Thursday, April 17, 2008

My Own Private Holiday

As longtime readers know, I usually ride Metro to my job in Washington. I drive on a handful of days, mostly when the demands of my job or family obligations on a particular day can't be served by public transportation. But for the most part, I stick to mass transit because it's more green. More green for the environment. More green in my pocket, especially when you factor in the cost of garage parking or the less expensive hassle of street parking, which requires a lot of quarters and moving your car to another block every two hours to evade the evil clutches of the DPW ticketwriters.
The dozen or so driving times a year I view as a luxury--the ability to listen (and sing along) to whatever I want on the Sirius, freedom to eat, drink or spit, and a comfortable reclining leather seat to boot. Not to mention commuting time of 30 minutes versus an hour on public.

Some of my driving days are the Federal holidays when ScroogeTech, my employer, is open for business. Traffic is lighter than normal, and to slam-dunk the deal (since these coincide with D.C. holidays), street parking is free, unlimited and readily available around my office. Occasionally I'll see a meter that's been paid on a Federal holiday, but for the most part, everybody knows the deal.

As an additional disincentive to use mass transit on holidays, a few years ago Metro felt enough private-sector businesses like ScroogeTech were open so they could justify charging full fare and parking fees as if these were regular working days. Some of my co-workers who normally do the mass transit thing join me in thumbing our noses at Metro and have joined the driving/free parking revolution.

So, you're probably asking yourself, why am I bringing this up in the middle of April--two months since the last Federal holiday and one month before the next? Simple. In Washington, D.C., April 16th is Emancipation Day, honoring the day in 1862 that Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, freeing 3,100 slaves in D.C. some nine months before the more famous Emancipation Proclamation.

Emancipation Day receives virtually no publicity. Why? For starters, it has only been in existence since 2005. If a tradition has somehow managed to develop from the three previous Emancipation Days--a parade, for example--today's visit from the Pope has pretty much utilized every available city resource and left Emancipation Day in the shoeprints of the fisherman.

More notably, nobody gets the day off except D.C. government workers, who are but a blip in a workforce dominated by Federal and private-sector employees. I would conservatively venture to guess that 99.9% of those who need to work on April 16th have absolutely no clue they're doing so on a D.C. holiday.

But here's the really nice part of D.C. Emancipation Day. Some of those D.C. government workers taking the day off are the aforementioned DPW ticketwriters, and--with nobody to enforce them--meter payments and two-hour limits, among other parking regulations, are waived.

Being the only one to know about this holiday gives me--for one day, anyway--comic book superpowers I have only dreamed of. I leave my car on the street for the day and put nothing in the meter knowing I am invincible from ticketing, while thousands of others are locked into the programmed street parking drill--move the car, cough up another eight quarters, set the countdown timer on your cell phone for just under two hours.

Looking at the meters while walking the streets to go to lunch and back, the streets are full of parked cars and fed meters. I see only four or five meters with no time on them in my six-block walk, which is a typical number on a normal workday.

I should put on my Kevlar jockstrap before I post this, but I respect the DPW ticketwriters and the work they do. Like them or hate them, you have to admit that they are among the most competent, efficient employees in the D.C. government and they follow through on their assigned duties fairly (unless, of course, you're the one who just got ticketed). Those who hate them feel they're exempt from the rules and can take up a parking space for more than two hours or refuse to pay for it. The real reason for the two hour limit isn't to make commuters play an environmentally unfriendly version of musical chairs, it's to make short-term parking available for those conducting business (and no, that's not an eight-hour workday). Conduct your business, and then please leave the area.

While we may not like to admit it, everybody has a little schadenfreude in them; my daily dose comes from walking the streets around my office and seeing the ticketed cars belonging to those who feel they're above the law. My bonus comes when I see someone trying to negotiate with the DPW guy after he has started the ticketing process. Once it's printed...he's dead, Jim.

But on my own private holiday, my schadenfreude mode goes into reverse, and becomes a public education obsession. In my three years of knowing about the holiday (including today), I've saved at least twenty people from pumping hundreds of quarters into the meters and moving their cars. Some of these are co-workers, but most are freshly-parked total strangers I've seen reaching into their pockets who were genuinely appreciative of my intervention.

And there are always a few cynics--including one today--who question the sanity of a total stranger telling them that they could park for free at will without incurring the wrath of the DPW. Some continue to pump quarters into the meter as I tell them; others subtly wait until I walk away to do so.

The flipside of publicizing D.C. Emancipation Day is that someday I won't be able to get a parking space with all the added drivers taking advantage on a busy workday. But at this pace, I'll be long-retired by then. Anybody who has ever given out the name of their exclusive babysitter to a friend and then finds her unavailable when you need her knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Look forward to next year's blurb on D.C. Emancipation Day. But for now you'll have to mark your own 2009 calendar to remind you, as I won't until it's over.

1 comment:

The History Traveler said...

Having spent years in the District of Columbia "trying" to park legally I am sorry this celebration came too late for me. It should be noted that aside from our Nation's capital 26 states celebrate Emancipation Day. Some observe the day the proclamation was announced, January 1, 1863 or the same day in 1865 when congress abolished slavery with the 13th amendment. In Texas and twelve other states the holiday is nicknamed Juneteenth, for June 19th 1865; the day the abolishment was announced in the Lone Star state. In Virginia Emancipation Day is April 3rd, the day Richmond; the confederate capital fell to the Union army.