Pawking Metaws

“Sir! Sir! Hey, wait! Sir, please don’t give me a ticket. I’m right here, holdonaminute willya, please?”

And so it begins. I looked up and smiled at the man who was rushing in my direction. The parking meter would be a barrier of sorts between us in case this encounter went sideways and turned ugly. “Good morning, sir.”

He stopped at the curb and gathered his thoughts and his breath before continuing. “We were just over there,” he waved in the direction of the Bridge Cafe, “I had to get some quarters for the meter, and then you showed up and then the line stopped moving, and then…”

I smiled again, “Take a deep breath, sir. Everything is going to be OK.”

“Please don’t give me a ticket. I have change for the meter, now. See, 4 quarters for an hour. Please?”

I smiled—again—and gave him the good news. “Sir, I don’t issue parking tickets. I only repair and maintain the equipment.”

“What? Wait. Really?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But I thought, I mean, you were going around from meter to meter—“

“Checking to see if they were operational. No coin jams or faulty mechanisms. I don’t give tickets to our patrons. C’mon, do I look like I eat my young?”

The visitor laughed, “No, you don’t look like that.”

“Good. Let me ask you a question. Have you ever won The Lottery? The Mega-millions, whatever?”

“Noooo. Nothing like that, ever.”

“Well, today’s your lucky day. You just won the Golden Gate Lottery.”

Silence mixed with disbelief.

“Here’s what I’m going to do for you today, I’m going to put the full 2 hours on this meter because you are such an honest person and tried to do the right thing.”


I opened the meter housing and wound the clock mechanism all the way to it’s full stop. The expired flag went down and the indicator arrow went all the way to the right side and stopped at the number 2. “There you go, 2 hours. Enjoy your visit, sir.”

“This is totally unexpected. Thank you so much. I’m going to tell all my friends how nice you people are.”

“Well, thank you for that, sir. Tell them to stop by any time. We’re open 24 hours a day.”

In 1999 I began working for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District as one of the rotating shift electricians in the Electric Shop. For the previous 31 years I heard a recurring mantra from some boss or another on a construction site, “Let’s go, we’re not building a watch fer Christ’s sake!”

“Don’t follow leaders.
Watch the parkin’ meters.”
—Subterranean Homesick Blues
Bob Dylan, 1965

When I got to the bridge, however, I fell into the niche of parking meter repair. I was finally “building a watch”—of sorts. The EShop got the job of maintaining the meters for two reasons. First of all, electricians have excellent dexterity and mechanical ability. Secondly, we are a 24/7/365 shop and available to take care of equipment problems and repairs at any hour of the day.

My buddy, Ray, was the lead guy for repairing meters and in multiple sessions over the next 8 months he tutored me on how to clear jams, breakdown & clean the mechanical coin mechanisms, and replace parts. I learned how to take apart entire meter assemblies and prepare them for our painters to sandblast and repaint. I had a good time working with Ray and after he retired at the end of the year, I ended up as the lead guy in parking meters overseeing the care and maintenance of 70 parking meters.

The mechanical parking meters that we used at the GGB were made by Park-O-Meter, Incorporated (POM) in Russellville, Arkansas and therein lies an interesting tale.

Parking meters were originally a response to the influx of workers from the Oklahoma City Oil Field in the 1930s. When workers came to town they needed a place to park their cars so they could stock up on provisions and good times. The immediate problem was turnover. If a person didn’t move their car from a parking space in a timely fashion, the next worker could not park and spend his hard-earned dollars in the business community.

Local newspaper editor, and attorney, Carlton C. Magee came up with the idea of using a coin-operated mechanical timer in each parking space to increase traffic turnover in Oklahoma City. He accomplished just that with the help of two engineering instructors and a pair of manufacturing experts.

The little-known, overlooked germ of genius that Carlton Magee injected into the statute of using a parking meter is that the patron is not renting time for their vehicle when they put money into the meter. That’s right, a patron is paying for the upkeep—the maintenance—of the device that is measuring time up to a maximum amount, at which point it is time to move along and give someone else a chance to park and run errands.

I have been told that the first person to receive a fine for a parking violation in Oklahoma City was an attorney who challenged it in court. He lost his case due to Magee’s statute.

Time, or the lack of it, can bring out the worst in some people and anxiety in many of the rest. I’ve found that most folks want to do the right thing and pay their own way and that a small percentage want to work the angles and take a shortcut or two in order to get over on the system.

Despite the frailties of Humankind, I enjoyed going down to the parking lot and performing a Meter Check. It was a chance to walk in circles, get paid for exercise, and to meet people from all over the world.

