#63 - on moral choice
And too many parking tickets.
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THANK YOU, LOVE YOU.
the living dead
there was no funeral or flowers
when you died while
sitting right beside me
I could still hear you breathing
but no longer knew why
you exhaled like the
it all happened so fast in
slow motion I watched it
while sitting inside of it kind of
like an oysters pearl
when we left for the crowds,
I sent out a signal with my
heart’s eye, like we use to
but no one caught it and
it evaporated into the
twilight and evening tide
we grieve the living more than the
dead but there are
no funerals or flowers
By the time I graduated from university, I had about $1000 of unpaid parking tickets. I was a commuter, travelling from Markham to Downtown Toronto almost every day. For the first two years, I would drive 40 minutes to Finch Station, park my parent’s car in the lot, and then take the subway for another 30 minutes; making the round trip about an hour and 15 minutes. I would often take this daily trip with my friend A, both of us sleep-deprived and outfitted in oversized sweatpants, parkas and backpacks stuffed with biology textbooks.
Our first stop after docking at St. George station would be the Tim Hortons at the corner to order a double-double and carrot bran muffin - almost as a reward for the long journey. I figured the ‘bran’ muffin was the least nutritionally offensive option on the menu until one day I looked at the caloric information brochure sitting beside the napkins and found out it had 22g of fat in it.
As year three rolled around, my patience and time management skills severely declined and shaving off 15-20 minutes from the commute in the dead of winter felt like the difference between getting an education and dropping out. I would drive downtown and spend all the money I was making working as a research assistant and at a Rogers call centre on parking and gas. The cost felt ‘worth it’ at the time since foresight was not accessible as a surviving student who had the privilege of accessing a car.
Back then, there were no apps for parking meters. You had to physically walk up to a machine, enter your credit card and wait for a ticket to be printed to display on your dashboard. Most meters had a three-hour maximum, sometimes two - meaning you would have to run back to the car in-between classes, labs and club meetings on a sprawling campus at the exact minute the time ran out to refill the meter. The logistics made no sense but the small comfort that the car offered overruled all rationale.
On-campus, parking attendants were everywhere. They would walk up and down small streets, monitoring a handful of cars for transgressions on their tickets. Often, it seemed like you had a 60-second window to refill your parking meter before getting dinged with a $30-50 ticket. Sometimes you would get lucky - which tricked your brain into thinking that you could risk a few extra minutes before running back to reload. Other times, you were just lazy, lost track of time or reticent to keep spending money.
On one particular day, I had to take a three-hour exam. I knew I would not be able to park, get to the exam on time, and make it back within a three-hour window. I paid my dues and then decided to write a note to the parking attendant to leave on my dashboard. ‘Have a 3-hour exam. Will come back right after to fill up. Please don’t ticket me!’ When I returned, exhausted, a yellow ticket fluttered on my windshield wipers. In the short distance, I could see the attendant, wearing sunglasses and a navy uniform, walking away coolly with his ticketing device.
I was livid. Had he not read my note? I wrote a note for god’s sake! Why didn’t he understand my situation?
Instead of taking a few mindful breaths, or crying from feeling out of control, I marched down the street and confronted the parking attendant. Why did you give me a ticket? I had an exam! What do you expect me to do? I wrote you a note! I pleaded my case exasperatedly and aggressively. He said nothing and walked away.
‘What a loser,’ I thought - as my amateur mind spiralled into vilifying this stranger. I made up all kinds of stories about how powerless and inadequate this man must have felt in his life — needing to use parking tickets as a way to have power and control over others. I foolishly held on to this anger for years because I assumed that parking attendants could make a moral choice - and the ‘morally correct’ decision was to give people some grace. To have some humanity and realize we are all trying to do our best. At least according to my definition.
Generally, the most common response to me complaining about parking is ‘if you don’t like it, don’t drive.’ And that is legitimate in that we need guidelines in order to coexist and share space. If the attendant is to consider my specific situation - then what is the line on when they should give grace or not? How can they ever justify their actions to their superiors? Should they have to?
My anger is often a function of not agreeing or understanding what the guidelines optimize for and what the intention, incentives and politics are behind a decision. Are parking costs meant to dissuade people from driving towards supporting a legitimate shared value for the land and environment, protect private property or maximize revenue to prop up police budgets? In 2019 alone, the City of Toronto collected ~$60 million dollars in revenue from parking due to a ‘higher than planned ticket issuance.’
I recently read an article about Ander Cohen’s work - who is a conflict resolution expert based in Illinois and the co-founder of the Civic Leadership Foundation. He facilitates difficult conversations and negotiations with people across all kinds of organizations, from hospitals and gangs to those seeking peace in conflict zones. While working with Chicago’s Cook County Jail, which has more than 6,500 inmates to facilitate a discussion on how to support people being released from prison and preventing re-entry - a conversation Cohen notes as one of the toughest he has ever led - he asked a reluctant corrections officer, ‘what do people get wrong about what you do?’ or said another way, ‘how are you misunderstood?’ The officer immediately attuned to the question and responded, ‘people think that I feel normal about this, keeping people in cages all day. There is nothing normal about my job.’
When I think about the parking attendant now - almost 20 years later - I realize how little choice they might have had to make a ‘moral decision,’ even if they wanted to. The risk of rejecting dominant systems, rules and guidelines are increasingly high in an interconnected system, where your finances and reputation are closely tied together. Making a ‘moral choice’ can be the difference between having what you need to feel safe: food, heat, water, shelter, community care, respect, trust. Having choice can be empowering - but not having nuance between what choices are genuinely available to us at this moment is violent.
And yet, every day we are bombarded with messaging to make individual moral choices to ‘save the world,’ from what we buy, to what we share online, to who we work for, to where we donate to, to what kind of straw and coffee cup we use and on and on. It is exhausting and cruel to put any individual under so much moral responsibility within an emphatically immoral system that continues to exist primarily to protect and monetize private property.
The parking attendant taking a stance alone is a risky proposition - but thousands of parking attendants advocating together is systemic change. The moral courage of an individual can have a ripple effect - but collective action is the only safe and sustainable way we can all participate in reimagining how we live and relate to one another in a way that does not force people into lives that feel so disconnected from what they know to be true to them. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we have to agree on some things beyond profit maximization and individual success and freedom as the only purpose of human existence. A good example of this work happening in real-time despite corporate resistance is workers in nearly 100 Starbucks around the US unionizing to secure higher wages and mental health care benefits.
A reminder to myself is to be mindful of slipping into judging the individual actions of the everyday person - recognizing that if our systems won’t give us grace, let’s try to give some to each other some while focusing on rallying around the bigger picture.