Thursday, January 17, 2008

Volkswagen Vigilantism

Urban life is a life full of danger. This week's example: the seamy underside of living on the same block as the public library.

Oh sure, it's all well and good when you need to return an overdue book. Or if you like seeing young children gleefully clutching their newly checked-out books as they skip down the sidewalk. But what they never show you in the happily-ever-after fairy tale world of pro-library propaganda is . . . the evils of on-street parking.

The Multnomah County Library is one of the two busiest in the country. The other is in a little burg called New York City.

EXHIBIT A: Thanks to manipulated perspective, you might actually believe these two libraries are the same size. But don't be fooled. The single-story brick one accommodates way more facial piercings.

Our local branch is one of the most popular in the Multnomah County system. On any given morning, you can see teens and elders, hippies and hipsters, chatting together as they wait outside for the library doors to open. The only thing more crowded than the library is the library parking lot, which has something like eight legal spaces, half of which are filled at any given time with Subaru station wagons. And all of which are filled all day long.

Which means a lot of library goers park on the street. On our street. In front of our house. Which I normally find quite charming, not in the least because I can spy on the library goers from my office window while I should be working. Last week, in the time it took me to compose a single email, I watched not one but two different Priuses (or is the plural Priui?) park in front of the house, discharging library patrons.

But then comes the rain on this Better Together, civic-minded parade. And it comes as a knock on the front door, from one Kevin Swartzlander. Kevin has just parked in front of our house. He is on his way to the library. But he's not the only one. Because he has witnessed another driver attempt to park in front of our neighbors' house, hit our car, damage our car, and then drive off. Kevin is knocking on the door because he's got the scofflaw's license plate number and a description of the vehicle.

"It was a Volkswagen van," he tells me.

Kevin cannot know that this is my least favorite automobile, owing to it's being 1) invented by Hitler and 2) driven throughout my childhood by my father - though admittedly my father's pop top camper was not the same model Der Fuhrer used to gas the undesirables.

What Kevin does know is that the owner of the van just parked around the block, then headed for the public library. So I grab my cell phone and call 911. I report a hit and run, give them the license plate number and the vehicle description, tell them the car is in the neighborhood. And then I head to the public library too.

Kevin is thrilled. He's hoping he can give me the signal if he sees the bad guy. But the bad guy is already back in his van, driving down the block. I give chase on foot, while hitting re-dial on the cell phone. With the 911 operator on the line, I confront the driver. He pulls over. He pulls out his insurance card. He acts as though he didn't know he'd damaged the car, although he was clearly circling the block, guilt ridden. I act as though I think it's sweet that he stopped when I was chasing him, although really it has just saved him from being in a whole lot more legal trouble.

So we still need to take the car to be repaired, but at least the scofflaw's insurance will cover everything - $1,129.94 in parts and labor, plus a rental car (semi-hilarious since we drive so infrequently, they could just Flexcar us for a few hours).

Despite the library scofflawism, I guess I'm still pretty civic minded. Why not look on the bright side. See the fender half-dented, as it were. Without our public library, Kevin would never have been here, just in time to save the day with his quick wit, pen, and scratch paper.

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