'I'm just doing my job, ma'am'

Careers & Ed: Canvassers, telemarketers, and parking control officers talk about doing work people hate
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Illustration by Jason Crosby

culture@sfbg.com

Almost every San Francisco car owner has had this experience at least once: you parked at a metered or timed spot, and now you're running late. You rush back to your vehicle only to find a uniformed official already filling out your parking ticket. Now you're pissed — at yourself, your car, the city's rules, and the person holding the notepad. On some level you know the parking official is simply doing her job — it's nothing personal. But on a more visceral level, you're seething with resentment, and it's directed squarely at her. Glancing at the ticket that'll cost you more than this week's groceries, you want to ask, "How can you sleep at night?"

I recently went through this experience twice in one week. And once I got past the automatic hatred of all uniforms, three-wheeled vehicles, and notepads with carbon copies, I began to wonder what it would be like to have a job most people don't want you to do.

I got to thinking: not everyone can be an urban hero — those professionals who, because of the nature of their jobs, are considered benevolent and necessary. They put out our fires, save our lives, and teach our children how to read. No, some people are urban antagonists. They call during dinner time. They interrupt your picnic at the park. They write parking tickets.

I wanted to talk to some of these people, to find out not only just how badly they're treated, but also why they continue to show up for work, day after day. It turned out it can be so hard to have these kinds of jobs that most parking control officers wouldn't even talk to me. And none I interviewed would give me a real name.

But they did give me some insight.

'SORRY, I ALREADY STARTED WRITING.'

With their uniforms, handheld ticket-gadgets, and ubiquitous three-wheeled vehicles, there are few professionals more recognizable on San Francisco streets than the Parking Control officers. And with 44 recorded incidents involving angry motorists threatening or assaulting officers in the course of performing their duties over the past two years, few professionals are subject to such acute on-the-job stress.

"It's tough sometimes," acknowledged B., a PCO writing tickets near the intersection of Valencia and César Chávez streets, "because you're doing your job and a lot of the time people see you as the opposition — like an enemy, not as someone who is doing a service to the city." People forget that by writing tickets, PCOs crack down on double-parkers who block traffic, space-hoggers who stay in one spot all day, and sidewalk-parkers who obstruct walkways for pedestrians such as mothers with strollers, B. said.

But not all PCOs take comfort in that rationalization. K., another anonymous PCO, said, "You just need to find your niche. I respond to complaints — blocked driveways, construction zones, fire hydrant obstructions — I'm happy. It's cool."

"It's not for everybody, but I would say it's a fine job," he continued. "It pays well. It's secure. I've been doing this for 10 years and I've never had a problem. If you're cool about it, if you've got the right demeanor, then the saying is true: you get what you give."

Judson True, a spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, added that PCOs conduct traffic during special events and congested hours, help motorists around accident sites, and even conduct undercover stings to prevent the abuse of disabled parking placards. Most of all, though, PCOs — like others with less-than-lovable jobs — are still people.

"No one likes to get parking tickets. That's an obvious reality," True said.