parking outside the building. Wouldn’t it be ironic, I thought, if I got a ticket here? What if they booted my car? This is the building:

Ummm. Ok. Looks a little shady, but this is clearly the place. I go in, go through the metal detector, and find I’m third in line. As I stand there, more people arrive, all, apparently, doing the same thing. This “stop action” is pulling in some dollars for the city of Detroit, no doubt. The transaction is pleasant and simple. I give the woman behind the thick glass my license, she prints up a list of the tickets (my birthday, 6–11–2007, is among them. I wonder what I was doing that day when I got the ticket), I give her my credit card, she runs it and gives me a receipt. Less than fifteen minutes total.

The next step, going to the courthouse to release the hold and pay another $45 dollars, this is the part that’s going to be difficult, time-consuming and painful, I think. It takes a little while to get from the corktown-area parking bureau on the west side to the courhouse near Ford Field. Lots of one-way streets and daytime traffic, but I made it. Another metal detector, a huge building, a short line. I get to the front of the line in ten minutes, and the clerk is friendly and effective. Another credit card transaction and I’m done, free and clear. Broke, but with a reinstated license.

I still think I should have been able to do this over the phone or on the internet, but, overall, this was a fairly painless experience. Anticlimatic, I know.

I want to go into a diatribe about the lack of viable public transportation in Southeast Michigan and the expenses of owning a car, but I won’t. The moral of the story: pay your tickets when you get them. It’s just another cost of living in or traveling to the city.