I have found that visitors to the Golden Gate Bridge ask a lot of the same questions and over time I developed an arsenal of stock answers:

    • Visitor: Excuse me, can I ask you a stupid question?
      A: I don’t know, we’ve only just met.
    • Visitor: How long does it take to walk across the bridge?
      A: That depends on how fast you walk. Pause. It is 2 miles from here to the Vista Point visitors area. Pause. And 2 miles back. Pause. Do you like to stop and take photos?
    • Visitor: Do you also work out on the bridge?
      A: Yes, I am one of the electricians here.
      Visitor: Do you ever go to the top of the towers?
      A: Yes I do. We go everywhere, top to bottom, one end to the other.
    • Visitor: How do you get to the top? Is there an elevator?
      A: There is a elevator the size of a phone booth in the East leg of each tower. We can also climb the cables to the top.
      Visitor: Do you wear special shoes to climb the cables?
      A: No, just good work-boots. I prefer Redwings.
    • Visitor: Are you afraid of heights?
      A: If I was I wouldn’t be working here. No, I’m not.
    • Visitor: Aren’t you afraid of falling?
      A: No. I’m afraid of what happens when when I stop falling.
    • Visitor: Why isn’t the bridge painted gold, like in the name?
      A: The bridge is named after the entrance to San Francisco Bay—the Golden Gate Strait. It is painted International Orange to blend in with the environment.
    • Visitor: Is it true that the bridge is painted from one end to the other and then they start all over again?
      A: No. The painters perform triage to the bridge and paint the worst spots first. Every two years an inspection is made and painting schedules are adjusted accordingly.
    • Visitor: Why do I have to wait until 3 PM to ride my on the West sidewalk? The East sidewalk is jammed with pedestrians during the day.
      A: The West sidewalk has bridgeworkers on it during working hours. They have tools, material and equipment out there that would be a hazard for people on bicycles.
    • Visitor: Have you ever seen someone jump off the bridge?
      A: Yes. End of conversation.

On foggy days:

    • Visitor: When do the clouds lift?
      A: That’s not clouds that you see. That’s fog.
      Visitor: What time does the fog lift?
      A: I don’t know, it’s been here for the last 2 days.
    • Visitor: My God it’s cold out here for July.
      A: Smile. That flowers-in-your-hair song said nothing about bringing a jacket with you, did it?
    • Visitor: I have to be at the airport in 4 hours and I want to take a photo of the bridge.
      A: Today’s not your day. Pause. If you would like to take home a memento of your visit today you can find some very nice photos of the bridge for sale in our Gift Shop.
      Visitor: But I want to take a photo of the bridge today.
      A: I’m sorry but today’s not your day.
    • Visitor: Excuse me, which way is the bridge?
      A: Follow that ramp and turn right when you get to the sidewalk at the top. The bridge is out there in the fog.
      Visitor: Are you sure?
      A: I drove across it to get to work this morning so, yes, I’m sure.
    • Visitor: Where would the top of the tower be if I could see it from here?
      A: I point up in the air to a spot in the general direction of the bridge. Right about there.
      Visitor: Are you sure?
      A: Are you kidding me? Yes, I’m sure.

Y2K was the beginning of the end of the mechanical parking meter. POM stopped making parts for the meters we used at the bridge and so we started to exhaust our stock and switch over to their battery powered Advanced Parking Meter (APM).The APMs were not without problems. Fog is the biggest enemy of electronics and metal at the Golden Gate Bridge. It may creep in on cat’s feet, but some days it pours in like milk from a pitcher and penetrates between the tiniest surfaces and electrical contacts.

Battery life and corrosion contributed to an increase in maintenance costs and when the District decided to renovate the East and West Parking lots a decision was made to use a different method to collect parking fees.

Self-pay stations are now set up in each lot. After you pay for your time a printed receipt is dispensed which you then place on the dashboard of your vehicle. As far as maintenance goes, it is simply a matter of stopping by the machine and observing it in action.

Contact with the public in the parking lot is at a bare minimum these days, but the same questions still abound at other locations. My takeaway after 15 years at the bridge is that what I considered to be a typical day was someone else’s first—and perhaps only—day to visit the bridge and a chance to talk to a person who works there.

Beneath it all we are not that different. Life has afforded all of us many different opportunities and it is through the act of sharing those experiences that we come to realize that we are more alike than we realize.


Related Links

The idea for this post was inspired by a post in the StripsearchLA blog. That caused me to reflect on my experiences with parking meters at the bridge and a tune by Bob Dylan that ran through my head every time I went to the parking lot to check meters.

  12 comments for “Pawking Metaws

  1. July 30, 2017 at 3:09 PM

    Great post, Allan. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. July 29, 2017 at 3:02 PM

    Entertaining and informative, as ever!


    • July 29, 2017 at 5:07 PM

      Thanks. I miss tinkering with these old-school meters.

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 30, 2017 at 4:37 AM

        Old mechanical systems were very satisfying to work on!

        Liked by 1 person

        • July 30, 2017 at 10:50 AM

          I think there is a more immediate connection to those who designed, manufactured and assembled the mechanical parts, as opposed to a robotic assembly line turning out identical units.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. July 21, 2017 at 8:11 PM

    “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.” Most excellent. Been gone to long. Hello, again. I’ve SO missed reading your posts. I’m in the weeds, Allan. Seriously.


    • July 22, 2017 at 7:13 AM

      Time to put old age and treachery to work for you, Stephanie. Good luck.


  4. July 21, 2017 at 11:53 AM

    This was a really entertaining story, especially your interaction with the inquisitive visitors. That Bob Dylan song is one of my favorites. Thank you for the shout-out, it means a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

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