As I mentioned in Tiger Mom vindicated yet again… I got a chance to visit Washington DC with Kartik, as his son Sahil was participating in the National science bowl 2011. Sahil had gone ahead with the school team and we followed a day later.
The day we reached DC, the teams participating in the science bowl were going to visit the National Air and Space Museum. Kartik decided to rent a car on the airport for the duration of our stay in DC. We rented the car and decided to catch up with the team at the museum.
We were worried about whether or not we would get to park near the museum. We couldn’t believe our fortune when we found an empty parking space on the Independence avenue, right in front of the museum. This was a metered parking spot.
I have always found the parking meters in the USA very intriguing. Each parking spot has a meter. You pay by inserting coins in the meter. As you insert the coins, the time for which the vehicle can be parked keeps increasing and is displayed on the face of the meter. You estimate how much time you are likely to take and insert appropriate coins. With passage of time, the time in the meter keeps decreasing. When it comes to zero, your car can be towed away.
Many times, you come much earlier than you estimated. In that case, you don’t get your money back. The meter still has time left in it. Some lucky motorist who follows you into that spot gets to use that time. Most people are always on the lookout for such spots where meter already has some credit.
The parking meters in front of the museum could accept credit cards. You swipe a card and select the time for which you want to park by pressing appropriate buttons. The meter shows the time for which you can park and spews out a ticket. The board at the parking meter said “Two hour parking”. It also said Paid parking till 4 PM. When we reached there, it was 2.08 PM. Kartik swiped his card and I selected 2 hours. The meter showed 1 hour 52 minutes. I was surprised since I was expecting two hours. Then Kartik pointed me to the board that said Paid parking till 4 PM. So we assumed that after 4 PM, parking was free and since it was 2.08, the meter was charging us only for 1 hour 52 minutes. This also led us to believe that parking was free after 4 PM! We were so happy!! Not only had we got the parking space near the museum, but it was also free after 4 PM so we didn’t have to worry about moving the car after two hours.
So we happily went to the museum. Met Sahil and his team. Saw the museum. I had a great time. I got to see the the plane that Wright brothers flew, inside of the skylab as well as the moon buggy. Then we went to Natural history museum. Spent quite some time there. Wandered on the National Mall and then started back around 5.45 PM. We came on the Independence Avenue and a very strange sight greeted us. There was not a single parked car on the avenue! We couldn’t believe our eyes. We almost ran to the spot where we had parked our car. No car!! Now we realized, there was paid parking till 4 PM and NO parking after 4 PM. It was actually written on the board in fine print. Lesson: Read the fine print. Don’t draw your own conclusion.
I didn’t know what to do. Unlike they do in Mumbai, there was no directions written on the parking spot where the car was parked. We didn’t even know the licence plate number of the car. Kartik saw the phone number written on the parking board and he called the number. First three attempts, no one picked the phone. Finally, someone answered the phone. Kartik told the place where we had parked the car and the make, model and the color of the car. The person at the other end gave us an address where the car was towed away and parked.
The place was a good mile away from where we were. The place was unknown. It had started getting cold. We started walking, looking at the street signs and asking where we couldn’t figure out where to go. Finally, we reached the car around 6.45. There were parking tickets and towing tickets stuck behind the wiper and that’s that. There was no police constable waiting for us. I asked Kartik about who collects the fine. And he had a very simple answer, we just go and pay it within next 30 days.
That’s so different from my experience of dealing with the traffic police in India. They would typically tow away the car and keep it in their custody till someone came and paid. In absence of a centralized system to manage all the traffic offences, I don’t think they can do any better. This also give a huge opportunity for the police to collect bribes.
Anyway, finally, we had the car and we proceeded to the hotel. That was quite an adventure.